U. of California Gets an Unexpected Leader in Janet Napolitano

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Janet Napolitano (right), the newly confirmed president of the U. of California: "Perhaps the most important thing that I will bring with me to California is my ears. I have much to learn about the University of California, and I intend to listen."
July 18, 2013

When Janet Napolitano, the departing U.S. secretary of homeland security, becomes president of the University of California, her leadership may be exactly what the struggling institution needs to propel itself forward during a time of painful budget cuts. Or it could signal an unusual candidate without much higher-education experience sweeping in and furthering the downward spiral of a 10-campus system that is considered by some to be the nation's crown jewel of public higher education.

That's been the range of responses from faculty members, administrators, students, and higher-education experts to the choice of Ms. Napolitano, who was confirmed as president on Thursday by the university's Board of Regents. She is expected to begin her tenure in late September.

Ms. Napolitano, who will become the first female president in the institution's 145-year history, will earn a base salary of $570,000 annually, the regents said on Thursday. That's slightly less than the $591,084 her predecessor, Mark G. Yudof, received during the 2012 fiscal year. Mr. Yudof's total compensation in 2012 was $847,149.

Mr. Yudof, who is stepping down in August in part for health reasons, has come under fire for his compensation during his five-year tenure. Executive compensation has long been a contentious issue at the University of California, and Ms. Napolitano's base salary, though more than the $200,000 she earned annually as homeland-security secretary, is likely to provide fodder for critics of executive pay inflation. She also will receive a one-time relocation fee of $142,500.

Not a 'Status-Quo Choice'

Ms. Napolitano's confirmation on Thursday was, at times, contentious. About two dozen protesters interrupted the regents' meeting, chanting phrases such as "education, not deportation," in response to the homeland-security secretary's role in enforcing the nation's immigration laws. Several protesters were taken out of the meeting in handcuffs.

A student regent, Cinthia Flores, cited federal immigration policy in casting the only vote against Ms. Napolitano's nomination.

The selection of Ms. Napolitano has fueled a continuing debate about the pros and cons of college presidents with nontraditional backgrounds. In 2011 one in five presidents came from outside higher education, according to a report issued last year by the American Council on Education. That marked an increase from the 13 percent of presidents in 2006 whose immediate past positions were not in higher education, according to the report.

But Ms. Napolitano, some professors say, takes "nontraditional" to a new level. The 55-year-old homeland-security secretary, who previously served as governor and attorney general of Arizona, has never been a faculty member or held a university-leadership post. Some of her most intimate exposure to how higher education works has come through her father, Leonard M. Napolitano, once dean of the University of New Mexico's School of Medicine.

Even those who have voiced support for Ms. Napolitano acknowledge that she is a surprising choice for an institution that has traditionally been led by a president more steeped in academe. Ms. Napolitano is among a handful of recent University of California presidents who have not held a Ph.D. She has a law degree.

"She may not be the status-quo choice, but what we need right now in California is an effective spokesperson on behalf of public higher education," said William G. Tierney, a co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. "We have no one who has made a sustained, systematic argument to the citizens of California about how important public higher education is. She may be an ideal person to make that argument."

A Good Fit?

Much of the discussion about the selection of Ms. Napolitano has focused on one question: Is she a good fit?

Several prominent faculty members have offered strong endorsements of Ms. Napolitano, praising her ability to work in the weeds with state and federal legislators.

"The UC presidency isn't about setting day-to-day academic policies and expectations," said Robert L. Powell, chairman of the university's systemwide Academic Senate and a faculty representative on the Board of Regents. "It's really about who Jerry Brown [the governor of California] picks up the phone and calls when he has a question, or who from the university flies to Washington to represent you. For that, she's perfect."

If the selection of a president came down to finding someone with more "operational" expertise than academic experience, said Richard K. Lyons, dean of the Haas School of Business on the university's Berkeley campus, then Ms. Napolitano is a good choice. Because of her lack of experience in campus settings, Mr. Lyons added, it would not be surprising if some bigger-picture academic decisions were now handed down to Aimée Dorr, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

Ms. Napolitano, who has experience in managing complex bureaucracies, may ultimately find that her skill set is better suited for a systemwide role, not a campus-level position. The University of California is one of the most expansive systems in higher education, with more than 234,000 students and about 208,000 faculty and staff members.

"Someone who's a sophisticated manager of complicated organizations probably makes a lot of sense for an institution like that," said R. William Funk, a consultant who led the search for the current president, Mr. Yudof. He also led the search that resulted in the hiring of Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., previously governor of Indiana, as president of Purdue University.

Not 'Her World'

Some professors, though, worry that Ms. Napolitano's lack of experience in higher education will hold the university system back at a time when it needs to be pushing forward.

"This isn't her world," said Christopher Newfield, a professor of literature and American studies on the university's Santa Barbara campus. "She doesn't have well-formed, high academic ambitions for the university because she's not an academic."

Mr. Newfield, an occasional contributor to The Chronicle, said he was also concerned that Ms. Napolitano lacked an established legislative network in California, despite her national political prominence.

"It takes decades to know the players, to know the personalities, to know who can be trusted on what issues," he said. "You don't just get that from a lecture."

Other faculty members said they were surprised by the university's choice of Ms. Napolitano but are reserving judgment until her views on higher education become better known.

"The heart of the matter," said Robert Samuels, a full-time lecturer in the writing department at Santa Barbara and the president of the system's union of lecturers and librarians, "is that we just don't know what her take on a lot of these issues is. That's concerning."

Past Lessons

Nontraditional college presidents elsewhere have experienced a mix of success and controversy. Some—like David L. Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma and a former Oklahoma governor and senator, and Bruce D. Benson, president of the University of Colorado system and a former oil-and-gas executive—have managed to find common ground with their critics, said Patrick M. Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, in California.

Others have had different experiences. Mr. Daniels, of Purdue, came under fire this week, for example, after the Associated Press revealed that, as governor, he had sent e-mails asking top state education officials to ensure that the writings of Howard Zinn, a longtime historian and political activist at Boston University, were not being used anywhere in Indiana. Mr. Daniels later told the AP that his request had been limited to elementary and secondary schools.

Some critics of Mr. Daniels have taken the e-mails as a sign that the president, who had not held a leadership position in higher education before he took over at Purdue, in January, cannot grasp the core tenets of academe.

If Ms. Napolitano is smart, said Rita Bornstein, a former president of Rollins College, she will learn from others' mistakes by spending time at the beginning of her term building relationships with campus chancellors and faculty leaders.

"It's a different kind of system from anything she's been in before," said Ms. Bornstein, the author of Legitimacy in the Academic Presidency: From Entrance to Exit. "She can really get it right if she listens."

In California many people see the regents' unusual pick for the presidency as a sign that the university is moving in a new direction.

"It could be an indication," said C. Judson King, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education on the Berkeley campus, "that the regents are focusing more on the political situation in California." And a result of that shift in attention, he said, may be more campus-level academic autonomy.

But the selection of Ms. Napolitano could also represent an emerging culture at the university that should be cause for concern, said Mr. Samuels, the writing lecturer and union president. "She's a symptom," he said, "that universities have been taken over by an administrative class that sees education as essentially a business that needs to be run efficiently."

Ms. Napolitano has so far declined to provide specifics of her vision for the university. In a brief prepared statement last week, she did say she planned to go on a listening tour at the start of her presidency.

"Perhaps the most important thing that I will bring with me to California is my ears," she said in a statement that she read after her confirmation, on Thursday. "I have much to learn about the University of California, and I intend to listen."