In picking Janet Napolitano as the new University of California president, the regents are in ways falling in line with a trend: the hiring of non-academics to head colleges. A survey last year by the American Council on Education found that 1 in 5 college presidents don't come from academia. But the traditional path among these non-traditional hires is to pick from the business world on the assumption that financial savvy will help colleges bring in new money and manage what they have in better ways.
The selection of a politician and Cabinet member is more of a departure, and it's unclear exactly what Napolitano brings to the UC table, though it's possible to imagine some advantages. After Gov. Jerry Brown's recent (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to micromanage the state's public four-year institutions of higher education, UC needs a strong voice in Sacramento to fight for funding and fend off further encroachments on the university's academic independence. Napolitano is a seasoned politician as well as administrator, one who might be particularly adept at the more political aspects of the job. For that matter, her very name and presence might tend to evoke respect among state legislators.
UC officials also believe, according to Times reporter Larry Gordon, that Napolitano's Cabinet background will "help UC administer its federal energy and nuclear weapons labs and aid its federally funded research in medicine and other areas." But the energy and weapons labs are a relatively minor part of the university's mission; perhaps UC hopes that Napolitano's impressive Washington connections will help it land federal grants, or at least better negotiate that particular landscape.
It will be telling to learn Napolitano's salary, which has not been revealed. As secretary of Homeland Security, she earns $200,000, about a third of what retiring President Mark G. Yudof is paid. The academic arms race -- rapidly excalating costs, especially in the form of hefty compensation packages for administrators -- has been a controversial issue in recent years, and both the University of California and California State University have come under withering criticism from some legislators for salaries that increased even has budgets were cut. If Napolitano accepts a significantly lower package than Yudof has received, there might be a message that she wants to return the university to the days when leadership positions were seen more as a public service than as a sinecure that calls for ever-more-competitive pay.
Whether they are newly minted college presidents or the superintendents of public school districts, which also have turned to non-educators in recent years, the "outsiders" tend to bring a blend of the great and the scary with them. A fresh eye is often a good thing; academia is steeped in traditions, and occasionally people should be asking whether those traditions still serve students, research and the pursuit of knowledge. But a newcomer who arrives with assumptions that deep institutional knowledge and respect for history are just barriers to doing things better often causes disruption without improvement. A public affairs spokesman for UC said that Napolitano is humble about how little she knows, and plans to do much touring, watching and listening at UC's 10 campuses before she makes any moves. And that, at least, speaks to her managerial smarts.