Column: Janet Napolitano, UC’s flak catcher, on admissions policy, tuition hikes and more

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Which is the frying pan and which is the fire? Janet Napolitano resigned as head of Homeland Security to head the University of California. At DHS, keeping the U.S. safe meant she was sometimes under attack. UC, of course, is its own kind of minefield. Napolitano delivers her first presidential commencement speech at UC Hastings College of Law next week: She’ll remind the fledgling lawyers it’s not about making money but making a difference — the very reason she took on UC’s challenges in the first place.

The Supreme Court just endorsed Michigan’s right to ban affirmative action in higher education, as California does. UC, meanwhile, just admitted more Latino freshmen than white ones. Will demographics make all this moot?

[Latino admissions numbers are] in part a demographic function.

The UCs have done a very good job, post-Proposition 209, in looking at factors that have a big correlation with race and ethnicity, like socioeconomic status. Academic achievement is No. 1, but we look at other things to get a well-rounded student body. The only thing we can’t consider is race, and that seems to me wrong. We’re still not seeing enrollment numbers for the African American population that we should. We need to be focused on outreach, working to increase those.


What about the number of foreign and out-of-state students, who pay more in tuition? The Times just published a letter from unhappy parents whose daughter, a good student, didn’t get admitted to UCLA, their alma mater.

We’ve got other really good schools, so there is a place for a student like this. The number of California students has not been reduced by the acceptance of international or out-of-state students. Those have been add-ons. Systemwide, it’s around 10% [for nonresidents]. It is higher at UCLA and Berkeley. Other public universities we compare ourselves to, like Michigan and Virginia, are in the 30% to 40% range.

Out-of-state students pay for in-state students. Half of the California kids pay no tuition. A quarter pay less than the sticker price. Everybody focuses on the sticker price; that’s bad marketing by us. We should focus on the average actual cost to students, which is much lower.

But shouldn’t California students have first shot at the campus they want? You can’t be arguing that a UC Merced degree means as much out in the world as a Berkeley degree?

I would differ with that. It depends on where in the world you are and what field you’re in. In most states each [UC campus] would be the flagship university.

Tuition generally has gone up faster than inflation; student debt is eclipsing non-mortgage consumer debt.


Until about seven or eight years ago, the state paid [more] and the university [through tuition] less. Now the percentages have almost totally flipped, so students now bear more of the cost [for running UC] than the state does. That’s an astounding thing for a public university.

I don’t think we can expect the state [share] to go back to where it was. We have to look at philanthropy, alumni giving, the private sector, whether we can be more entrepreneurial.

Half of UC students graduate with no debt. Those who graduate with debt [have] on average around $18,000. I’d like that to be zero. The national average is around $23,000.

What drives tuition hikes? Labor costs? More people wanting college educations?

The faculty and a large part of the staff got no raises for a period of years, and when they did, it was 1% or 2%. The labor market for a university is different from the labor market for a Circle K. We’re the No. 1 public research university in the world. To retain that excellence, you have to have the faculty, the scholars, the researchers, the facilities, the laboratories to support them.

What are the prospects for online classes as a money-saver?


Online is not necessarily a cost-saver, but it does help with access. If you want a class that may only be offered at your campus every other year, or not at all, you can take an online class. It’s still not the same when you’re with the professor, with other students, talking about the material. Online classes will get better over time, but they’re not a substitute for physical presence. They’re a tool in the toolbox.

Did you read the state’s Master Plan for Education before you took the job?

I read it between the time they asked me to come for an interview and the interview. And I read [former UC president and Master Plan author] Clark Kerr’s book about the university. The Master Plan gave California something no other state has: a vision for higher education and how it should work. Where it runs into trouble is that California’s population has exceeded the growth of its higher education institutions, so we need to make sure the principles of the plan are adhered to.

Like what?

How do you increase capacity while you are, in a way, flying the plane? Ease the transfer process so students [from] community colleges don’t have to take the same course again [at UC]. More summer-type programs for admitted community college students so they’re ready for upper-division work. Try to keep undergraduate time to a degree as close to four years as you can. Right now we average 4.6, which, given the size of this student body at a public university, is a terrific number. We need to make it better.

The Master Plan is about the economy as well as students.


That’s why the Master Plan really was an act of genius. What makes California unique is this powerful higher education system that turns out the kind of workforce employers need. California needs to be thinking long term: It will not thrive without a very strong higher education system.

How do you make that happen?

I’ve been to Sacramento. I think there’s a desire to help.

With money?

Well, that’s the best way they can help, quite frankly.

How are academic and political politics different?

Washington is so riven with partisan politics and has become such a mean town that the fundamental issues can’t get addressed. Nobody can raise their hand and say, “I have an idea,” without it being characterized as left or right, “D” or “R.”

At the university, there’s a sense of forward motion and mission. Instead of waking up every day and wondering a) about the safety of the country and b) what’s the next congressional oversight committee that wants to meddle in my business at the Department of Homeland Security, now I wake up thinking, what are we doing to forward the education and research mission of this university? That’s a great feeling.


What were the regents looking for that they found in you?

Someone with a lot of experience running large, complex organizations. I’d run an attorney general’s office, a state, the third-largest department of the federal government. And someone who could talk about the university. I’m not a chancellor; I do all these other things to empower and support them. In this day and age, somebody who could come in with a skill-set like I have is almost better positioned to do this job — not the chancellor job but this job.

Next year the Obama administration will create a college ranking system, with metrics like average tuition and graduation rates. You don’t like it.

They’re good metrics — they’re already available [for UC] online; we have to report to the Legislature. The problem I see, it’s yet another system, yet another bureaucracy, etc., etc. I’m highly skeptical that it’s actually going to produce anything that’s all that useful, for all the work that’s going into it.

Among the challenges, besides budget: The Education Department is investigating claims that UC Berkeley didn’t look into reports of sexual assaults on campus or properly discipline offenders.

Yes, we’ve issued a new systemwide policy. We’re clarifying how you make a complaint, training staff, making information more clearly available to students, staff and faculty, having clearer channels and having disciplinary machinery that works and that has consequences.


What about the movement to unionize student athletes?

Some NCAA rules look kind of nutty, so I do think it’s time for the NCAA to look at itself, but I think a union’s not the way to go.

What else, apart from budget matters, has been on your personal list of initiatives?

One was holding tuition flat this year while we look at different tuition models. One is the transfer process from community college to university. Third is for the university to be carbon-neutral by 2025; it’s a stretch, but I think we can do it.

Fourth, reexamine how we deal with the movement of basic research in our labs into the private marketplace — the issue of technology transfer, intellectual property. We do a lot, but it’s muddled. We need to clarify and strengthen it. We’re not privatizing the university; nonetheless, there are things that can augment the funding we get. “Teach for California, research for the world” — that’s my bumper sticker!

How do you keep selling the system, and its costs, to Californians?


We need to integrate it into people’s sense of who we are as Californians. There has to be a deep sense of attachment to it, beyond parents and students. All the things that derive from the university — the work being done to develop drought-resistant crops, the mom with the sick kid who gets the latest and best treatment, so many creative people — that’s all from UC. People love the university, but it’s almost taken for granted: “Oh, we’re always going to have this great university.” Not unless we fight for it.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a transcript. Twitter: @pattmlatimes