SAN FRANCISCO — Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano officially takes over as the University of California’s president on Monday, but she already has survived her first leadership challenge — a no-confidence” vote sought this month by student activists who think her work in Washington makes her unsuitable to run the nation’s largest public higher education system.
Detractors argued that Napolitano was a poor choice, given her previous job, to oversee college campuses prone to protests and attended by students from families living in the U.S. illegally. But leaders of a statewide student association ended up voting 9-6 not to hold a referendum on Napolitano’s appointment so soon, but vowed to seek reassurances from her in the next few weeks.
“There are a lot of students with some very large concerns centered around her past history in Homeland Security,” University of California Student Association President Kareem Aref said. “Students are concerned that her presidency may be accompanied by a militarization of the UC.”
If a government resume that also includes a six-year stint as Arizona’s governor secured Napolitano the UC president’s job, it also is frustrating her efforts to assume her new role with a minimum of fanfare. Few of her predecessors — mostly longtime academics — have aroused the mix of excitement, curiosity and suspicion surrounding her unexpected selection.
Then again, none came with an international profile much larger than the sometimes parochial, often political and generally not well-understood president’s role.
As the system’s chief executive, Napolitano is trading her cabinet seat for an office in downtown Oakland and will have responsibility for 190,000 employees, about 50,000 fewer than she had at Homeland Security, where the $59 billion budget is more than twice as large as the university’s.
Her annual salary of $571,000 is three times more than she made working for the federal government, but, at her insistence and in recognition of the financial difficulties the university has experienced, $21,000 less than the immediate past president, Mark Yudof.
“Being president of the university is not like running a campus,” said John Douglass, a senior research fellow in public policy and higher education at UC Berkeley. “Her duties are, largely, to negotiate and deal with Sacramento — most significantly, UC’s thus-far shrinking share of the state budget, decipher the wants and advice of the regents, manage conflict and cooperation between the chancellors and work with the faculty’s Academic Senate on system-wide policies.”
While Napolitano can bring gravitas and skill to the system’s funding pitches in Sacramento and in Washington, her background in politics, lack of a scholarly background and the recent revelations about the government’s domestic surveillance activities “is bound to raise eyebrows,” Douglass said.
“It will take a good period of time for her to know what the heck is going on and to gain the trust of faculty and perhaps students,” he said.
Napolitano has not commented publicly on her priorities or reasons for accepting the position since the university’s governing board confirmed her surprise nomination in July. “Sound management, fiscal stewardship and the ability to tackle tough challenges is what I know and what I hope to bring with me when I arrive here,” she said at the time. “I have much to learn about UC, and I plan to listen.”
She is declining media interviews and does not plan to schedule public events while she privately meets with staff, students, faculty and lawmakers over the next few weeks and tours the system’s 10 campuses, five medical centers and three government-sponsored energy labs, UC spokesman Steve Montiel said.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, ex officio UC regent, said that before Napolitano got the job there were “buzz and rumors” that a former governor was being considered. But the search committee with 10 of the 26 voting regents succeeded in keeping Napolitano’s candidacy secret until it was “all but fait acompli,” Newsom said.
“A lot of people come in and it’s ‘Ready, aim, fire’ in terms of their approach,” he said. “I think she is doing the kind of work that needs to be done now to get a sense of who the players are, what the politics are, what is the best policy.”
Gov. Jerry Brown, also an ex officio regent, has commented in recent months on what he sees as a need for the university to reduce spending and build enrollment capacity through the use of technology. Evan Westrup, the governor’s spokesman, said Brown was involved in Napolitano’s selection and plans to meet with her soon.
Former Pentagon spokesman Doug Wilson, a longtime friend of Napolitano’s, said she did not pursue the UC presidency on her own, but “was sought out for the job” during the university’s search process.
“She did a great job at DHS, and I think everybody here expected she could stay … as long as she wanted,” Wilson said. “She certainly had the president’s full confidence, and she wasn’t unhappy. But I think this … was raised with her and, in the course of discussions, she thought was an opportunity too good to pass up.”