Janet Napolitano views her new job as president of the University of California system as being primarily "a huge public advocate for higher ed."

The former Arizona governor and U.S. secretary of Homeland Security was an unusual choice for UC: a politician without prior leadership experience in academia.

Napolitano, 56, the first woman to hold the post, is paid $570,000 a year plus housing to manage the sprawling chain of 10 campuses, five medical centers and numerous research centers.

After taking the position two months ago, she dived into such issues as tuition, labor contracts and how to stay neutral at UCLA-UC Berkeley football games.

In an interview with The Times, she discussed the challenges she and the university face.

What's the difference between working at a university and working for the government?

The real difference is between what I perceive as the culture of Washington and the culture of California. Washington has become a town where everything is political and everything gets put into the partisan bucket. California doesn't escape having partisan politics but it is a lot more invested in its own evolution, its own growth.... I wanted to come here to champion the value of public research universities in this huge, diverse state. To me, California doesn't thrive, the western United States and, I think, actually the rest of the United States doesn't thrive if the university doesn't thrive.

What's your main job as UC president? Is it fundraising or political?

Even the UCLAs and the Berkeleys are not as strong by themselves as they are with the others [campuses]. I think my role is to make that leveraging work by fostering collaboration and by looking for systemwide efficiencies and things that no single campus can attain on its own. At the same time, I think my job is to be a huge public advocate for higher ed and to talk to Californians about why they should care about the university even if they don't have a child going there and they haven't gone there themselves. And to be the public advocate and the strategist for the system in how we interact with the federal government and the state government.

You've recommended freezing tuition for next year, which would be the third in a row. What happens beyond that?

If we really want to go against volatility and [a much higher tuition] level, that requires us to look at our overall cost structure and what we are doing in a very fundamental way. And it requires us to look at other sources of revenue and at modeling other ways of handling tuition. All that work is underway…. [Whether it stays frozen,] that's impossible to say. But if you want to go to the university or your kid wants to go, you'd like to know what it's going to cost. And that's the predictability I'm striving for.

Gov. Jerry Brown attends UC regents meetings much more than past governors. As a former governor yourself, do you think he is going to have a big influence and could that hurt your independence?

He's the governor, so he will have a big influence. But what's encouraging is that he's not just going to sit there. He's engaged. He's reading the materials. He's asking good questions. I think that's extraordinarily helpful.... We are both committed to having the strongest possible public research university that we can. And the question is how we do that with all the constraints around us.

The governor keeps criticizing high executive compensation at UC. You took a lower salary than your predecessor. Do you see any validity in his complaints?

We should be as tightfisted as we can but realize we are in a competitive market. We run the nation's — if not the world's — greatest public research university and we need the horsepower to do it and at the level we want to keep it.

Will UC continue to grow and possibly add another campus? Or is UC Merced the last?

You never say never. But I think our priority has to be making sure our older schools continue to adjust and thrive and have their buildings fixed…. Merced is still not at capacity. And UC Riverside is just opening a four-year medical school. So that's really two schools still in growth mode. That's a lot. So I think my intent is to put the energies there before thinking of building another university.

Some residents resent the big increases in out-of-state and international students, particularly at UCLA and UC Berkeley, even if they pay higher tuition. Do you think UC should increase the number of those students beyond the current goal of 10% across the system?

Those students help underwrite the costs … and it adds to the diversity of the campuses in terms of students from different areas, particularly international students…. But I think now the primary focus has to be on that … we teach for California and research for the world.... So the answer right now is I'm not inclined to recommend any changes at this point.

You've allocated $5 million to help students who don't have legal immigration status. Some protesters still say they have an image of you as anti-immigrant because of your Homeland Security work. How do you respond?

I would say we are here to educate people, be they documented or undocumented. This state has a clear public policy in that regard.... I would say [their view of my] record isn't complete and is misleading by omission. There has been virtually no one who has worked harder on overall immigration reform over the past 10, 15 years than I have. And it is hard work, vote by vote.

What has surprised you the most about UC?

I really want us to have good relations with labor.... We have had too many people who have spent too much time looking at each other across [negotiating] tables instead of working together toward goals that benefit everybody…. I was surprised at how long-standing some of this has been.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

larry.gordon@latimes.com