Janet Napolitano had zero experience leading a college before she became president of the University of California last year.
Yet after just four months on the job, Ms. Napolitano, 56, has outlined major goals for the system, including a reconsideration of tuition policies, improving cooperation with the other two higher-education systems in the state, ensuring the prominent role of research and graduate education, and making the campuses carbon-neutral by 2025.
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None of her goals are unusual in higher education, but they would be challenging even if Ms. Napolitano had spent her entire career on a college campus.
That deficit on her résumé has not been a serious impediment so far, however, and may even be an asset, observers say, as she seeks to lead the system past the fiscal, operational, and political challenges it has faced since the recession
Robert D. Samuels, president of the University-Council American Federation of Teachers, the union that represents the system’s faculty members, said it was no accident that Ms. Napolitano was hired right after the federal budget cuts forced by sequestration,
"She does have a close connection with the federal government and is a high-profile person who can deal with the governor," he said.
Ms. Napolitano, too, said she was relying on the breadth of her political skills and connections in securing support for the system, both in California and in Washington.
"I have a lot of experience managing large public institutions," she said, "they all involve politics in some way or another; it’s not as if higher education is divorced from that."
Ms. Napolitano is one of several high-profile politicians who have been hired to manage universities in recent years. Most recently, in 2012, Mitchell E. Daniels, Indiana’s former Republican governor, was chosen to lead Purdue University.
But with all the problems facing California’s public colleges, the question for many has been why a newcomer to higher education like Ms. Napolitano should be at the helm of what is arguably the most prestigious university system in the country. Six of its colleges are members of the Association of American Universities, a select group of 62 public and private research institutions in North America.
What Ms. Napolitano brings to the job is a long history of political and public service, often navigating through controversy and partisan rancor.
Her introduction to the rough and tumble of politics came in 1991, when she represented the lawyer Anita Hill, who had privately leveled charges of sexual harassment against her former employer, Clarence Thomas, when he was a Supreme Court nominee. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Ms. Napolitano as U.S. attorney for Arizona. She won an election as attorney general of the state in 1998 and was elected governor by a razor-thin margin in 2002, in a state usually controlled by the Republicans. Four years later, she cruised to re-election with a wide vote margin and high public-approval ratings.
Despite vetoing a record number of bills from the Republican-controlled Legislature, she appealed to voters as a pragmatic moderate.
In 2009 she became the first woman to lead the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and served there longer than any of her predecessors have. She is also the first female president of the University of California system.
In addition to her work with public colleges as Arizona’s governor, Ms. Napolitano said, her strengths are her experience managing complex organizations. The Department of Homeland Security, for instance, has some 240,000 employees, and a budget of nearly $40-billion.
Ms. Napolitano’s supporters are also counting on her to provide the political backbone to fend off intrusion from the state and federal government while restoring the university system’s reputation.
Bruce D. Varner, chair of the University of California Board of Regents, said what impressed the committee that recommended hiring Ms. Napolitano was "her ability to deal with the bureaucracy and the government: How do you get the right support from the government?"
The new president "stands up to lawmakers well," he added. "She’s really practical. She gets what makes sense and what doesn’t."
Mr. Samuels, leader of the faculty union, said he and other faculty members were initially skeptical of Ms. Napolitano’s appointment, fearing that she was unqualified to understand the needs of the scholarly community.
But after meeting her, he said, he and other faculty members have been "very impressed" with her openness and desire to restore the fiscal support of the state and federal governments.
In particular, many faculty members would like the new president to moderate efforts by Governor Jerry Brown and lawmakers to legislate university policy in ways the academics may oppose, such as enacting laws to require the institutions to offer credit for more online courses.
"She is skeptical about the savings from online courses," Mr. Samuels said.
Robert M. Shireman, who leads a group promoting major changes in higher education in California, said Ms. Napolitano brings "an ability to think big-picture about what California needs, not just the University of California."
"She is forced to think that way because she’s not an academic," said Mr. Shireman, who served as an official in the U.S. Department of Education in 2009 and 2010.
"Her biggest challenge will be to "balance the hopes of the campuses with the demands of the governor." he said. "She will be successful if she can have some give and take on both ends."
Ms. Napolitano has already shown a willingness to oppose her former boss, President Obama, who has proposed a national ratings system for colleges.
The problem with the president’s initial proposal was that it included reporting the earnings of graduates, Ms. Napolitano said, noting that the California system graduates lots of students who go into valuable but low-paying jobs like teaching or public service.
As Ms. Napolitano heads into her first state-budget cycle as president, her top priority is to stabilize the system’s finances after years of deep cuts in state appropriations and federal research dollars.
State appropriations for the campuses were slashed by a billion dollars, about 25 percent, while resident undergraduate tuition more than doubled from 2008 to 2012.
Governor Brown has called for a 5-percent increase in state money for the system. But even if the Legislature approves that amount, the university system will be receiving 14-percent less state money than it got in the 2008 fiscal year.
Lawmakers need to do much more to meet the system’s infrastructure needs and future enrollment growth, Ms. Napolitano said, especially as a high number of low-income and first-generation college students require postsecondary education to fill the state’s work-force needs.
In addition, the system cannot agree to freeze tuition indefinitely, as it has done for two years, Ms. Napolitano said.
"The discussion with Sacramento needs not to be about a freeze, as it were, or holding things steady, but what is a logical increase?" she asked. "And what does that mean for the long haul?"
That discussion begins, she said, by making sure that politicians and the public understand the universities’ economic benefits to the state.
"There's no engine of social mobility like the University of California," Ms. Napolitano said, rattling off figures about the 42 percent of students who are eligible for Pell Grants, and the below-average amount of debt—less than $20,000—of the system’s graduates, compared with the national average of nearly $30,000.
That conversation may be more difficult when it comes to negotiating with the governor and lawmakers for more money, but Ms. Napolitano has been in a similar situation. "You have to have an understanding with state elected leaders about the value and what growth there should be in the budget," she said.
"Research universities are not supplicants; they are investments."