Can Napolitano regain Californians’ trust?

UNIVERSITY ISSUES: Top executives in the UC president's office interfered in a state audit. This is reprehensible.

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Kelly Baird/Staff

It’s undeniable: Top officials in UC President Janet Napolitano’s office interfered with a state audit last year.

And it’s inexcusable that Napolitano sanctioned any kind of prior review that could jeopardize the UC system’s ethical standing in the eyes of state lawmakers and taxpayers, particularly at a time when the university has to fight tooth and nail for public funding.

A state audit released in April found that the UC Office of the President had about $175 million in undisclosed reserve funds. Moreover, a recent independent investigation found that executives in her office told campuses to not “air dirty laundry” in a survey sent out as part of the state audit. The nudge by UC executives prompted three campuses to change their answers, casting the UC president’s office in a more favorable light. To make matters worse, the executives then tried to cover their tracks, misinforming investigators as to the nature of their interference.

Napolitano’s missteps fed right into the narrative that state lawmakers often put forth: that the UC is untrustworthy and unable to manage its own finances efficiently. Discrediting the UC’s independence has served time and again as an excuse for the California legislature to reduce the autonomy of the UC system.

State legislators and editorial boards have called for Napolitano’s resignation. The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board wrote that it was right for the UC Board of Regents to chastise her at its November meeting. Given her record as UC president, resignation might be a step too far, but Napolitano will have to work doubly hard to regain the public’s trust, and not just when it comes to budget transparency.

Napolitano has the capacity to right her wrongs; she has demonstrated a dexterity for navigating tumultuous state funding politics. In 2015, she negotiated with Gov. Jerry Brown in their “committee of two” for more funding back when students across the system protested hard against giant impending tuition hikes.

Lobbying hard for DACA recipients, Napolitano spearheaded a lawsuit against the Trump administration. As college campuses have exploded as epicenters of the free speech wars, Napolitano has responded deftly, pooling money to create a research center to study first amendment issues.

When Chancellor Nicholas Dirks flubbed on repeated sexual misconduct crises at UC Berkeley, Napolitano stepped in, took control and reminded the UC community that at least some leaders knew how to take sexual harassment seriously. She has helped spur the creation of sexual violence task forces, advisory boards and policy reforms at the system level.

But as students take the lead on calling for Regent Norman Pattiz’s resignation because of allegations of sexual harassment, she’s been conspicuously silent.

While Napolitano cannot structurally discipline the regents (the board is self-governed), and criticizing them might be difficult when she’s already in hot water, it’s been disheartening to hear silence from a person in power when a sexual harasser sits on the UC’s most influential governing body.

At a time when issues like sexual harassment and continually rising costs of higher education are increasingly in the limelight, we need a leader who will uphold the values of a public mission.

Napolitano can potentially be that person, but would do well to remember that her work means nothing if the president’s office shirks its responsibility to remain transparent and accountable.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.

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