Editorial: Janet Napolitano left her mark on the UC system

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, announced Wednesday that she will be stepping down next year to join the faculty at UC Berkeley.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

When Janet Napolitano was named president of the University of California six years ago, skeptics were quick to raise their voices against the selection of a former Arizona governor and U.S. secretary of Homeland Security. They worried that her appointment would send a terrible message to the university’s many undocumented students. A UC Santa Barbara English professor blogged that her lack of academic experience rendered her unqualified, adding that “being a political heavyweight is not a qualification for being a university president.”

Maybe not. But it sure didn’t hurt.

Napolitano, who announced this week that she will leave her job next August to teach at UC Berkeley, has been exactly the kind of tough, politically savvy leader UC needed during a particularly rocky time. She squared off with then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a tough, politically savvy leader himself who showed every sign of not being a big supporter of UC. He had signaled his attitude during his first administration when he suggested that UC professors should earn lower salaries because they derived “psychic income” from their jobs.

In his second administration, Brown fought for a stripped-down UC, one that increased teaching loads, stopped doing so much research and replaced many classroom courses with online offerings. He was averse to giving UC the support it needed to emerge from the suffocating days of the recession and he wanted to micromanage the university, despite its independent status under the state Constitution.


Napolitano sparred openly with Brown and the Legislature, threatening to raise tuition if they failed to provide more funding. She succeeded in cutting a deal, which is at least part of the reason the university system continues to be highly ranked worldwide, with four of its campuses named by Forbes magazine as best-value colleges in the nation in 2017. UC Berkeley and UCLA were numbers 1 and 2. Would a longtime academic have pulled off a bruising political fight with such moxie? Possibly, but it’s tougher to imagine.

Napolitano’s victory, and her sometimes less-than-diplomatic ways, also created political enemies. Is it a total coincidence that UC was subjected to eight state audits during four years of Napolitano’s administration or that it faced several pieces of legislation aiming to weaken its independence?

One of those audits pointed to weaknesses in Napolitano’s administration. No, unlike what grandstanding legislators irresponsibly claimed, UC wasn’t hiding a $175-million slush fund of untapped money while it was fighting for better funding. The money was accounted for and was promised to legitimate and well-known university projects. But she allowed high-level university officials to be overpaid for too long, and her office’s financial record-keeping was sloppy. Worse, when her own office was audited, Napolitano ordered the campus-by-campus responses to come through her office. Top aides then interfered with some of the responses, though there was insufficient evidence that Napolitano had a hand in that.

Still, it pointed to lapses in leadership and to a characteristic of Napolitano’s style that rankled officials at various UC campuses — her desire to centralize authority in her office, rather than giving more rein to the individual schools.

Napolitano deserves much credit for how swiftly and strongly she changed the university’s handling of sexual misconduct cases so that student allegations were no longer swept under the rug. Yet the new rules went too far in certain ways; UC, along with several other colleges across the state, had to undo some of its procedures after an appellate court ruled in February that students accused of sexual misconduct had been denied their due-process rights.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the former secretary of Homeland Security has proved a staunch protector and defender of the university’s undocumented students. In her federal role, Napolitano drew up the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for undocumented immigrants who had arrived in the country as children. Two years ago, she sued the Trump administration in an effort to prevent him from rescinding DACA; the suit resulted in an injunction that should keep the program in place at least until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on it. Under her leadership, various UC campuses have raised private funds to provide legal help to undocumented students who aren’t protected by DACA. She also has moved to provide additional services, beyond tuition aid, to students living in poverty without regular access to food.

The battles have been fraught and seemingly endless; whatever faults Napolitano has had as UC president have been easily outweighed by her willingness to fight them vigorously, over and over, on behalf of students, faculty and the causes of academic excellence and independence.