Janet Napolitano picked to lead UC system

Besides being the first woman expected to be named president in UC's 145-year history, Janet Napolitano is thought to be only the second true outsider and the first without any record of helping to run a university.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
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The nomination of Janet Napolitano, the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, to be the next president of the University of California signals a desire for change at the sprawling 10-campus system and hopes that a highly visible political personality may be able to raise more money and play a more influential role in Sacramento and Washington.

Besides being the first woman expected to be named president in UC’s 145-year history, Napolitano is thought to be only the second true outsider and the first without any record of helping to run a university. Current President Mark G. Yudof is leaving office after five years.

Napolitano’s nomination by a committee of UC regents came after a secretive process that insiders said focused on her early on as a high-profile, although unusual, candidate who has led enormous public agencies and shown a strong interest in improving education.


In Washington, she helped lead responses to hurricanes and tornadoes and, withstanding criticism from Republicans, oversaw anti-terrorism policies and advocated for changes in immigration law.

In Arizona, where she served as governor for six years, she helped establish universal full-day kindergarten for public school students and a new public medical school.

Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute in San Jose, called Napolitano’s hiring “a radical departure” for UC, which he described as “a very insular place in the way it looks for leadership.” The UC regents appear to want a public figure who can attract more revenue while using her stature to bring more financial discipline to the system, he said.

“She has dealt with one of those intransigent bureaucracies,” Callan said of Homeland Security. “She knows about institutions that don’t change easily.”

For UC, that may mean a president who will be more skeptical of expensive requests from campuses to expand their programs, especially if they duplicate ones elsewhere in UC. For example, Callan said he believes Yudof should have denied UC Riverside’s medical school, which is opening after the campus argued that its region needs more doctors. UC has five medical centers.

As a seasoned politician who won the governor’s race twice, Napolitano “is going to be very comfortable in Sacramento with the state Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown. And that is a really important asset for UC and for all of higher education,” said Molly Corbett Broad, the president of the American Council on Education.


At the same time, Broad said she expects the regents want Napolitano to make the university more efficient while maintaining UC’s status as “the most respected public university in the world.”

Brown, who reportedly advocated for his fellow Democrat’s selection, noted her fresh perspective in a statement Friday. “Secretary Napolitano has the strength of character and an outsider’s mind that will well serve the students and faculty,” said Brown, who has been pushing UC to improve its graduation rates and for research professors to teach more undergraduate courses.

The UC regents are expected to approve Napolitano’s nomination as UC’s 20th president on Thursday during a meeting in San Francisco; Napolitano is to take the reins in September, officials said. Her proposed salary has not been released, pending discussions among the regents. But since her Cabinet salary of about $200,000 is about a third of Yudof’s annual $591,000, the regents do not feel pressured to give her a big pay raise over his, officials said.

Napolitano will take over UC when its state funding is increasing and tuition is mainly frozen, because of higher sales and income taxes approved by voters last fall. That contrasts with Yudof, a former leader of public universities in Texas and Minnesota, who walked into a brutal recessionary period of budget cuts and protests over tuition hikes.

But better economic times do not guarantee quiet campuses, according to UC student regent Cinthia Flores. Though Napolitano’s wide name recognition will help with fundraising, the former governor may not be accustomed to the outspoken nature of UC life, including student and union protests that sometimes shut down regent meetings, said Flores, a UC Irvine law student.

“She is going to have to gain students’ trust and respect if she is going to be a successful UC president,” Flores said, adding that students want UC to end tuition increases and expand enrollment.


Napolitano, 55, earned her bachelor’s degree at Santa Clara University in Northern California and was its first female valedictorian before studying law at the University of Virginia. She later became U.S. attorney in Arizona and then won elections as state attorney general and 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. There, she sometimes antagonized both liberals and conservatives with her stances on deportations and airport security.

In a prepared statement Friday, Napolitano said: “If appointed, I intend to reach out and listen to chancellors, to faculty, to students, to the state’s political leaders, to regents, to the heads of the other public higher education systems and, of course, to President Yudof and his team, who have done so much to steer the University of California through some extremely rough waters.”

She said she recognized she was a non-traditional candidate and shied away from any policy specifics. “In my experience, whether preparing to govern a state or to lead an agency as critical and complex as Homeland Security, I have found the best way to start is simply to listen,” her statement said.

She declined requests for interviews Friday.

Sherry Lansing, the UC regent who chaired the search committee, issued a statement that said Napolitano, as governor, “was an effective advocate for public education and a champion for the life-changing opportunities that education provides.... Those who know her best say that a passion for education is in her DNA.”

Peter Likins, who was president of the University of Arizona from 1997 to 2006 and overlapped with Napolitano’s governorship, said he expects some UC faculty will be wary of Napolitano’s non-academic background.


“She’s wise enough to know that,” said Likins, who predicted that Napolitano would forge relationships with deans and faculty. “I believe she will take the necessary steps to strengthen her flank.”

Likins said Napolitano played an instrumental role in opening a new University of Arizona hospital in Phoenix that was affiliated with Arizona State University. “She helped pull everyone together,” Likins said.

Officials close to the presidential search said that the committee reviewed more than 300 candidates and that Napolitano’s name came up early as a remote possibility because no one knew if she would be interested.

But the executive search firm hired by UC secretly contacted her and found her willing to at least entertain the idea. While other candidates both inside and outside UC were possibilities, discussions focused on Napolitano once she agreed to a series of interviews and background checks. “There was really no drama in this search,” said a person who was knowledgeable about the process but not authorized to speak publicly.

Moving between top government jobs and university leadership is not unheard of. Robert Gates was CIA director before becoming president of Texas A&M; — and then became secretary of Defense. Donna Shalala had been chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before becoming secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration and is now president of the University of Miami. Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels now heads Purdue University there.


Times staff writer Jason Song contributed to this article.