By Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, KPCC
University of California Regents are meeting in San Francisco Thursday to confirm the appointment of Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano to be the next UC president. It’s considered one of the most prestigious jobs in higher education.
Many people are praising Napolitano’s decades-long history of managing large agencies. But others are asking whether she’s the right fit for the job.
UC Regents are set to hire Napolitano, in large part, because of her success running the nearly $60 billion Department of Homeland Security. Napolitano spoke about that success to a gathering at the Brookings Institution earlier this year.
“Today, a decade after the creation of a cabinet-level agency bearing that name, Homeland Security has come to mean much more,” Napolitano said. “It means the coordinated work of hundreds of thousands of dedicated and skilled professionals and more than ever of the American public, of our businesses and families, communities and faith based groups.”
Napolitano has had a long career in politics. She was U.S. attorney and state attorney in Arizona, and governor of that state.
Doug Wilson, a colleague in the Obama administration has known her for three decades. He describes her as a results-obsessed lawyer who can get very different groups to cooperate.
“She understands budgets, she understands working with state legislators, and state legislatures, she understands working with students and she has a passion for education that has characterized her from her university days,” Wilson said.
Bob Powell is the chair of UC’s Academic Senate, the body that advocates for faculty on academic issues. And he also supports her appointment.
“I have heard that she’s a good leader, she brings people together but she’s also firm and I like all of those traits,” Powell said.
But Napolitano has never run a university, and she has never worked on the faculty of a university.
Powell says that while that’s unusual, it’s not unheard of, and he’s not worried about it. But other people are.
UCLA law professor Abraham Wagner is one of them. He points out that Napolitano will be making big decisions that will affect professors’ scholarship and research.
“At Berkeley we have the largest collection of Nobel Prize winners on the planet — many others at UCLA and elsewhere,” Wagner said. “She’s nowhere in that spectrum at all. She’s not going to have the respect of these people.”
UC student workers are also opposed to her appointment. They’re backing a petition by undocumented student activists to stop Napolitano’s appointment.
The biggest issue for these activists is that she just headed an agency that oversaw the deportation of thousands of immigrants in California. They plan to protest hew expected appointment at Thursday’s UC Regents meeting in San Francisco.
Angela Chan, a lawyer with the Bay Area group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, is stunned those deportations didn’t seem to bother the search committee recommending her appointment.
“I think the message they’re sending right now is an unfortunate message that they want a politician at the helm rather than an educator,” Chan said. “It also shows a lack of understanding or sensitivity to undocumented students and to immigrant students who make up a large part of the UC system.”
Like in her other jobs, Napolitano will have a steep learning curve. She’ll have to learn the Sacramento power structure, work on repairing damage from about a billion dollars in funding cuts, and work on shrinking diversity at Berkeley and UCLA.
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