‘Ready to listen’: An overview of Janet Napolitano’s term as UC president

Janet Napolitano
Rachael Garner/File
UC President Janet Napolitano's seven-year tenure saw several achievements, including the establishment of a systemwide Title IX office.

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After announcing her resignation Sept. 18, 2019, UC President Janet Napolitano’s seven-year tenure is coming to an end, and she will be replaced by Michael Drake on Aug. 1.

Napolitano was the 20th UC president and, more significantly, the first woman to hold the post. Ever since her appointment, Napolitano has had staunch critics and supporters.

“She’s clearly a very competent and smart individual,” said former ASUC president Alexander Wilfert.

With Napolitano’s experience as a career politician — former attorney general of Arizona, governor of Arizona and U.S. secretary of homeland security under former president Barack Obama — her appointment shifted away from the traditional academic or higher education background that was typical of UC presidents.

While some groups argued that Napolitano’s homeland security background was dangerous for immigrant students, at the end of her term, one of Napolitano’s best-known accomplishments is successfully suing to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program from elimination by President Donald Trump.

Napolitano “is someone who was at the highest levels of American government, who has a proven track record of leadership,” Wilfert said.

However, Napolitano had rocky moments, which can be seen through issues with financial transparency. The UC Board of Regents and a 2017 report by the California state auditor criticized the UC Office of the President for not disclosing $175 million in budget reserve funds to the regents, the state legislature or the public. This has continued to be an issue, with the state auditor in 2019 arguing that UC budgets still lack transparency.

Another issue Napolitano has faced trouble with is that of admissions, with some claiming that the UC system unfairly prioritized out-of-state students over California residents. Yet as her term progressed, Napolitano has been praised for enrolling additional Californian students while keeping tuition relatively stable.

“There was a clear learning curve as someone who hadn’t worked in education largely before, but it was someone who I thought every time we engaged, she was very ready to listen,” Wilfert said.

Other student government officials echoed the view of Napolitano as willing to listen. UC Student Association President Varsha Sarveshwar said Napolitano and her staff were great to work with and that they set the bar high in terms of regular engagement with student leaders.

An important area Napolitano focused on during her tenure was fighting sexual violence and harassment. She established the first systemwide Title IX office, along with policies and frameworks to coordinate efforts throughout the UC system. Sarveshwar said this work will likely be a key part of Napolitano’s legacy.

Napolitano also steered the UC system toward climate action, committing in 2013 to net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases from UC buildings and vehicles by 2025. This initiative has since been expanded to include campuses and medical centers being completely powered by clean electricity by 2025.

“People will look back and say that she was a strong, stable leader for the UC system,” Wilfert said. “She got the ball moving on a lot of really big issues, and I think that deserves some praise.”

Many students hope that Drake will build on Napolitano’s championship of important causes and attention to student voices.

“I hope that our future UC President will go beyond the precedence that was set with UC President Napolitano’s outreach to students,” said ASUC External Affairs Vice President Derek Imai in an email.

Following the end of her presidency, Napolitano plans to take time off before teaching at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

Contact Claire Daly at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @DalyClaire13.