The new voice of the University of California came to Davis in listening mode.
President Janet Napolitano broke bread this week with UC Davis students, academics and administrators. She learned about ongoing research. And she received an earful from protesters angered by the choice of the former homeland security secretary — and overseer of immigration enforcement — to lead UC.
Napolitano’s packed itinerary on Wednesday and Thursday was strictly controlled and not publicly announced. Most on campus were kept at arm’s length.
Among her first stops: Ghausi Hall, to meet with interdisciplinary research teams of undergraduate and graduate students. They described work including a bike pavement management system for the city of Davis, a survey of exposure to poor air quality at a low-income housing project and greenhouse gas inventories for the cities of Woodland and Winters.
“Amazing innovation and creativity going on at these campuses — it’s wonderful to see the students, what they’re doing. That’s a motif I’m seeing all over the place,” Napolitano later told a reporter before boarding a van at one stop.
She also visited transportation and energy efficiency programs in UCD’s ever-growing West Village — where she slept in an apartment on Wednesday night — and heard about stem cell and autism research in Sacramento.
Bruno Nachtergaele, the chair of the UCD Academic Senate, was one of a long line of campus leaders to meet with Napolitano.
“The president asked us what we would like her to do,” he said. “So we talked about working with Sacramento and the public of California to explain what a great place this is and why it’s important to support it — and how (UC) can make a difference in the life of Californians and the big issues that face California: its water, its climate, its food and health.”
Nachtergaele said members of the Senate’s executive committee also stressed that more must be done to attract and support top graduate students.
As the president held meetings inside the auditorium of the newly opened Welcome Center, about 50 students gathered outside, drumming and carrying a sign reading “resign” and chanting “No, no, Napolitano.”
They presented a list of demands that include more transparency in UC decision-making, including the hiring of top UC leaders, providing fair contracts for workers and making UC campuses “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants.
Jeanette Orta, a fifth-year economics major from Lodi, echoed the criticisms of student protesters at other campus who have focused on Napolitano’s lack of experience in higher education beyond the seat she held on Arizona’s board of regents as a two-term governor.
“As the former head of homeland security, she makes students feel unsafe — especially undocumented students,” Orta said. “We need someone with educational experience who will work with the students and fight for the students.”
Napolitano has emphasized her testimony before Congress in support of comprehensive immigration reform, the Dream Act and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. She also told UC students that she backed the so-called Trust Act — which restricts police from holding immigrants without serious criminal records for possible deportation — before Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law.
Chancellor Linda Katehi stepped outside to ask protesters to give students inside a chance to speak with Napolitano.
“I know your issues will be in front of her,” Katehi said.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Adela de la Torre urged protesters to use the system to make the changes they desired. She promised to try to set up a future meeting between some of them and Napolitano.
The president also met with health system students, asked questions of students during a tour of the Coffee House and shared a boxed lunch with more than a dozen students picked from a cross-section of the student body.
Bradley Bottoms, Associated Students of UC Davis vice president, said a forum produced five pages of questions for the new president. Most dealt with how she sees the future of the system, including online education.
“We’ve already heard her say that it will only be a supplement to what we currently do,” Bottoms said. “We want to go more in-depth and make sure it isn’t something that turns us into a Devry (University), or something like that, which I think the state government is looking at.
“Also looking at funding: A lot of (students) were interested in what she could do to leverage her national prestige to see what we can get for UC Davis funding. And then, getting an answer about undocumented students.”
On Wednesday night, Bottoms said, students offered to share in a college tradition — but Napolitano politely declined the slice of cold pizza.