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Napolitano’s nomination could ground UC’s political influence

See our full coverage of the UC presidential nominee.

By Kristen Taketa

July 12, 2013 9:32 p.m.

This article was updated at 1:45 a.m.

The University of California Board of Regents’ unusual nomination of a career politician to the position of UC president comes amid increased state intervention in UC funding and educational policy in recent years.

The UC Special Committee to Consider the Selection of a President announced its nomination of Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano early today. Napolitano’s background deviates from that of the typical UC president, most of whom have been university administrators or teachers.

Sherry Lansing, chair of the special committee, said in a statement Friday that though Napolitano is an “unconventional” choice, Napolitano has advocated for public education in the past as an Arizona governor. Lansing also said that Napolitano has used her position as Secretary of Homeland Security to advocate for the federal DREAM Act, which would protect undocumented students from deportation.

“It is no coincidence that those who know her best say that a passion for education is in her DNA,” Lansing said.

Napolitano’s appointment indicates that the UC is prioritizing its relationship with state government, said Daniel Mitchell, a professor emeritus at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Napolitano’s experience working with state legislators as a former Arizona governor could help the UC better navigate its relations with Gov. Jerry Brown and California legislators, Mitchell added.

“It’s definitely an out of the box selection,” said Cinthia Flores, UC student regent. “I think the University is developing a much more concrete understanding of its potential influence in the state legislature … and building of relationships with the capitol. So in that sense, I think (Napolitano) is going to be very effective.”

Recent state involvement with the UC has been relatively minimal before last year.

That changed when Gov. Jerry Brown introduced Proposition 30, a tax measure that would have slashed UC funding by $250 million if it failed at the polls in the November election. The state had already cut the UC’s funding by hundreds of millions in previous years.

After the measure passed, Brown came to a regents meeting for the first time during his term, where he told the UC to think of its own sustainable revenue solutions and criticized the UC for lagging on their development of online education. The UC Regents later added an online education item to their next meeting agenda.

In recent months, however, UC leadership and the state government have not always seen eye to eye.

For instance, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg aroused outcry from UC faculty and administrators when he proposed a measure that would have required the UC to collaborate with private online course providers to offer low-cost online courses.

In a budget proposal he submitted in May, Brown threatened to cut UC funding if the University did not meet certain performance standards such as graduation rates and enrollment rates of low-income students.

The search committee’s choice of Napolitano could mean that the regents wanted somebody who could better negotiate with state leaders and restore some of the independence from the state that the UC used to have, Mitchell said.

“(Napolitano) is somebody who’s shown incredible capacity to lead with organizations that are in the public realm,” said Robert Powell, chair of the UC Academic Senate. “(She) can speak to the governor and have blunt conversations about the University (and) trade-offs he needs to make.”

Powell said Napolitano could also use her influence to help ensure the safety of federal research money the UC receives, funds that have been threatened by funding cuts from recent federal sequestration.

If appointed by the regents next week, Napolitano’s appointment could also mean the UC president’s decisions would become more politicized and visible to the public, said Gregory Cendana, internal vice president of UCLA’s Undergraduate Students Association Council during the 2006-07 school year. He is the current executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.

“Decisions that are going to be made (would) have national implications, which is why I believe … the Board of Regents (should) really take into consideration her past,” Cendana said.

Cendana said he thinks Napolitano may receive more public scrutiny for her decisions because she is more well known than past presidents.

“A combination of all of those factors are going to create a very different environment moving forward,” he said.

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Kristen Taketa
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