Speaking to a group of fellow Italian American lawyers and judges, University of California President Janet Napolitano this week recounted her own family's modest immigrant roots and urged Californians to help increase funding higher education so that subsequent and future waves of families can enter the middle class.
Napolitano's speech Wednesday evening was part of her effort to rally public support for enough additional state funds for the 10-campus UC system so that a tuition hike of as much as 5% next year can be avoided.
She and Gov. Jerry Brown have disagreed over the matter, with Brown insisting that UC must continue to freeze tuition for a fourth consecutive year with a tax funding increase that falls short of what Napolitano has sought.
Napolitano recounted to the Italian American Lawyers Assn. in Los Angeles how her paternal grandfather arrived from Italy at Ellis Island in 1909 and went to work in a grocery store in the Chicago area and later as a laborer in the Oakland shipyards.
The next generation rose into the middle class via higher education, she recalled. Her father attended Santa Clara University on a football scholarship and later earned a doctorate from St. Louis University. (Her late father, Leonard, became an anatomy professor and dean of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.)
"There is no greater engine of the American Dream than higher education," Napolitano told the audience at the Casa Italiana center near Chinatown.
The former U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, Napolitano described how she once led a citizenship naturalization ceremony on Ellis Island, where her grandfather entered America. "If you don't think that's powerful, then you have a heart of stone," she said.
She urged the audience to help make sure that the educational opportunities granted to her family, and theirs, continue for current and future generations from many different cultures and backgrounds. Those chances must be kept "alive for those who work for it, who earn it and who seek it," she said.
(Napolitano also graduated from Santa Clara University, went to law school at the University of Virginia and later became Arizona governor before joining the Obama Cabinet. She became UC president in 2013.)
In her speech, she did not go into detail about the current budget impasse in Sacramento. But in response to a question from the audience, she urged people to lobby the governor and Legislature for more funding for higher education.
The UC regents' vote to authorize her to increase tuition if state funding is not large enough, she said, "is not a particularly popular position, but it's the right decision."