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An Unlikely Choice in the Ivory Tower

Frances Dinkelspiel | September 3, 2013 | Story Politics

The day after Janet Napolitano was selected to lead the University of California as its 20th president, the academic advisory committee that vetted her application finally got to talk to her at length. Over a lunch of salmon, rice, and grilled vegetables at the Office of the President in Oakland, the professors questioned the former secretary of homeland security and two-term governor of Arizona about her priorities for and perceptions of the university. They left impressed.

“She’s a great person,” says Bob Powell, a UC Davis professor who chairs the committee. “She’s easy to talk to, she’s incredibly attentive, and…she’s starting to learn what the big questions are. She doesn’t have answers, but she is making notes and she is learning.”

It’ll help that Napolitano already knows where her bread is buttered. To get the job, she had to earn the backing of the person who’s arguably most important to the university’s future: Governor Jerry Brown. According to sources familiar with the process, Brown didn’t push for Napolitano initially, but he sat in on many of the search committee meetings, even attending Saturday sessions. And, like the rest of UC’s overseers, he came around to the idea of hiring a blue-chip politician—with all the baggage that the label confers.

That’s not to say that Napolitano was anything other than an unorthodox selection. She doesn’t have a list of scholarly articles to her name or a background as a professor—the usual criteria for a leader of one of the world’s top university systems. Instead, she’s steeped in the cultures of law and government— systems that don’t exactly mirror the openness and debate valued in academia.

“She has no background at all in academic administration,” says Abraham Wagner, a professor at UCLA School of Law. “In terms of administrating something as large and complex as a state university system, I can’t see that she has the necessary credentials.”

Napolitano’s hiring may be a sign that the regents believe they can no longer afford those priorities. In the past four years, the state has cut support to UC so much that it received the same absolute level of funding in 2011–2012 as it had in 1997–1998—despite an influx of 73,000 new students. November’s passage of Proposition 30 will funnel billions to education, but fundamental questions about the state’s commitment to funding its public universities remain unresolved.

In other words, Napolitano has a Cabinet-size challenge on her hands—and the regents are banking on the idea that she’s uniquely equipped to meet it. Her hiring means that for the first time in recent memory, a politician will be occupying what is increasingly a political job—one that has become less about curricula and student life and more about wrangling with the legislature, managing a vast bureaucracy, and earning the respect and partnership of Brown.

“That’s where somebody like Janet Napolitano can play a really critical role,” says Powell. “She understands the politics of this better than most people, coming straight in. She and the governor can have very blunt discussions about how we will go forward in the future.”

Bonnie Reiss, who has been a regent for five years, also values Napolitano’s political chops, among other attributes. “All of her skill sets, her law background, being governor of Arizona, heading homeland security—on the checklist of managing complex organizations, a 10,” she says. “On being brilliant, a 10. Everyone we talked to said she was the quickest study they ever saw.”

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Napolitano will be successful. But the stakes are so high that even her detractors wish her well. “There is no magic bullet,” says Wagner. “Maybe she’ll surprise everybody and will be fabulous.”

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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