In naming Janet Napolitano president of the University of California, the UC Board of Regents has made a tragic mistake. The regents are sending a terrible message about the future of the university and the future of public education in our country.
Given the pressures that critical thought, the independence of science, academic freedom and intellectual creativity are under at this time, the president of the UC system should be a great educator or researcher with a history of defending academic freedom and diversity. Napolitano is nothing of that kind.
Historically, the University of California has been one of the world’s greatest systems of public education. Today, that great achievement is under relentless attack. The president of the university should be someone with an established history as a champion of the democratic norms of public education. Napolitano is nothing of the kind.
Napolitano’s history has featured the roles of opportunist politician and mass deporter. Napolitano went from being governor of Arizona, the nation’s most immigrant-bashing state, to the head of the Department of Homeland Security. As head of Homeland Security, Napolitano presided over the largest wave of deportations in American history — some 2 million people, mostly people of Latin American descent “yearning to breathe free,” shipped back to poverty and terror under Napolitano’s auspices.
Napolitano’s role as mass deporter should disqualify her from serving as the head of the UC system, a university of campus communities whose student body, faculty, workforce, international students and scholars, immigrants and undocumented people form an integral, indispensable and growing cross-section.Naming Napolitano as president sends a chilling message to all these members of the UC community: They are not welcome, they are to feel under constant threat, from the top of the system down. This message alone should disqualify Napolitano from serving.
As governor of Arizona, Napolitano carved out for herself a national reputation as a spokesperson on the “dangers” of immigration and “illegal immigrants” and as a Democrat who was a hard-liner on immigration and border security. Thus, she was appointed head of Homeland Security.
As a Democratic governor, she opposed some Republican attacks on immigrants and supported others. She was, in effect, a “moderate” immigrant-basher. As an opportunist politician, Napolitano courted and received the political support of the one of the most notorious anti-immigrant and anti-Latina/o public official in the United States: Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The messages sent by these aspects of Napolitano’s public record alone should disqualify her from serving as president.
Because everyone understands that attacks on immigrants in America are primarily a matter of attacks on the growing strength and pride of America’s Latina/o population, the choice of America’s leading deporter as UC president inevitably sends a message of disrespect and fear to the UC system’s thousands of Latina/o students, teachers, researchers and workers and to the Latina/o communities of California, to whose future the UC system is vital.
This racist message of disrespect and fear alone should disqualify Napolitano from serving.
It is common knowledge that in recent years, the top administrators of America’s leading universities have been chosen not primarily because of academic or intellectual leadership qualifications but rather because of their supposed ability to attract large sums of money from giant corporations and wealthy individuals. It will be presumed that this concern, and not any other, motivated the choice of Napolitano.
But any supposed advantages of the choice of Napolitano as a fundraiser are vastly outweighed by the damage done by the chilling message of fear in the naming of the nation’s largest deporter to such a sensitive and important position of educational and intellectual leadership.
Napolitano, as head of Homeland Security, was responsible for the expansion of domestic spying. Her appointment as president of the university must also be seen as a message of fear directed toward the UC system’s student protesters, whose history of struggle has been an essential factor in making real the university’s promise of diversity, intellectual freedom and egalitarianism.
In reality, the choice of Napolitano is certain to poison and polarize the political atmosphere on UC campuses, as the UC president herself inevitably becomes a lightning rod for protest as a symbol of the threats most students and faculty members regard as most endangering the qualities of campus life they cherish most. This alone should disqualify Napolitano from serving as president.
It follows that the choice of a figure such as Napolitano as president not only represents an insult to the Mexican American and Latina/o population of the United States but also is an insult to the people of Mexico in particular and of Latin America generally. This alone should disqualify Napolitano from serving.
The essentially secretive process by which the choice of Napolitano as president of the UC system was made has resulted in a terrible and tragic mistake. The inappropriateness and dangers of this choice dramatize the need for the genuine democratic involvement of students, teachers and affected communities in the future in place of the tokenism of the essentially behind-closed-doors process of the past.
The UC Regents must replace Napolitano with a president who will be a true intellectual and educational leader and a champion of the highest priorities and most important values of a great university: intellectual freedom, critical thinking, human creativity, diversity and the principle that quality public education is essential to the fundamental democratic right of equal educational opportunities for all.
We call for a fully democratic process in the choice of the next president, a process that fully and meaningfully represents and empowers the students, teachers, researchers and all the communities the university is meant to serve.
David Douglass is a member of BAMN.