In her first major public speech as president of the University of California, Janet Napolitano unveiled a $15 million investment to be allocated to several student communities, but presented few specifics on where that money would go and few details of her plans for the UC’s future.
While the majority of Wednesday’s speech touted the demographic and academic diversity of the UC and its storied history in the state’s development, Napolitano came short of outlining a specific vision for the direction of the UC under her leadership.
The most concrete element of the speech was Napolitano’s multimillion-dollar venture, which will aim $5 million at graduate student recruitment, another $5 million to create a fellowship program for postdoctoral fellows and the final third of the pot for support programs serving undocumented students.
All are important causes, but details of where the money will come from, where it will go and how it will translate to better graduate student recruitment or improved retention for the UC’s undocumented student population remain hazy.
At the UC Board of Regents’ meeting next week, where Napolitano said she plans to bring “some big ideas,” the new president must outline a more thorough vision for these funds.
Napolitano’s connections and political know-how were among the qualities University leadership banked on with her appointment. This choice comes at a good time – after years of budget cuts, state leaders have made steps to rebuild a system that suffered immensely during the Great Recession.
It is incumbent on Napolitano to highlight her ability to collaborate with state leaders when the regents convene.
At Wednesday’s event, Napolitano spoke of the collaboration between former UC President Clark Kerr and then-Governor Pat Brown in creating the landmark 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education.
Kerr and Brown’s work on the state’s three-tier higher education system helped shape California’s trajectory for the next 50 years, and as Napolitano said, “led to a revitalized version of the California dream.”
Today, tectonic shifts are underway in California’s political and social life, mirrored and shaped by the direction of the UC system as well as the lives of its students, faculty and staff.
The needs of the state have changed, as have the composition and mission of the University, but present in both Kerr’s and now Napolitano’s tenure as president is the need for strong leadership able to make the case for a supportive and invested partnership between University and state leadership.
Like Kerr, Napolitano appears to have a partner in the governor’s office. Gov. Jerry Brown, whose voter-approved tax increase in 2012 prevented further cuts to the UC’s budget and reinvested millions from the state’s general fund, has acted as a major backer of the UC’s transition to more stable fiscal waters and a promising future in the 21st century.
Napolitano’s “big ideas” must reflect an ability to continue pulling the UC from the fiscal trough and a more specific plan for her $15 million plan for student communities.