UC president’s first speech shows doubts about her were warranted

UC president’s first speech shows doubts about her were warranted

Janet-NapolitanoIn July, when the University of California Board of Regents announced the selection of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as the new UC system president, regents could not have been more pleased with themselves. They wanted a high-profile president and so they thought they hit a home run.

But high-profile doesn’t mean appropriate or qualified. Being a president of a university system is a uniquely challenging job. I thought the selection made little sense from day one.

“Why Napolitano?

“She has no past connections to UC. She is a lawyer without a background in academia or any history as a scholar. She is not a superstar fundraiser, as university presidents are increasingly expected to be.

“And if Napolitano was chosen for her supposed skills as a manager, we wonder what that view is based on. Homeland Security is not remotely considered a well-run agency. It was stitched together from more than 20 existing agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has been decried for years as bloated, clunky and secretive by a bipartisan array of critics. In December, it was labeled the worst large agency to work for in the federal government after a comprehensive independent survey.

“Homeland Security needed a reformer. So does UC as it deals with budget headaches, unfunded retirement liabilities and the threat/opportunity posed by the rise of online education.”

‘Thoughtful’? Nope. That’s not in her skill set

ucOn Wednesday, Napolitano gave her first major speech, at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, and the Sacramento Bee editorial writer who covered it could scarcely have been more disappointed.

“With no record as a scholar or in campus administration, she had to show that she would bring more than her background as a politician and political appointee to the job. … [But] she sounded like she was trying inoculate herself against protests of her tenure at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, rather than offer a principled, thoughtful vision of the future of the University of California. …

“More than 1,500 words into the speech, Napolitano backed into the issue of student and faculty diversity. This could have been a strong, original statement coming from the leader of one of the nation’s leading public university systems on the importance of increasing the variety of life experiences and perspectives on campus to enhance the academic mission and ‘opportunity society’ of the future.

“Instead, the former Arizona governor made general statements about the UC as a vehicle for social advancement and then announced new money for three diversity programs. …

“But why focus on ‘subsets’ of the university community in this first major address? What is Napolitano’s vision for access and affordability for all qualified California students, not just small subsets? What is her vision of the 10-campus system?”

Why even expect her to have a ‘vision’ of UC?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes Napolitano has a “vision” of what she wants UC to be. She wasn’t a visionary U.S. attorney, Arizona governor or Homeland Security czar. Why would she be a visionary when it comes to handling a uniquely demanding job with a huge number of moving parts?

Some politicians may be suited to being university presidents, where they can act as fundraisers and as salesmen for the university brand. But few are suited to be university system presidents. It’s a different and much more demanding job.

If Daniel Patrick Moynihan could be brought back to life, I think he’d be suitable. But not the Napolitanos of the political world.

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