Full text of Janet Napolitano’s first major speech as UC president

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President Janet Napolitano spoke Wednesday (Oct. 30) before the Commonwealth Club of California. Here is the text of her speech, “Teach for California, Research for the World:”

Thank you, Anna, and thank you, members of the Commonwealth Club, and guests of the Club.

What a nice welcome. And what a wonderful venue.

Many years ago — I’m not saying exactly how many — this ballroom was where Santa Clara University, my alma mater, staged the Senior Ball. What a night we had on Nob Hill. I can remember it, or most of it, like it was yesterday.

We danced until closing and then wandered off to a nearby diner — Sears, maybe? — for breakfast. After which we stayed up to greet the dawn.

Beyond that, no further comment.

I may be a tenacious champion of transparency, but I’m also an ardent disciple of discretion.

It is a great honor to be invited to come before the Commonwealth Club. It has such a rich tradition, providing a platform for a steady stream of national and world leaders.

It was before the Commonwealth Club that Woodrow Wilson laid out his vision for a League of Nations.

FDR stood before this club as a presidential candidate, and offered his prescription for a fair way out of the Great Depression.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Audrey Hepburn, Barry Goldwater, Bella Abzug … Bella Abzug’s hat … it’s been a wide-ranging and eclectic lineup that’s come here to discuss the most pressing issues of the day.

And I offer a toast to you: May that tradition continue for another 110 years.

So what about tonight? Tonight you are getting one of California’s newest citizens. Like so many Californians, I came here from someplace else – most recently Washington, D.C., but before that Arizona, via New Mexico, via Pittsburgh, via New York City, where I was born.

As I noted when I was appointed to serve as the 20th president of the University of California, I am a non-traditional choice. My background is in law and in public service, not in higher education.

That said, I do not enter this new realm as a total stranger.

My father had a Ph.D. in anatomy, and was dean of the medical school at the University of New Mexico. One of my fondest childhood memories was hunting on the campus grounds for blue-tail lizards, while Dad was in his lab checking on experiments. These lizards have detachable tails, and he would pay me and my siblings a nickel for every lizard’s tail we brought him.

(I don’t think he really needed the lizards … he just needed a creative way to distract us so he could work in peace.)

My mother’s degree was in zoology. My sister’s degrees are in audiology. And my older brother is a Ph.D. at Sandia Lab in Livermore. Put simply, I come from a family of scientists.

As governor of Arizona, I kept my focus on education, including funding for all-day kindergarten and a new medical school, and fighting to ensure that our universities, even in tough budgetary times, had the resources they needed to pursue their own vision of excellence.

Now, to be clear, my father’s service as a medical school dean, my family’s background in science, my own record as an undergraduate at Santa Clara and as a law student at the University of Virginia — none of that by itself qualifies me to lead the greatest public research university in the world.

I believe my selection was, in good measure, a result of my experience running large, complex institutions, such as the third largest department of the federal government and the state government of Arizona.

I made clear from the start that my learning curve at UC would be a steep one. But I have faced steep learning curves before. And I have found that the upward trajectory can be accelerated by taking a couple of steps early on.

The first is to dive into the budget. Budgets offer the most direct road map to what truly matters to an organization. And they show where opportunity for new priorities or fresh initiatives might be lurking in the budgetary weeds.

Since arriving in California, my bedtime reading has been book after book of numbers — numbers, numbers, numbers. These days, I dream in numbers. I don’t count sheep to fall asleep. I count unrestricted funds and FTEs.

I’ve also instigated a top-to-bottom efficiency review of the Office of the President. My understanding is that my predecessor did a terrific job of trimming and tightening, but there is always room for improvement.

Our obligation, as public servants, is to stay constantly on the prowl for possible savings. The search for efficiencies is the administrative equivalent of painting the Golden Gate Bridge. The work never ends.

The other essential immediate step in taking the helm of an institution like the UC system is to listen and learn. This requires some discipline, because the natural instinct of any leader is to jump right in, to hit the ground running with grand initiatives that signal intent.

The problem is that “ready-fire-aim” is rarely a productive approach. The first thing you need to know is what you don’t know. Then, from that honest platform, you can begin to build your base of institutional knowledge.

And so I have been out and about. Much of my first month as president has been spent visiting the constellation of UC campuses.

Merced. San Diego. UCLA. The Berkeley Lab. Santa Cruz. Davis. Irvine. I’ve been everywhere.

Well, almost everywhere. Riverside, UCSF, Santa Barbara and Berkeley will come soon.

Of course, the end of this initial journey won’t mean I’ve learned all that there is to learn about UC. That would be both a silly and even a dangerous notion. I expect, and I truly hope, that I will be learning something new every single day I serve as president.

But I’ve already learned enough to state, without equivocation, that UC is special. We’re here to teach — to transmit knowledge — and to research — and to create knowledge. And we do it better than anyone else. We teach for California, and we research for the world.

I’d like to share with you a few highlights encountered on my travels to date, and also a few impressions.

My very first night on a campus was at UC Merced — and I do mean “night.” I sat in on a biology class. Merced doesn’t have a lot of classroom space. Classes start early and run late, six days a week. This one started – started – at 9:15 pm. I saw two dozen students squinting into their microscopes, hours after the sun went down.

That tells me two things. First, these students are hell-bent on getting their educations. And second, we need to build more classrooms. Because when I think about those students, all I hear is Ray Liotta whispering, “If you build it, they will come.”

At UC San Diego, I met the brain whisperers. These are the scientists answering President Obama’s call to map the activity of the human brain. They’re creating the technology we need to map the brain down to single cells, within the timescale of a millisecond. They’re doing it across academic disciplines — from neuroscience to chemistry to nanoscience. And they showed me that collaboration is a big part of the spirit of a public research university.

I spent one night in a living laboratory at UC Davis. It’s called West Village, and it’s the largest planned zero-net-energy community in the country. On the ground floor, they’re researching batteries, conservation, water. On the next floor up, faculty, students, and staff live and work side by side, in structures that make use of the green technologies being explored on the floor below.

It’s a mini-ecosystem — with a lot of solar panels. And it’s going to show the world that zero net energy is practical on a large scale.

At UC Santa Cruz, I toured the campus’s marine lab. It’s one of the jewels of the university. I was invited to pet a shark, but I’ve just arrived from Washington, and I’ve had my fill of sharks. So I petted a dolphin instead.

The Long Marine Lab has become a major hub of marine research worldwide. The professor who runs the lab, Gary Griggs, has taught and researched at Santa Cruz for more than 40 years. One of his students was Kathryn Sullivan, who became an astronaut, and the first woman to walk in space.

Professors like Gary don’t just do research. They also teach. He told me, and he will tell anyone, that there is no toggle switch delineating research from teaching. It is not an either/or proposition. The blend of teaching and research is its own phenomenon. It’s the magic mix that leads both to creating new knowledge, and to educating students, not just instructing them.

UCLA let me drop in on a women’s basketball practice. Standing beside me was Rafer Johnson, the Olympic gold medalist, and a UCLA alum. He’s one of California’s — and the country’s — greatest track athletes.

Rafer had a story to tell about why he chose to attend UCLA in the 1950s. As you might imagine, he had many options. But he wanted to be a student body president. So he made a point of visiting the student resource centers on every campus trying to recruit him. UCLA, he said, was the only one with a photo of an African-American student on the wall. The rest is Bruin history.

I think Rafer’s story tells us something about how diversity really works.

Because the history of UC shows how great public research universities can be vehicles for social advancement. Thousands upon thousands of UC alumni were first-generation immigrants and the first in their families to attend college. Today, 45 percent of our freshmen are first-generation college students.

One out of three are from underrepresented minority groups. And more than 40 percent of all UC students are low-income. Four of our campuses each have more low-income students than all eight Ivy League universities combined.

There is a subset here that deserves special mention: undocumented students. These Dreamers, as they are often called, are students who would have benefited from a federal DREAM Act. They are students who deserve the opportunity to succeed and to thrive at UC.

I know this issue well. I testified before Congress in support of the DREAM Act, and in support of comprehensive immigration reform. When the DREAM Act failed to get cloture, I instituted a plan called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or as it’s known by its acronym, DACA. To date, almost 600,000 students have qualified for DACA.

So let me be clear. UC welcomes all students who qualify academically, whether they are documented or undocumented. To help meet the special needs of Dreamers, I am making an announcement here tonight. I am setting aside $5 million — right now, for this year — to support these students with resources like trained advisers, student service centers and financial aid. Consider this a down payment — one more piece of evidence of our commitment to all Californians. UC will continue to be a vehicle for social mobility. We teach for California; we research for the world.

I’m often asked why I decided to come to UC at this time.

It’s a fair question.

The answer rests in how California, across its history, has so often managed to lead the world to new ways of thinking, to new ways of conducting itself as a society.

As California goes, so often goes the world. This was clear to me in Arizona. And it was clear to me in Washington.

What I came to realize, however, is that it’s also true that as the University of California goes, so goes California.

The two grew up together, forming a symbiotic relationship that literally altered their shared future.

Put another way, California would not be the society it is today without the University of California. The opposite is also true.

And so, in my view, I have taken on a high stakes proposition.

Not to go all Tom Friedman on you, but the world around us is changing — profoundly, and undeniably. Irresistible forces of transformation are converging on many fronts at once — technical, environmental, economic, political, demographic, you name it. The changes are global in their sweep, but a real and present fact of everyday life in every locale.

And that includes California.

We live in a crossroads moment. And where we end up is not predestined.

Will we find new ways to work and live together?

…To build a prosperous, hopeful society that embraces diversity, not runs from it?

…To harness technology for the benefit of all, and not just for the fortunes of a few.

…To protect the environment, even as our growing population places ever greater pressures on its resources?

We can shape the answers to these and other fundamental questions. We can shape the future. Once more, California can show the world the way.

And the one big reason why it can, I am here to tell you, is the University of California and its time-tested power to provide a fulcrum on which the state can pivot toward a brighter day.

At the state’s first Constitutional convention, pioneers still brushing dust from the goldfields off their trousers were expressing the hope that they might create a university of their own. In time, with help from President Lincoln’s Morrill Act of 1862, they built the University of California. And they built it to their own specifications, California specifications.

To quote Daniel Coit Gilman, one of the earliest and most influential UC presidents:

“It is not the University of Berlin nor of New Haven which we are to copy [...] but it is the University of this State. It must be adapted to this people, to their public and private schools, to their peculiar geographical position, to the requirements of their new society.”

Amen!

In the early 20th century, it would be UC research that would lead California’s transition from simple farming practices to the monolith known as modern agriculture. Californians, once confined to growing only what the rains would allow, learned to produce more crops with greater yields than the world had ever seen come out of one place.

And we are doing it still. As food insecurity looms as perhaps the single most daunting global issue of our time, California’s export, not just of crops, but also of the science and expertise needed to grow them, will become ever more vital. But California won’t deliver for the world without UC.

Another example: Fifty-some years ago, as the first Baby Boomers were coming of age, UC President Clark Kerr and Governor Pat Brown led the way to the creation of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. As part of this, the university soon opened three new campuses.

It enrolled thousands more Californians of all backgrounds. It laid the groundwork for a well-educated and active citizenry that has benefited the state ever since. And it led to a revitalized version of the California Dream.

I could go on. The growth of the aerospace industry, the intellectual seeding of Silicon Valley — these and many other phenomena can be traced back to particular moments when the university, and the state, worked together for the benefit of all Californians, and ultimately, for the benefit of people around the world.

So again, UC teaches for California, but it researches for the world.

The significance of this dynamic equation will only grow. That’s why I came here to serve. My intent is to be the best advocate possible for what this university and this state can achieve together.

UC, like California, simply cannot afford to stand still. If you’re standing still in California, you’re falling behind. This is a dynamic institution, and a dynamic state, living together in a dynamic time.

This means that at UC, excellence in research and education must be more than just maintained, must be more than a catchy phrase — it must be real and it must be accelerated.

This is why, in two weeks, I’m going to be coming to the UC Regents with some big ideas for their consideration. In the meantime, however, I’ve heard enough to know that if we are to remain a premier research university, we must increase our support for post-doctoral fellows and graduate students.

Our post-docs are key researchers in our labs, and teachers in our classrooms. Tonight, I’m announcing a $5 million increase in the President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. And to help fill the post-doc pipeline, I am announcing tonight an additional $5 million to recruit the world’s best graduate students to our campuses.

Graduate students and post-docs are the essential links between teaching for California and researching for the world. They are our future faculty members. They are our future innovators. They are our future Nobel laureates. They merit our additional support right now.

Some of my ideas are even larger in their reach, and will take more time in the greenhouse. You’ll hear more about them at the regents meeting in November, and in the months after that.

Moving the university forward in innovative new ways is critical, and not just because of the technological, environmental and economic forces at play today. It’s also because there is a tremendous demographic shift unfolding around us.

In California, there is a new generation knocking at the door. This generation might look and speak a bit differently than the students of Clark Kerr’s time. After all, a majority of California K-12 students today hail from diverse, historically underrepresented groups. But they still qualify for UC at a ratio far below that of their peers.

This must change. This is a moral imperative. The California Dream, and all that the phrase invokes, must not be allowed to die off with the Baby Boomers. And, again, the University of California represents the state’s best shot at making this happen.

Make no mistake. These students share the same dreams as those who came before them.

This morning, I visited Oakland Technical High School. It’s not far from UC’s central office — my new home away from home.

I met with students in Oakland Tech’s leadership classes, and with students in the school’s African-American Male Initiative program. Then I spoke at a rally for 500 students. They came from a range of backgrounds, with distinct family demographics, and distinct interests.

But when I looked out into the auditorium, all I could see was one vast sea of hope and yearning, their faces lit up — absolutely lit up — by the idea of making their way to the University of California.

When I say UC teaches for California, I’m talking about serving the hope and aspiration that was so palpable in that auditorium. I’m talking about transformation-one student at a time.

And let’s be clear, all Californians have a stake in this. Affordability, accessibility, diversity — these give California the citizenry and workforce it needs to be a global leader, always pushing forward and upward.

And so academic excellence at the university must remain paramount. It is crucial as we teach for California. It is also crucial as we research for the world. I know that the connection between teaching and research and its impact beyond campus borders can sometimes be difficult to grasp. So let me put it this way. When thinking about academic excellence, the question to ask is, “who benefits?”

The answer is everyone, everywhere.

Consider Randy Schekman. He’s a UC Berkeley professor who was just awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Randy was educated at UCLA and Stanford — but we don’t hold the latter against him.

Randy has taught at Berkeley for more than three decades — freshman seminars, post-doc supervision, you name it.

Years ago, he started researching yeast and the transport and secretion of proteins in cells. Like all those engaged in basic research, exactly where the quest would lead could not be known as he set out. The potential applications are rarely clear. Where it led eventually was to discoveries that have since changed how the world treats hepatitis B and diabetes, and, soon, perhaps even Alzheimer’s.

Teach for California, and research for the world. This is the reason UC must thrive as a public enterprise. California and the university that proudly shares its name can show the world the way to a society that is more prosperous, more enlightened, different in many ways than it was in the past, but not in its essence. A society where hope and opportunity are not just words; they are realities.

So yes, I thought it would be pretty cool to take all this on. Stay tuned.

Thank you.

Sara Grossman is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @saragrossman.

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