University of California Regents are meeting in San Francisco on Thursday to vote on the appointment of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano to be the next UC president — one of the most prestigious jobs in higher education — but some are asking whether she's the right person for the job.
The Regents are set to hire Napolitano, in large part, because of her success running the nearly $60 billion Department of Homeland Security. Many people are praising Napolitano’s decades-long history of managing large agencies, and Napolitano bragged about running Homeland Security to a gathering at the Brookings Institution earlier this year.
“Today, a decade after the creation of a cabinet level agency bearing that name, Homeland Security has come to mean much more," she said. "It means the coordinated work of hundreds of thousands of dedicated and skilled professionals and more than ever of the American public, of our business and families, communities and faith based groups.”
Napolitano has had a long career in politics. She was a U.S. Attorney and state attorney and Governor of Arizona.
Doug Wilson, a Senior Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, served with Napolitano in the Obama administration. He’s known her for three decades and described her as a results-obsessed lawyer who can get very different groups to cooperate.
“She understands budgets, she understands working with state legislators, and state legislatures, she understands working with students, and she has a passion for education that has characterized her from her university days,” he said.
The job is no doubt a difficult one, particularly now. If appointed as expected, she will have to learn the Sacramento power structure, work on repairing damage from about $1 billion in funding cuts, and work on turning around the trend of shrinking diversity at UC Berkeley and UCLA.
“I have heard that she’s a good leader, she brings people together, but she’s also firm, and I like all of those traits,” said Bob Powell, chair of UC’s Academic Senate, the body that advocates for faculty on scholarly issues.
He's not worried that Napolitano has never run a university or worked on the faculty of one. It's unusual, but not unheard of, and she brings a lot to the table, he said.
Lack of academic experience
But UCLA law professor Abraham Wagner said Napolitano's lack of academic experience is a big deal. He points out that she will be making big decisions affecting professors' scholarship and research.
“At Berkeley we have the largest collection of Nobel Prize winners on the planet. Many others at UCLA and elsewhere, she’s nowhere in that spectrum at all," he said. "She’s not going to have the respect of these people.”
Some students aren't too pleased, either.
UC student workers are backing a petition by undocumented student activists to stop her appointment.
The biggest issue for these activists is that until last week Napolitano headed an agency that oversaw the deportation of thousands of immigrants from California. They plan to protest her expected appointment at Thursday’s U.C. Regents meeting in San Francisco.
Adriana Cortes Luna, a Los Angeles resident who’s worked with undocumented UC students, signed the petition.
“The UC system has been one of the leaders in supporting undocumented students,” she said.
Angela Chan, a lawyer with the Bay Area group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, is stunned the deportations didn't seem to bother the search committee recommending her appointment.
“I think the message they’re sending right now is an unfortunate message that they want a politician at the helm rather than an educator," she said. "It also shows a lack of understanding or sensitivity to undocumented students and to immigrant students who make up a large part of the UC system.”