Janet Napolitano will be the first female president of the University of California, the first non-academic, the first politician and, most important, an indicator of the evolution of the job itself: University presidents, particularly presidents of public universities, are less recognized nowadays as intellectual leaders than as fundraisers, lobbyists and political operatives.
A few other politicians have become university presidents. David Boren, former senator and governor of Oklahoma, has been president of the University of Oklahoma since 1994, and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey (also a war hero) was president of the New School in New York from 2001 to 2010.
But the New School is a private institution, and Oklahoma is better known for football than academics. Is a politician really suited to run a system like the University of California?
After the regents ratified her appointment last week, Napolitano talked about her connection to higher education. “I spent much of my time investing in Arizona’s universities, fighting to keep tuition as low as possible and helping to create a new medical school in downtown Phoenix,” she said.
But as was all too obvious from immigrant student protesters’ cries of “shame” at last week’s regents meeting, her political record may be as much a liability as an asset. Under her management, the Department of Homeland Security has deported undocumented immigrants at a higher rate — a total of roughly 1.4 million by the middle of last year — than any prior administration.
At bottom, that’s not her doing — it’s President Obama’s — as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, an ex-officio regent, tried to suggest in Napolitano’s defense. It was Obama’s down payment to Republicans who made tight border enforcement a condition for support of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
But it’s not clear how that explanation will resonate with Napolitano’s critics. Declaring that the fears, or the fact, of deportation that some of the protesters described in their own families was the product of political calculation, however well motivated, may not be what they or the White House want to hear.
In her own defense, Napolitano has stressed that she supports comprehensive immigration reform and “put in motion an administrative version of the Dream Act” in order not “to dash the hopes and the dreams of many young achieving students.” She also promised that, as UC president, she would be “an advocate for the undocumented.”
Assuming she can overcome the skepticism of her critics, Napolitano will be entering a far more stable system than Mark G. Yudof, her predecessor, did five years ago.
There’s not space here to describe the mess in which UC then found itself: the top-heavy cadre of central office bureaucrats and the cozy under-the-table pay deals to attract and keep senior administrators, which often included lavish housing and moving allowances, generous retirement packages, even a dog run for a campus chancellor.
Meanwhile, the UC pension fund was sinking ever deeper into debt. And then, with little warning, came the recession of 2008 and the huge cuts in state funding that it set off. Yudof dealt with all of it: presided over sharp increases in tuition, now roughly double what it was when he was hired; imposed employee furloughs; thinned out the bureaucracy; put the pension fund on a sound footing; and took the heat.
So Napolitano doesn’t have to start by cleaning house. And her tenure at Homeland Security should have taught her a lot about running a large, complex, politically charged organization.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that UC remains, in most accounts, the best public university in the country and among the half a dozen best universities in the world, there remains the reality that, as Bonnie Reiss reminded her fellow regents, some attractive candidates — chancellors and presidents at other universities — declined to be considered because the job was too complicated, the challenges too great and the pay too low. For UC, the special challenge is how to remain great and public too.
Napolitano will be paid $570,000 a year, a little less, at her request, than Yudof was getting, plus housing and a car allowance. That, according to UC, puts her in the bottom quarter in cash compensation among comparable university presidents. It also puts her far below what football coaches at some UC campuses are getting.
One advantage that Napolitano comes with — so far little remarked on — is that as a graduate of Santa Clara University, she may have an appreciation of the liberal arts, the realities of student life and small academic units that people from large universities sometimes lack. It’s something that’s often been forgotten in the latter-day rush to sell universities as high-tech career training institutions.
The UC system hasn’t been immune to that fashion; it’s what appeals to the deciduous politicians who dominate our legislatures. The great educator-presidents of the past belonged to a different tradition. It’s unlikely that Napolitano, despite her Santa Clara background, can return to it, but there’s always a chance.
Peter Schrag, a former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, writes frequently on education. He is the author of “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.”