For months, University of California President Janet Napolitano had been hearing about problems with two of her chancellors, at UC Berkeley and UC Davis.
What would Napolitano do? Rumors raged, but few expected she would support two resignations in quick succession — and leave the campuses without permanent leaders just days before the new school year starts.
Then UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi stepped down last week, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Napolitano called the sudden vacancies an opportunity for a new start.
"One of the things I'm here to do is identify issues and address them," Napolitano said in an interview. "We don't sit around saying 'woe is me.' This is an exciting opportunity to bring in fresh leadership to help two of the nation's best research universities reach even greater heights."
At Davis, Katehi got herself embroiled in controversies over questionable moonlighting activities, efforts to cleanse her online image and allegations of nepotism. At Berkeley, Dirks was facing a growing faculty revolt over perceived weak leadership in handling a critical budget deficit and sexual misconduct cases, frequent absences from campus and a probe into alleged misuse of funds.
Wasting no time, Napolitano issued a letter Wednesday to the UC Berkeley Academic Senate chairman outlining the new chancellor search process. The goal is to submit a candidate to the UC Board of Regents by March for Berkeley and by January for Davis.
Dirks had only served for three years, Katehi for seven.
Napolitano, who was hired to lead the 10-campus system of 250,000 students in 2013, cuts a very different figure than previous UC presidents. Unlike her predecessors, most of whom came from academia, Napolitano served as a two-term Democratic governor in the red state of Arizona and as Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama.
Her handling of the back-to-back resignations demonstrated a decisive style, willingness to confront challenges and take action, experts said.
"The resignation of not one — but two — presidencies signals that she is more hands-on and less willing to ignore mishaps," said William G. Tierney, an education professor and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC.
Napolitano stressed that the two chancellors' cases were very different. The continued leadership of Katehi, she said, was "nonsustainable" after an independent investigation last week found the UC Davis chancellor had violated multiple university policies, showed poor judgment and misled Napolitano and the public about social media contracts. The chancellor, who refused to step down quietly when Napolitano asked her to do so, ultimately resigned just as the probe's findings were made public.
Dirks, on the other hand, decided himself to resign, Napolitano said, though she declined to detail their private conversations. "I think Nick realized himself that he had lost the support of many faculty members," she said. "It was a combination of administrative and management issues and his realization that a new leader would be better suited for Berkeley."
Asked if she agreed with that assessment, Napolitano replied, "Yes."
UC officials said Napolitano's bold leadership started immediately. As a homeland security chief who presided over record numbers of deportations, she faced protests from immigrant-rights advocates and undocumented students. On her second day in office, she invited several of them to meet with her.
Peruvian Andrea Gutierrez, then a UC Irvine student facing deportation, attended the meeting with skepticism. But she said Napolitano listened — and a month later allocated $5 million to improve services for immigrant students without legal status. In May, the UC chief earmarked $8.4 million per year through 2018-19 for loans, fellowships, legal services and other support.
Gutierrez said Napolitano "made sure we were part of the conversation" and placed her on the new Advisory Council on Undocumented Students. That position cost her some friendships but she said the president deserved credit for her actions.
"There's been tremendous change in the last three years," said Gutierrez, who now has legal status and works at Irvine as a food access and security coordinator. "I can't deny her investment, both financial and personal, in making sure undocumented students are taken care of."
Todd Stenhouse of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 had a different view of Napolitano's tenure. Low-wage workers, he said, continue to suffer under Napolitano's administration. At the same time UC is hiring more contract workers with no benefits, consigning them to "second-class citizenship" status, he said, the UC president has approved "soft landings" for two disgraced chancellors.
Katehi will receive her $424,360 annual chancellor salary while on administrative leave for a year. Dirks will remain as Berkeley chancellor, drawing his $531,939 annual salary, until a successor is in place and he returns to the faculty.
Some faculty members oppose that deal with Dirks — Michael Burawoy, Berkeley Faculty Assn. co-chair, called it "appalling" — but Napolitano said campus stability during the search process was better than "musical chairs."
Monica C. Lozano, chairwoman of the UC Board of Regents, said Napolitano's hands-on style also was reflected in her quick moves to address outcry over what critics called widespread mishandling of sexual misconduct cases. Napolitano formed a statewide task force to develop systemwide reforms, including more education and training, aid for victims — including confidential advocates to support them — and review committees to monitor imposed sanctions.
At the campus level, Napolitano also stepped in to correct perceived problems — publicly chastising Dirks this spring for failing to inform her about his handling of a law school dean who sexually harassed a staff member. She ordered Dirks to keep the dean off the campus for the rest of the semester and to remove another faculty member who had violated sexual harassment policies from an administrative job.
UC officials concede Napolitano has been criticized for a perceived heavy-handed style and some political misjudgments in Sacramento.
Lozano, however, said that Napolitano had successfully negotiated with Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature for increased money for UC, giving campuses financial stability after years of massive cuts.
"It's clear that President Napolitano is a seasoned executive with a very compelling leadership style," Lozano said. "She's decisive, she's a person who takes action and she holds the institution to very high expectations.
"It doesn't mean that (she) is 100% loved by all, but I do believe there is 100% respect," Lozano said.
Napolitano said she intends to keep tackling challenges, foremost among them increasing California student enrollment and — despite continuing financial challenges — providing more housing, better labs and state-of-the art instruction.
"We need to continue to evolve," she said. "If we just paddle in place, we're not going to go anywhere."