In an unusual move, putting a national-level politician in a position usually held by an academic, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security
The former Arizona governor's appointment also means the 10-campus system will be headed by a woman for the first time in its 145-year history.
Napolitano's nomination by a committee of UC regents came after a secretive process that insiders said initially focused on her as a high-profile, though nontraditional, candidate who has led large public agencies and shown a strong interest in improving education.
"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," Sherry Lansing, who headed the search committee, said in a statement Friday. "She will bring fresh eyes and a new sensibility -- not only to UC, but to all of California. She will stand as a vigorous advocate for faculty, students and staff at a time when great changes in our state, and across the globe, are presenting as many opportunities as challenges."
Napolitano, a Democrat, was appointed by President Clinton as the U.S. attorney in Arizona and then won elections as state attorney general and twice as governor, a position she held from 2003 to 2009. President Obama then named her to lead Homeland Security, an agency with an annual $60-billion budget and 240,000 employees.
In Arizona, Napolitano helped enact plans to provide full-day kindergarten and to renovate university buildings, winning fans among educators.
The UC regents are expected to approve her nomination as UC's 20th president on Thursday during a meeting in San Francisco. Napolitano is expected to take up the UC reins some time in September, officials said.