When Janet Napolitano was named as the first woman president of the 10-campus University of California in 2013, her champions focused on her experience as a veteran political player on the state and national levels.
As a former attorney general, governor of Arizona and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, she was seen as someone who could deftly negotiate budget deals with the state Legislature and governors and talk easily with federal authorities about the massive energy and weapons labs the UC administers for the nation.
But some faculty and experts at the time were privately worried that Napolitano was a stranger to higher education administration and, except for her college years at the University of Santa Clara, was not connected to California. Would she be able to lead the sprawling university and keep it affordable for students, especially with more of them coming from immigrant families? And while dealing with legislators and U.S. Congress, would she pay attention to more ground level issues of student life, such as mental health services and sexual harassment?
Those questions were answered mainly in a positive light on Sept. 18 after Napolitano, 61, announced to a UC board of regents meeting that she would leave the UC presidency Aug. 1, 2020. But lingering shadows on her record, experts said, include a state audit that criticized her financial management and transparency.
In discussing her resignation, Napolitano said that her seven years at UC will be about the average stay of public university leaders. Her departure comes as a new California governor, Gavin Newsom, is making his mark on higher education and new UC regents have joined the governing board. The timing gives the university a full academic year to find a successor, she said.
“We have a lot of new board members, a new governor. And it seemed like a good time to have some fresh blood at the University of California,” she told reporters in a conference call. She said that her health was not a factor in her decision to leave and that her treatment two years ago for a reoccurrence of breast cancer was successful. After a sabbatical, she intends to teach at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, where she is currently a tenured professor, starting in 2021.
John Perez, regents chairman and former state Assembly speaker, praised Napolitano’s work at UC and her emphasis on how higher education can “transform the individual lives of our students but quite frankly to impact and improve the lot of all of us as a society.” He said he would soon be naming members of a national search committee to look for candidates to succeed Napolitano.
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement praising Napolitano for leading “the institution through extraordinary times, rising to every challenge that came her way, in order to maintain the excellence of our world-class public university system. We are grateful for her tireless work to build a California where all young people, regardless of their background, can access the transformative power of higher education.”
Education observers and experts say that Napolitano achieved a successful track record at UC on student-centered issues, including creating more guaranteed pathways for community college students to transfer to UC and working to keep undocumented students at the university while they faced harsher anti-immigration measures from the Trump administration. She also worked to recruit more students who are in the first generation in their families to attend college and to make them feel comfortable on campus.
But her lauded political skills that should have helped her navigate the bureaucracies were not always enough to avoid controversies.
Tuition for in-state students was kept flat for five of her six years at UC (except for a 2.7 percent raise in 2017). UC now charges $12,570 in tuition and system fees for California undergraduates-while housing, food, book and other costs can add $25,000. But Napolitano appeared to have more tensions about spending with then-Gov. Jerry Brown than her predecessor Mark Yudof did, at times proposing tuition hikes and then retreating. UC receives about $3.9 billion in state general funds this year.
Plus, UCLA’s entanglement with the nationwide admissions scandal proved to be a continuing embarrassment despite Napolitano’s effort to crack down on abuses. She commissioned an audit and then adopted its suggested system-wide reforms, including more scrutiny of applicants who seek special treatment for athletic or artistic talents.
Napolitano’s legacy at UC will include her efforts to ensure that undocumented students remain eligible for financial aid and are provided legal assistance to help them with their immigration status, according to Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy and policy organization based in Los Angeles.
“I think she has been exemplary in the support of undocumented students,” Dow said.
When she first arrived at UC in 2013, Napolitano faced some protests against the deportations carried out by her Homeland Security department. But she went on to become a strong voice in lawsuits and policy statements challenging the Trump administration’s efforts to withdraw previous protections against deportation from some undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children. She sought to maintain the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which had provided a shield for those young people, including those enrolled at UC.
Napolitano is also credited with creating more guided pathways that allow community college students to more easily transfer to a UC if they complete a prescribed set of courses, according to Dow. Much work remains ahead to improve and expand those transfer paths but “there is much more alignment thanks to her leadership,” Dow added.
Along that line, Napolitano is credited with working closely with the state’s other higher education leaders at the 23-campus California State University and community colleges on common issues, now formalized into a group advising the governor.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, lauded Napolitano for championing increases in community college transfers to UC and for becoming a national advocate for DACA students in higher education. Her support for DACA students “significantly improved the lives of immigrant students in the California Community Colleges and for this work I will forever be grateful,” Oakley said in a statement.
During her time at UC, the number of California undergraduates, both freshmen and transfers,increased by 17,500 to its current 182,735, comprising 82 percent of all undergraduates. At the same time, facing legislative opposition to increasing numbers of students from other states and nations, Napolitano acted to place some growth caps on enrollment of non-Californians. (Among other changes, UCLA and UC Berkeley will freeze their levels at the current 25 percent of undergraduates.)
Under pressure to raise revenue, Napolitano triggered a revolt among UC’s regents when she tried to increase tuition for out-of-state students by $762, to a $42,324 a year. Some regents said they feared it would scare away low-income students who are from outside the state. The board eventually relented after she agreed to set aside financial aid for the needy among those students. Now Napolitano is proposing a cohort model of tuition, under which students have their tuition frozen for up to six years although tuition could be raised for each subsequent entering class and those then given their own freezes. Many details remain to be worked out as regents are expected to consider this plan in coming months.
In 2017, Napolitano faced what probably was the biggest crisis at UC. A state audit alleged overspending, financial mismanagement and unethical behavior at the president’s office. A state auditor’s report said it found $175 million in undisclosed UC reserves and accused Napolitano’s office of trying to interfere with the audit’s results.
In the aftermath, some state legislators called for Napolitano’s resignation and the regents rebuked her. Napolitano insisted there were no secret reserve funds and that most of the money was committed to academic programs and research. Still she said UC would accept many of the auditor’s suggestions about transparency and spending controls.
UC Student Association President Varsha Sarveshwar said that Napolitano’s most important achievements include the creation of better systems for victims to report sexual harassment and assaults on campus and to receive both psychological treatment and ways to seek discipline against assailants. “Those were really changes for the better,” she said.
Among other things, the next UC president should tackle issues of basic living costs beyond tuition and build better relationships in Sacramento after some of the mistrust of UC’s budgeting there, Sarveshwar said.
Ria Sengupta Bhatt, who until last week was a senior adviser at California Competes, an organization that seeks to bolster degree attainment in the state, said she hopes the next UC president makes more progress on college affordability and non-tuition costs and improves coordination across the three higher education systems, with more easily understandable transfer pathways.
“Her successor will also need to address the persistent racial equity gaps in who enrolls and also who completes in the UC system,” said Bhatt, who is now lead consultant at Project Attain, an initiative at Sacramento State to help more working adults graduate.
Adrianna Kezar, co-director of the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education, a research group about student access and success, said Napolitano managed “pretty well” to both expand student access and protect the high academic quality of a prestigious research university. Kezar, a professor of higher education said “it would be a mismatch” if the next UC president is not capable of similarly protecting both missions.