Commentary: How Will We Remember the Janet Napolitano Era at UC?

UC President Janet Napolitano

When Janet Napolitano was hired by the University of California, she was not noted as the first woman president of the top public college system in the world, but rather seemed a curious pick – she had no background in academia, she was best noted as a former prosecutor as well as governor of Arizona and, more ominously, as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration.

At the time, it seemed she was hired as a counterweight to the venerable Governor Jerry Brown, someone who could negotiate budget deals with the state legislature and governors and operate in the political realm.

Perhaps the oddest legacy was the role she played on immigration.  While with the Obama administration, she was responsible for carrying out deportation and other policies of the Obama administration.  As President of UC, however, she fought the Trump administration on these policies.

In 2017, she wrote in an op-ed, “As secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in 2012, I presided over a formal and vital change to our nation’s immigration enforcement priorities.”

She argued that under the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the Obama Administration urged young undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children to voluntarily undergo rigorous background and security checks in exchange for the renewable option to legally live, work, and study in the country they know as home.”

She added, “In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, nearly 800,000 Dreamers enrolled in the program, which has benefited not only these high achieving young people, but our nation as a whole.”

Ms. Napolitano added, “Now the future of DACA is in jeopardy. The Trump administration’s plan to end the program is illegal, unconstitutional, and anathema to our national ethos. It also defies common sense. I believed in the importance of DACA five years ago, and I will fight for it now.”

She also opposed the family separation policy.

“I don’t know how this could be justified either legally or morally,” said Ms. Napolitano.  “The notion that you’re going to somehow create a deterrent to illegal immigration through this kind of policy — we’ve seen this before, and it just doesn’t work. And it’s cruel.”

Now she has announced that she will be stepping down in 2020. Locally she will be remembered either positively or negatively for her policies on Linda Katehi, the former chancellor.  In 2011, before Ms. Napolitano became UC President, UC Davis made the error of pepper spraying student protesters.  Linda Katehi survived her mishandling of that, but in 2016 she could not survive a series of missteps that ultimately forced UC President Napolitano to first suspend and then terminate the chancellor.

The biggest black mark on Napolitano’s record is likely the 2017 audit by a state auditor who found that the president’s office set aside about $175 million in reserves without properly disclosing them to the UC Board of Regents.

Ms. Napolitano was directed to put policies in place by last April to limit reserves and demonstrate how the public university would return money to campuses, among other remedies.

More than a year later, the auditor struck back, arguing that the president still had not put this in place.

“We are still concerned about the lack of sufficient transparency related to fund balance amounts,” totaling $122 million for seven specific programs, in Napolitano’s budget for the current fiscal year, state Auditor Elaine Howle wrote in a report released in March that assessed UC’s progress as of October. “Perhaps of greater concern, the absence of sufficient reserve policies allows the office of the president to retain and maintain virtually an unlimited amount of fund balances and reserves.”

In her announcement, Ms. Napolitano, now 61, noted that she has stayed on for seven years, which is about average for public university leaders and the timing gives the university a full academic year to find a successor.

Figuring out her overall legacy is more tricky.  Clearly her fight against the president looms large, though it is hard to call that an achievement for UC in general.  For the most part, tuition remained flat – although at times she proposed tuition hikes and backed down.

For instance at times, under pressure to raise revenue, she instead triggered revolts among student and UC Regents alike.

In a commentary in EdSource that appeared this morning, Larry Gordon writes, “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.”

Overall it would appear that while most of what she did was reasonable, aside from perhaps the sloppy handling of the Katehi controversy and the UC audit, none of her legacy would be considered transformative.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Bill Marshall

    The purpose of this ‘commentary’?

    You cite positive things, “tweener” things, and a ‘bad’…

    She is stepping down… you’re into dancing on ‘graves’?  Are you saying she should have been ‘publically removed’?  Indicted?

    Weird topic….

    1. Craig Ross

      Seems like a pretty typical commentary on a major figure announcing retirement.  The good, bad, ugly.  Pretty balanced actually.  More balanced than I would be.

        1. Alan Miller

          … never thought she should have been appointed…

          Amen to that.  What I will remember about her is her fat salary.  Maybe now the governor can find another person to hand a political favor position to so they can retire ‘comfortably’.

        2. Bill Marshall

          Alan… put your hat in the ring (quasi-seriously, as there is no down-side… never hurts to ask)… might get you the ‘brass’  gold ring…

          Alan raises a good point, not just about salary, but also retirement benefits (pension & other post-retirement benefits)… shows the axiom is true… the Golden Rule… “them that have the gold, make the rules”… true for millenia…

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