UC takes political tack with selection of Napolitano

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While top Obama adviser and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano’s decision to resign from the administration may have taken many political spectators by surprise, the announcement was accompanied by a different sort of eyebrow-raising among a narrower community tracking the selection process of a new University of California president.

A UC Regents’ special committee to select the next president chose U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and former two-time Arizona governor to succeed outgoing president Mark Yudof — an unconventional choice for more reasons than simply that she would be the first female president in the university’s 145 year history.

The selection of a political powerhouse instead of the traditional choice of an academic can be seen as a drastic shift in the university’s responses to the challenges it faces.

Napolitano’s selection suggests that if the UC system is to continue fulfilling its mandate of fostering excellence while guaranteeing universal access to education as outlined in the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, it needs an advocate capable of securing increasingly scarce resources.

Although the record shows Napolitano to be an effective, accomplished administrator capable of handling a tall order, she lacks professional experience in higher education, having only limited background in the vast system she is inheriting — its 10 campuses, more than 200,000 students and a $24 billion budget. While she has garnered praise for presiding over the expansion of Arizona’s public university system during her time as governor, she has never been faced with the responsibility of making long-term educational policy decisions or running the day-to-day operations of an academic institution.

“While some may consider her to be an unconventional choice, Secretary Napolitano is without a doubt the right person at the right time to lead this incredible university,” said UC Regent Sherry Lansing, chair of the search committee, in a statement. “She will bring fresh eyes and a new sensibility — not only to UC, but to all of California.”

Despite statements from U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., praising Napolitano’s commitment to immigration reform, the nominee for UC president faces criticism for her record on undocumented immigrants. During her tenure with the Department of Homeland Security, the Obama administration put itself on track to deport 2 million undocumented immigrants — far more any other period in U.S. history, including the George W. Bush years.

Napolitano’s decision to lead the UC system is a surprising one given the types of positions she has previously expressed interest in. According to the New York Times, she sought to become U.S. attorney general at the beginning of Obama’s second term and was on the short list for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Napolitano’s national prominence could allow her to win strong-arm concessions from a state government that increasingly siphons resources away from the UC system. During her second term as governor of Arizona, she fought for $1 billion in university construction and renovation, and she led efforts to increase access to Arizona public universities.

While Napolitano’s nomination for UC president should strengthen the system’s voice within the halls of Sacramento, it also suggests that the university will continue to use private partnerships and donations as a more viable alternative to fledgling state funding. President Yudof has already led major fundraising efforts, such as Project You Can, and has stated that private contributions are crucial if the UC system wants to maintain an important public role.

Because of her connections to many levels of government, Napolitano is in a position to continue Yudof’s path of finding sources of funding for the university beyond direct state funds. Napolitano can use her time in Washington to act as a broker for individual campuses seeking to win more funding from government agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, which already offer research grants and contracts to the university.

While the current UC president struggled against the trajectory of public divestment, Napolitano’s selection can be viewed as a renewed effort on behalf of the regents to make the university’s battle for financial security a winnable one.

Contact Jeremy Gordon at [email protected].