Why the rush on Napolitano?

Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will be the new president of the University of California.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

The outgoing secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, may be a brilliant choice to serve as the new president of the University of California. But how can we tell? And how, for that matter, can the Board of Regents tell?

Half of the regents haven’t even had a chance to talk to her about how she would approach the job — a job that involves 10 campuses, 170,000 faculty and staff members and more than 220,000 students. That’s why they should delay their Thursday vote on her appointment — which comes less than a week after the selection was announced — and instead engage in a more public and transparent hiring process that will assure Californians that this unorthodox decision is the right one.

It has become more common in recent years for colleges to pick leaders with nonacademic backgrounds. About one-fifth of the nation’s current college presidents were not selected from the ranks of academic administrators or professors. Such leaders sometimes bring fresh perspectives to outmoded ways of thinking. But even among unconventional candidates, Napolitano is especially unconventional. Usually, when outsiders are hired, they come from the business world as colleges seek to shore up their finances.


VIDEO: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano resigning, heading to UC

Napolitano is a longtime public servant with a reputation for thoroughness who has proved herself to be an able administrator. She is politically adept — she managed to lead the largely Republican state of Arizona as its Democratic governor — which can only help UC fight for its share of state funding and fend off attempts in Sacramento to micromanage its academic affairs. A UC spokesman said that Napolitano would neither make plans for the university nor engage in interviews until she has been given the job, visited campuses and learned more. That speaks well of her managerial smarts; many leaders from outside an institution are all too ready to assume they know what’s best.

But this is mostly speculation. It’s still unknown how Napolitano’s impressive skills fit with the UC job. The Times reported that some UC officials thought Napolitano’s Cabinet experience would help her run UC’s energy and nuclear laboratories, but those are a small and ancillary part of the university’s mission. Also mentioned was that she might be able to aid in the university’s federally funded research, though there’s no obvious connection between running the Department of Homeland Security and being an expert on research grants.

The selection committee is made up of less than half the Board of Regents; the entire board shouldn’t rubber-stamp the committee’s choice Thursday. The president of the University of California is a quasi-governmental appointee, and the selection process should be handled in an open way so that taxpayers, students, faculty and other interested parties can learn why Napolitano was chosen from the crowd of 300 candidates and weigh in with their own opinions. There should be no mystery about how the choice was made or why she is right for the job.