Janet Napolitano, the U.S. secretary of homeland security, was nominated on Friday as the next president of the University of California, an unusual pick for a leader of the 10-campus system.
Ms. Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona, is expected to be formally approved for the job on Thursday, when the institution's Board of Regents is set to hold a special meeting. She would succeed Mark G. Yudof, who has already announced that he will step down in late August, after a five-year term.
Faculty leaders, regents, and others praised the choice of Ms. Napolitano. The homeland-security secretary, some say, will bring to one of the nation's most-prominent systems of public higher education an expertise in dealing with state and federal legislators.
"She understands the public and what motivates legislators," said Robert L. Powell, chairman of the University of California's systemwide Academic Senate and a faculty representative on the Board of Regents.
Throughout her career, Ms. Napolitano, a Democrat, has been a woman of firsts. Her appointment at the University of California would make her the first woman to lead the 145-year-old university system. She is also the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of homeland security, a post that was created after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and was the first female attorney general of Arizona, a position she held from 1999 to 2003.
Although she is a relative stranger to the University of California, Ms. Napolitano, 55, attended Santa Clara University, in California, where she was the institution's first female valedictorian. Her father, Leonard M. Napolitano, was dean of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.
"I recognize that I am a nontraditional candidate," Ms. Napolitano said in written remarks released by the university. "If appointed, I intend to reach out and listen to chancellors, to faculty, to students, to the state's political leaders, to regents, to the heads of the other public higher-education systems, and, of course, to President Yudof and his team."
The University of California declined to make Ms. Napolitano available for interviews until the regents have acted on her nomination.
Need to Make a Splash
Jamie P. Ferrare, managing principal of AGB Search, said it was important for the university system to make a splash with this hire.
"California is starting to come through this difficult time, and someone needs to put a positive turn on what they're doing," Mr. Ferrare said. "They are looking for that bump to say, 'We're still California.'"
Like her predecessor, Mr. Yudof, Ms. Napolitano has a law degree but no Ph.D. That may subject her to criticism from faculty members who hoped for a more traditional academic, Mr. Ferrare said. At the same time, Ms. Napolitano has a lot of experience working with politicians, which will be central to her new role.
"I don't know what her academic strength would be," Mr. Ferrare said. "It will be interesting."
Some faculty members at the University of California did express concern on Friday about Ms. Napolitano's lack of experience in academe.
"My main concern is that most of the UC regents have no background in education or experience in higher education," said Robert Samuels, a full-time lecturer in the writing department at the university's Santa Barbara campus and the president of the system's union of lecturers and librarians. "Now we have a president who basically has no experience teaching or running a higher-education institution either."
Ms. Napolitano's connections in the federal government will be an asset, Mr. Samuels added, but he is concerned that her lack of teaching experience may hold the university system back on several key fronts, particularly online education.
Ms. Napolitano's appointment, meanwhile, earned the praise of a number of Washington powerbrokers, including U.S. Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona. Ms. Napolitano has proved she can manage a "huge bureaucracy" like the California system, Senator McCain said, and she has a strong fund-raising track record as well.
"She ran statewide in Arizona for both attorney general and governor," Senator McCain said. "I'm sure she knows how to shake the trees."
Today the UC system includes more than 220,000 students and more than 170,000 faculty and staff members. The system also manages three U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories. The University of California had a $22.5-billion operating budget in 2011-12.
Senator McCain and Ms. Napolitano have clashed in the past. During U.S. Senate hearings in 2010, for example, the senator accused Ms. Napolitano of providing as homeland-security secretary an overly rosy assessment of the state of border security. "We've had our disagreements," he said, "but that's the nature of a relationship between Congress and the executive branch."
President Obama also spoke highly of Ms. Napolitano, saying in a written statement that she had "worked around the clock" as homeland-security secretary and praising her for strong leadership during natural disasters.
Ms. Napolitano, though, has also found herself at the center of several high-profile controversies during her time in Washington. Last year, for example, she was accused in a federal lawsuit of allowing discrimination against male staff members in the Department of Homeland Security. The suit asserted that Ms. Napolitano had contributed to a female-run "frat house" culture there. Department lawyers have denied the lawsuit's claims.
Throughout her career, Ms. Napolitano has been a vocal advocate of a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, a position some say will benefit her in California. She has spoken strongly in support of proposals that would provide a path to citizenship for people who are in the country illegally, including students who were brought to the United States by their parents at a young age.
"She's worked very hard to bring about more consensus and unity and support for immigration reform, and she hasn't always been in a position where it's been popular to do that," said Janet Murguía, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of La Raza.
Ms. Murguía, who came to know Ms. Napolitano when she served as attorney general of Arizona, said Ms. Napolitano would very likely face a backlash from some at California who may have wanted a president more steeped in academe. Ms. Murguía once served briefly as executive vice chancellor for university relations at the University of Kansas, despite coming from a similar nontraditional background.
"Higher education seems to have a very tight culture despite its vastness, and someone like Janet is going to have to do a lot of work to earn respect," Ms. Murguía said.
While her background is atypical of college leaders, Ms. Napolitano would not be the only former politician at the helm of an institution. Others include Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami who was secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton, and Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., president of Purdue University who was previously governor of Indiana.
Ms. Napolitano is not the first Obama cabinet member to leave political life for a university-leadership position this year. Rebecca M. Blank, a former acting secretary of commerce, was recommended in March as chancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Ms. Blank will begin serving as chancellor on July 15.
The University of California declined to comment on Ms. Napolitano's compensation until she is formally confirmed. Her predecessor, Mr. Yudof, earned $847,149 in the 2012 fiscal year, making him the eighth-highest-paid public-college president in the nation, and has come under fire during his tenure for his compensation.
Ms. Napolitano now earns an annual salary of about $200,000. She said in her statement on Friday that she was honored and excited by the prospect of serving as the University of California's president.
"In my experience," she said, "whether preparing to govern a state or to lead an agency as critical and complex as homeland security, I have found the best way to start is simply to listen."
Jack Stripling contributed to this article.