Most university presidencies end quietly as major decisions are deferred for campus successors and outgoing leaders don’t rock the boat. However, Janet Napolitano’s final months as president of the 10-campus University of California have been tumultuous.

With the coronavirus pandemic, UC campuses effectively shut down and switched to online classes. A related budget crisis hit the 285,000-student UC system and its five hospitals. The UC regents approved Napolitano’s landmark plan to end the admissions requirement of taking SAT or ACT. UC won a significant U.S Supreme Court decision at least temporarily extending protections for some undocumented immigrants. And UC joined the successful effort to put a measure to revive affirmative action for freshmen admissions on the November ballot.

Napolitano became UC’s first woman president in September 2013, after previously serving as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and governor of Arizona. At UC, her noteworthy initiatives included expanding enrollment of California freshmen and transfer students, shifting campuses’ energy usage to carbon neutrality, establishing new procedures to handle sexual harassment and assault allegations, as well as providing financial and legal aid to undocumented students. On the negative side, she tangled with state legislators in 2017 over what they saw as her inappropriate interference with an audit on her office’s spending.

Her successor is expected to be named in coming weeks and Napolitano will leave the presidency Aug. 1. Napolitano, who is 62 and was successfully treated for cancer three years ago, plans to take a year’s sabbatical and then teach at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. She spoke via Zoom to EdSource’s Larry Gordon from Oakland. Her comments were edited for length and clarity.

EdSource: There has been so much going on in your final few months. Is there anything else that you want to take care of?

Napolitano: I think I’ll be most deeply involved in how we go about resuming in-person operations on the campuses. The campuses all have to meet a basic safety threshold. And beyond that, they’re calculating what kinds of classes they’re going to have in person versus remote. Everything will be available remote. The question’s going to be what is also available in person and the degree to which they’re going to repopulate the dorms. It turns out that reopening a campus is a lot more complicated than shutting one down. So, it’s a really complex set of issues, but, you know, we’re working through them.

Do you think enrollment is going to decline? Many people have been dissatisfied with the online experience and incoming freshmen may think they should delay a year.

Napolitano: Based on those statements of intent to register freshmen that were due May 1, we had targeted 43,500, and we received something like 42,500. So just a bit below our target. Interestingly, almost all the decrease was in international students. That has budgetary implications because, of course, they pay full freight (tuition). So we are working over the summer to reach out to students and encourage them to enroll or return.

But are you worried there is going to be a melt in the number of students?

Napolitano:Well, there’s always some melts. But I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t think it will be as calamitous as was first predicted, that’s for sure. I think as students survey what’s available to them in the pandemic world, staying enrolled and making progress toward their degree are really good options.

In May, the regents followed your plan to drop the SAT or ACT testing requirement and for UC to consider developing its own entrance exam. Do you prefer a replacement exam or no exam?

Napolitano: What I prefer was what I recommended: that we examine the feasibility of having a test that’s more closely aligned with what we expect students to know to be prepared for UC. I think if we do it, we ought to do it in conjunction with CSU, and I’ve spoken with (CSU) Chancellor (Timothy) White about participating in the feasibility analysis. But I’m somewhat agnostic if I can say it that way. I see the value in having tests as another data point to use in the admissions decision. But it’s got to be a good test and a valid test, and it can’t suffer from some of the same defects as the SAT did. So, that’s a tall order. That’s why I recommended that we first do a feasibility study.

Earlier this year, UC President Janet Napolitano met with students at Oakland Tech High School, talking about financial aid.
(Photo by Robert Durell, via EdSource)

Speaking of admissions, let’s talk about the proposal to bring back affirmative action in California. That would allow race to be considered as a factor in UC admissions. Do you think that the goal should be that racial representation at UC should match the demographic breakdown of the state’s population?

Napolitano: Well, first of all, the relevant population is those graduating from high school or enrolled in community college. I think there’s a difference (from overall state population.) We want to make sure that we are practicing the principles of equality and equity and inclusion in our admissions processes. Ideally, our student body, while not necessarily a one-to-one match, would come closer to looking like the population of students we should be educating. I think that’s a worthy goal for a public university. We have a list of 14 factors in admissions and it does seem artificial when the only factor you can’t consider is race, ethnicity, or gender as if those have nothing to do with a student.

What about Asian Americans? Their ratio at UC is double their representation in the state population. Would a logical conclusion be that their numbers ultimately drop at the university with this proposal?

Napolitano: I don’t know. But I do think that we would want a greater representation of African American and Latinx students. We’ve had vigorous enrollment growth that is likely to continue in some form or fashion. So I’m not sure it’s a such a zero-sum game.

The pandemic has had a tough effect on state tax revenues and that is likely to hurt UC’s state funding. Is there any possibility of tuition being raised next month to fill in for those dollars?

Napolitano: I don’t foresee a tuition increase.

In the future, do you think that nine undergraduate campuses are enough for the University of California? I know you’re still expanding UC Merced, but should UC build one more?

Napolitano: I’m not sure about another brick-and-mortar campus. I think we need to explore ways where we can grow the university’s student body without necessarily building another physical campus. So for example, how should we use distance learning or online learning to supplement what we offer on the campuses? We’re doing a lot of distance learning now, so why not include more of that in kind of future enrollment growth plans?

Looking back over your time here, what are the things you are most proud of?

Napolitano: It’s been a lively time at the university. We added 46,500 undergraduate and graduate students during my time. We improved graduation rates. We took on the challenge of climate change with our goal of being carbon neutral by 2025. We’ve made real progress toward getting there. We took on the issue of free speech on college campuses and opened up a center on free speech and civic engagement to give that topic some real academic underpinning. We had one in-state tuition increase of 2.5% one year but basically kept it flat my seven years. And on the health system side, I think this pandemic has illustrated the value of the university’s patient care and research. We have some 330 research projects underway related to COVID-19. That’s a real value to the state.

What do you regret?

Napolitano: I’ve already said I regretted the audit and how the office handled the audit in 2017. But we have implemented audit recommendations and ended up, I think, with a more clear budget process in the office of the president as a result.

You were UC’s first woman president. Do you think that it’s time now to have a Latino or an African American president?

Napolitano: I think it would be nice. But, you know, I think the key thing is to have somebody who has experience running a large organization, a leadership track record. Someone who can represent the university well in a lot of different settings.

What would you tell your successor about the demands of this job?

Napolitano: I want to tell them to buckle up. It’s a big, complicated job with a very important institution that has lots of parts. I would tell them to begin by listening to and reaching out to the campuses and to the students, the faculty and the regents. And from there to reach out to communities, elected leaders, the legislature and to really invest some time in understanding where the university fits within California, the nation and the world. What are the stressors on the university? What are the opportunities for the university?

* To hear excerpts from Larry’s interview with President Napolitano, listen to EdSource’s podcast “This Week in California Education.”

Story originally published by EdSource.