Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ended her week with the announcement that she's leaving that federal post to become the first female president of the University of California. There's already been a lot of discussion about whether she's the right choice, so guest host Craig Miller talked with two people, one inside and one outside Napolitano's nomination: Robert Powell, chair of the UC Academic Senate and David Plank, a Stanford professor and executive director of PACE, an education policy think tank funded by foundations.
CRAIG MILLER: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ended her week with the announcement that she's leaving that federal post to become the first female president of the University of California. There's already been a lot of discussion about whether she's the right choice, so we thought we'd turn to someone who was actually in on the hire. Robert Powell chairs the UC Academic Senate--that's a faculty advisory group -- and was on the selection committee. I understand there were more than 300 candidates considered for this post. What was it about this one that rose to the top?
ROBERT POWELL: Janet Napolitano has demonstrated leadership abilities in very complex organizations and under a lot of duress within those organizations and she's shown that she can really lead them and she's also demonstrated when she was governor of Arizona that she strongly supported public higher education. It’s all of these traits that I think come together. As you know, University of California, public higher education in California has had a difficult time over the last several years and it’s with the passing of Proposition 30 and Governor Brown and the legislature looking afresh at public higher education and offering us a much more positive future that I think she'll be coming into a really good situation.
MILLER: How specifically do you think that her national profile will be helpful?
POWELL: One is right now, one of the big threats for research in the University of California is the federal sequester. I mean this is one of example of many of the challenges.
MILLER: The budget cuts
POWELL: The budget cuts exactly. And she's someone who can build coalitions with other college presidents, college chancellors across the United States and go to Washington and make an effective case to whatever cuts need to be made, that they're made strategically.
MILLER: As you've alluded, she is inheriting what many would consider a sick patient or a patient that has been sick…maybe is starting to recover. Tuition has tripled in the last 10 years in the UC system; there've been public squabbles over compensation packages for administrators and faculty, class sizes increasing. What should be her first priority?
POWELL: I think she needs to have 30 days or 60 days, where she really goes on what you might consider a listening tour so she can start setting up her own set of priorities. She’s going to have to deal with the budget in the fall. We usually bring a budget to the regents in November so that’s going to be the first manifestation of where her strategic thinking is heading.
MILLER: President Obama and Senator Feinstein and others have cited her participation in forming immigration policy at the national level as a key player. Can she still be a factor in immigration policy in this new position and how do you think she’ll handle UC’s already established position on undocumented students?
POWELL: Well she’s embraced this and in the discussions I’ve already had with her she totally embraced the California Dream Act. There are all kinds of issues that the university faces regarding immigration and she can be a strong spokesperson, but I think she’ll embrace all of our policies related to that and she may push us to even find new policies that could make us even more welcoming and ensure that the people who live in the state of California get educated at the University of California.
MILLER: Robert Powell is chairman of the UC Academic Senate, and guided the hiring process for the University's incoming president, Janet Napolitano.
That's the insider view. For an outside perspective, we also spoke with David Plank, a Stanford professor and executive director of PACE, a policy think tank funded by foundations. I asked him for his take on the nomination.
DAVID PLANK: I think it’s an interesting take for two reasons: I think it’s an interesting acknowledgement by UC that their main problem is political. And they’ve hired someone who has a lot of experience dealing with governors, with legislators, with Congress and I think that’s what new president Napolitano is going to have to do to really bring about improvement in the UC system. The second reason it’s an interesting choice is that she’s a person that does not come out of a higher education background. She has not worked in universities. She has not been a faculty member. She comes to the university with fresh eyes.
MILLER: Fresh eyes on what are really quite a wide range of problems and challenges in the UC system, they’ve been well documented over the last several years, and so what should be her first priority?
PLANK: Priority one has to be the financial problem. Priority one has to be addressing the ongoing fiscal hemorrhage that UC has been facing. It’s not going to be sufficient to go to Sacramento and ask for more money. The share of state support for UC has been declining steadily for the past 40 years so she really is going to have to think differently about how to generate the kinds of financial support that are necessary to keep the UC system great.
MILLER: The appointment of Janet Napolitano is not quite a "done deal." It needs to go to UC Regents for formal approval. That vote is scheduled for July 18.