Critics question how next UC president was chosen

Janet Napolitano was selected for the UC leadership post after a secretive process, critics complain.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

The nomination of Janet Napolitano, the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and former governor of Arizona, to be UC president has elicited many positive comments about how her managerial and political skills can help the university system. But some skeptics are voicing concerns about her lack of education administrative credentials and question the secretive process that led to her selection.

Her nomination was approved by a 10-member committee of UC regents and remained a tight secret until it was announced Friday, without the chance for advance public comment. The UC regents will vote on her nomination Thursday in public session but approval is thought to be a done deal.

In contrast, in some other states, the search for university presidents is more open and finalists’ names are released well in advance, although some experts say that scares away some good candidates.


The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, tackled that issue of transparency in an editorial and urged the 10-campus UC system to explain how Napolitano came to be chosen in a process that, it contends, has “left the public and the UC community in the dark throughout the search.”

The newspaper urged “university administrators to provide further explanation of how they picked an individual with no experience in California politics and no familiarity with its public universities. We hope the regents will also make public the names of other finalists for the position and will explain, in detail, the intent behind their decision and the specific qualities they believe make Napolitano the best fit for the UC.”

UC spokesman Steve Montiel said the process followed state rules that allow for closed discussions about such personnel matters. He said that many top candidates would not want to be considered for the job if the names under consideration were publicly revealed and then all but one rejected.

“It’s all a matter of best practices for doing a search,” he said. “It’s all about trying to get the best people you can.” He emphasized that advisory groups of students, alumni, faculty and others gave input on the qualifications they saw as important for a UC president.

Christopher Newfield, a UC Santa Barbara professor of literature and American studies, is worried that Napolitano “has no experience with university life or management and no known body of organized thought on the subject.”

“It is not easy to make up for this. Being a political heavyweight is not a qualification for being a university president. Earning President Obama’s trust is not a qualification,” Newfield, who has been a past critic of UC policies, wrote in his blog Remaking the University.

Newfield also said that Napolitano’s Homeland Security experience is a bad matches for academia: “Universities are the opposite of detention centers. The security function is the opposite of teaching and research. Universities are about discovery, which generally involves ignoring or breaking conceptual rules rather than enforcing them. Universities are about learning, which requires openness, flexibility, freedom and placing fanatical priority on human development, all of which is the opposite of border control, surveillance and deportation.”

UC officials said last week that Napolitano — the first woman nominated to head UC — was a nontraditional selection but that her experience as governor and in running the huge and highly complex Cabinet department would serve her well at the university and in seeking funding in Sacramento and Washington.

Her familiarity with federal funding and security issues would help at the energy and weapons labs UC runs for the federal government, they added.


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