Leadership & Governance

Napolitano Riffs on DeVos, Free Speech, and DACA

The U. of California system president characterized the U.S. education secretary’s learning curve on higher ed as ‘quite vertical’

September 20, 2017

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
Janet Napolitano, the U. of California system president, told a group of reporters on Wednesday that she left a recent meeting with Betsy DeVos with the impression that the U.S. education secretary had a limited understanding of colleges and universities.

During a wide-ranging interview here on Wednesday, Janet A. Napolitano, president of the University of California system, questioned the secretary of education’s knowledge of higher education, fretted over the Trump administration’s posture toward undocumented immigrants, and acknowledged the struggle of creating a safe space for often "controversial and noxious ideas" on college campuses.

Ms. Napolitano, a former Arizona governor who served as U.S. Homeland Security secretary in President Obama’s administration, said she left a recent meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos with the impression that Ms. DeVos had a limited understanding of colleges and universities.

"Her learning curve where higher ed is concerned is quite vertical," Ms. Napolitano told a half-dozen reporters over lunch at the University of California’s Washington Center.

Ms. Napolitano said she met with Ms. DeVos not long after the release of President Trump’s so-called skinny budget, a lightly detailed blueprint that was released in March. The document included a $9-billion cut for the U.S. Department of Education, which would slash more than 13 percent of the agency’s budget.

The meeting with Ms. DeVos, a wealthy government outsider with a passion for charter schools, lasted about 30 minutes and focused mostly on high-level policy, Ms. Napolitano said. At one point, the UC system president said, she brought up the importance of "SEOG grants," a common acronym for the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program, which aids low-income students.

"We then had to explain what the SEOG grants do," Ms. Napolitano said.

It is not uncommon for education secretaries, who often come from the world of public schools, to have little direct background in higher education. Ms. Napolitano said that her observation was not intended as a criticism of Ms. DeVos. At the same time, Ms. Napolitano suggested that the learning curve for Arne Duncan, who served as President Obama’s education secretary and had led Chicago Public Schools, was "not as steep."

A spokeswoman for the Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Higher-education administrators across the nation are struggling to discern where the Education Department may be headed under Ms. DeVos, and are particularly watchful of how her public statements will be translated into policy. In a recent speech, Ms. DeVos slammed what she described as "kangaroo courts" on college campuses, which she said skirt due process in dealing with those accused of sexual assault. The department intends to roll back guidance from the Obama era, formulated in a "Dear Colleague" letter, that outlined procedures for colleges to use in adjudicating sexual-assault cases in accordance with the gender-equity law known as Title IX.  

There is room for debate, Ms. Napolitano said, about how colleges can best balance the rights of accusers and the accused in these cases.

"What I’m concerned about is they’re going to swing the pendulum too far in one direction," Ms. Napolitano said.

The secretary, Ms. Napolitano continued, seemed to rely on the most extreme cases to formulate a larger opinion on how colleges deal with sexual assault.

"She picked out a few outliers to condemn entire systems," Ms. Napolitano said. "That’s not a way to make good policy."

Under the guidance of the letter, which was issued in 2011, colleges are mandated to adjudicate cases based on a "preponderance of evidence," a lower standard of proof that finds guilt in cases where an assault is more likely to have occurred than not. Ms. Napolitano said that the "preponderance" standard is appropriate in sexual-assault cases, adding that the University of California would continue to employ it regardless of whether the federal government dictated as much.

‘Free Speech Week’ at Berkeley

Closer to home, Ms. Napolitano has found herself at the center of a growing debate over how colleges deal with controversial speakers. Milo Yiannopoulos, a provocative flamethrower, has planned a four-day event at the Berkeley campus, set to take place this week. The invited guests include Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to President Trump.

Berkeley hosted Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, last week, the security for which cost the university about $600,000. Ms. Napolitano said on Wednesday that the university system would cover half that cost, adding that the administration would do the same should similar costs emerge at Mr. Yiannopoulos’s "Free Speech Week" event.

Ms. Napolitano described colleges and universities as places where disturbing ideas should be discussed, but she expressed concern that a college campus risks becoming a "target of opportunity" for a speaker who aims to provoke rather than enlighten.

"This will be a test for Berkeley," she said.

Of particular concern to Ms. Napolitano is the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the Obama-era initiative that allows people who were brought into the United States illegally as children to stay in the country to work or study.

An estimated 4,000 undocumented students, many of whom are registered with DACA, are enrolled in the California system, Ms. Napolitano said. The Trump administration announced plans to end the program earlier this month, but Democratic Congressional leaders have said they have a deal with the president to preserve it. Regardless, there is considerable uncertainty about the future of DACA, and the university has sued the Trump administration over its proposed repeal of the program.

"They’ve done everything society has asked of them," Ms. Napolitano said of students in the program.

To support DACA students, the university has hired special coordinators and provided students with legal services, which together have cost about $8 million, Ms. Napolitano said.

Eight months into the Trump administration, it can still be difficult for higher-education leaders — or anyone for that matter — to divine the difference between a one-off tweet from the president and the makings of an imminent policy change. But Ms. Napolitano says she is paying close attention.

"We can’t ignore the president of the United States," she said.

Chris Quintana contributed to this report.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.