President Obama on Friday thanked Janet Napolitano for her four years of service as Homeland Security secretary and credited her with helping make the country safer before wishing her well in her new role as president of the University of California system.
Friday morning that she would leave Obama's Cabinet to take the UC post.
Obama credited Napolitano with helping secure U.S. borders and "taking steps to make our immigration system fairer and more consistent with our values."
"And the American people are safer and more secure thanks to Janet's leadership in protecting our homeland against terrorist attacks. I've come to rely on Janet's judgment and advice, but I've also come to value her friendship. And as she begins a new chapter in a remarkable career of public service, I wish her the best of luck."
In a statement, Napolitano thanked the president and called her four years in the post the "highlight of my professional years."
"After four plus years of focusing on these challenges, I will be nominated as the next president of the University of California to play a role in educating our nation's next generation of leaders. I thank President Obama for the chance to serve our nation during this important chapter in our history, and I know the Department of Homeland Security will continue to perform its important duties with the honor and focus that the American public expects."
As a national-level politician, Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, is an unusual choice for a post usually held by an academic. She will also be the first woman to head the UC system in its 145-year history.
Regent Sherry Lansing, a former film industry executive who headed UC's search committtee, said that although Napolitano may have been an unconventional choice, she was "without a doubt the right person at the right time to lead this incredible university."
"She will bring fresh eyes and a new sensibility -- not only to UC, but to all of California," Lansing said in a statement. "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, who is 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. Obama then named her to lead Homeland Security, an agency with an annual $60-billion budget and 240,000 employees.
A source close to Napolitano, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said that Napolitano deliberated for a long time after the executive search firm hired by UC quietly contacted her.
"I think she loves working for President Obama and serving the American people, but at the same time, this is a unique opportunity," he said. Napolitano knows "UC is probably the premier institution in the country. She is motivated by the fact that being a part of UC, she will be a part of educating future leaders of tomorrow and be part of a state that sets so much of the agenda nationally."
Napolitano, 55, is no stranger to California colleges. She attended Santa Clara University and was its first woman valedictorian before earning her law degree at the University of Virginia. Her father was dean of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, a family connection that UC regents also liked since they oversee medical centers. In Arizona she helped to 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.
UC has an annual budget of $24 billion, 230,000 students, 191,000 faculty and staff, five medical centers and three national laboratories.
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 the annual $591,000 that current UC President Mark G. Yudof makes, the regents presumably will be able to avoid a potential furor and not feel pressured to give her a big pay raise over Yudof's.