By Lisa Wolfson
Janet Napolitano’s national profile and government experience trump the fact that she’s never held an academic post as she prepares to lead the financially challenged University of California, college administrators and professors said.
The university’s Board of Regents will vote July 18 on the nomination of Napolitano, 55, the U.S. Homeland Security secretary and former governor of Arizona. She was unanimously recommended by a 10-member search committee, Regent Sherry Lansing said yesterday in astatement.
Napolitano would be the 10-campus university’s first woman president, taking over a system from Mark Yudof with more than 234,000 students and an operating budget topping $24 billion, almost triple the size of the Arizona state budget. The challenge is formidable as California lawmakers have slashed support for the university by more than $1 billion since 2007 as they grappled with the recession and resurgent budget deficits.
“She has experience in working effectively with legislators, and that is important for the UC system president,” said Peter Likins, who served as president of the University of Arizona from 1997 to 2006, overlapping with Napolitano’s term as governor. “She does have to work hard to earn the acceptance, approval and support of the academic community.”
Lansing said that while some might consider Napolitano “an unconventional choice,” she cited her advocacy for public education as governor and her sponsorship of a policy protecting undocumented immigrants pursuing a college education from deportation.
“Secretary Napolitano has the strength of character and an outsider’s mind that will well serve the students and faculty,” California Governor Jerry Brown said in a statement yesterday. “It will be exciting to work with her.”
As colleges face funding challenges, several public universities have turned to politicians to help seek a more secure financial footing. Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, took the helm at Purdue University in West Lafayette in January. David Boren has led the University ofOklahoma since 1994, after serving in the U.S. Senate and as governor of Oklahoma.
Napolitano attended Santa Clara University as an undergraduate, and was its first female valedictorian. After law school at the University of Virginia, she clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She was Arizona’s attorney general before serving as governor from 2003 to 2009, when she joined President Barack Obama’s cabinet. As governor, she sat on the Board of Regents of the University of Arizona, based in Tucson.
Robert Powell, chair of the UC Academic Senate, was part of an advisory committee that vetted all the candidates and advised the regents. Napolitano’s leadership ability under “demanding circumstances” compensated for her lack of academic experience, he said.
“Faculty are always more comfortable with one of their own,” said Powell, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UC Davis. “In this case, we have someone who the faculty can get behind.”
Yudof, 68, is stepping down at the end of August after five years as president. Unlike Napolitano, his entire career has been in academics. He previously served as chancellor of the University of Texas System and the University of Minnesota and was a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin for 26 years.
“The good side is obviously this is someone who will have clout and savvy in Sacramento,” Henry Reichman, first vice president of the American Association of University Professors, said of Napolitano.
Reichman, a professor emeritus at California State University, East Bay, said Napolitano would need to do a better job than Yudof did in consulting with faculty on curriculum and research. She should also stand up to pressure coming from state lawmakers to increase online learning across the campuses.
A call and e-mail to Yudof’s office for comment weren’t returned.
Since 2007, the regents raised tuition by 84 percent to make up for lost state funding. The cuts forced the system to declare in 2011 that it could no longer guarantee admission to the top 12.5 percent of the state’s high-school seniors.
Brown, 75, persuaded voters last year to pass the highest statewide sales tax in the U.S., at 7.5 percent, and to boost levies on annual income of $250,000 or more to avert cuts to schools. He promised to freeze in-state tuition in the UC and California State University systems this year.
The state budget for the year beginning July 1 provides a 5 percent funding increase to the University of California and $125 million to pay for the tuition freeze. The budget projects that funding for the system will increase another 5 percent next year and 4 percent in each of the two years after that.
Napolitano’s experience in government will be valuable, especially in negotiating budgets, said Likins, the former University of Arizona president, who also spent 12 years at the University of California, Los Angeles.
As a Democrat, “she did her job very well within the framework of a Republican legislature,” he said. “That required both skill and strength, and she had both in abundance.”