Leadership & Governance

U. of California Leader Advises Patience as the Trump Era Dawns

March 02, 2017

Beck Diefenbach, Reuters
Janet Napolitano, president of the U. of California system and a former U.S. secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama. Her agency crafted the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, and she hopes the Trump administration will see its value and sustain it.

In the age of Trump, administrators need patience and calm, says Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system.

Uncertainty on campuses is rampant, as faculty, staff and students don’t know what Donald J. Trump’s presidency means for higher education. While Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has caused major anxiety at universities, Ms. Napolitano said during a visit to The Chronicle on Wednesday, it’s still unclear whether "the bark is worse than the bite."

President Trump "can tweet, but Congress needs to act, and those are very different things," she said. "Just reiterating that message over and over again is important."

Ms. Napolitano touched on a variety of topics, including what UC’s campuses are doing to help allay the fears of undocumented students threatened with potential deportation, campus-speech controversies, and what it’s like having one of your flagship campuses targeted in a Trump tweet.

Undocumented Immigrants

Ms. Napolitano has emerged as a key defender of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy she crafted as secretary of homeland security under former President Barack Obama. She estimates the University of California has roughly 3,700 undergraduates who benefit under the policy, which has granted two-year, renewable work or study permits to many immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

“These are the last people you should want to deport. ... We want their brains and their talent to be retained.”
The university has created resource centers for undocumented students, and it announced after Mr. Trump’s election that its police departments would not be used as proxies for immigration officers.

Ms. Napolitano said she is hopeful that Mr. Trump will see the value of DACA.

"These are the last people you should want to deport," she said. "They’ve done everything we have asked of them. They’ve gotten into the University of California. They have clean criminal histories. We want their brains and their talent to be retained."

Betsy DeVos

Ms. DeVos, the new education secretary, remains a wildcard on higher-education policy, Ms. Napolitano said. "She hasn’t really announced a higher-education agenda and she hasn’t had any substantive experience in higher education."

Ms. Napolitano said she didn’t schedule a visit with Ms. DeVos during her trip to the capital because a conversation would be more productive after the new secretary settles into her role and starts setting a higher-education agenda. "She’s on the beginning of a learning curve," Ms. Napolitano said, "and she has a lot to learn in the higher-education space."

Campus Speech

Ms. Napolitano said she expects more campus encounters with provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, whose talk at the university’s Berkeley campus was canceled last month after violent protests. She said the university did everything it could to allow Mr. Yiannopoulos to speak, including creating a safety plan for him in case of violence. It’s also considering what could have been done differently, like perhaps scheduling the talk during the day instead of at night.

Ultimately, the university can’t bend on the First Amendment, Ms. Napolitano said, and the militant protesters who disrupted the event trampled on Mr. Yiannopoulos’s rights. "I still hope they’re able to identify some of the perpetrators," she said.

Title IX Guidance

Ms. Napolitano hopes the U.S. Department of Education will clarify the 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter that specified in detail how colleges must respond to reports of sexual assault.

"It has created a cottage industry for lawyers," Ms. Napolitano said of the letter and subsequent guidance from the department’s Office for Civil Rights, which has argued that the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX requires colleges to do everything within their reach to prevent assaults and punish the perpetrators.

Ms. Napolitano, however, said the Trump administration must be careful in making any changes to the guidance, especially if eliminating it. "If they were to rescind the guidance, they need to also at the same time send the message that Title IX is of paramount importance," she said, "and will continue to be enforced."

Targeted on Twitter

It’s hard not to pay attention, Ms. Napolitano said, when the president of the United States tweets about taking away money from your university to his 25 million Twitter followers, as Mr. Trump did last month following the violent protests at Berkeley. But she reminded people to put the message in context. "That’s not how the appropriations process works," she said.

The incident also illustrated that Mr. Trump, who suggested that Berkeley was crushing free speech, didn’t have a grasp of the facts. "It wasn’t the campus that was suppressing speech," she said. "Far from it."

International Students

The sprawling 10-campus California system produces roughly 7 percent of U.S. doctorates, according to a recent estimate by Ms. Napolitano, and a significant chunk of those are international students. Enforcement of Mr. Trump’s travel ban has been suspended while litigation against it proceeds, but Ms. Napolitano said she worries about the long-term damage the president’s isolationist rhetoric has done to the desire of international students to study in the United States.

"We haven’t seen that in our applications yet," she said, "but I’ll be watching for it."

Vimal Patel covers graduate education. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.