Viewpoints: What was behind Napolitano's nomination?

Published: Friday, Jul. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A
Last Modified: Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013 - 6:26 pm

Here are two ways to ponder the surprise choice of Janet Napolitano as the new president of the University of California system.

First, give the UC's Board of Regents credit for setting off both extremes of the political spectrum with the flick of a press release. For liberals, the issue is the job Napolitano leaves behind in Washington – head of the federal Department of Homeland Security, a.k.a. "Big Sis" – and all it embodies to those who believe that the mega-agency is an affront to civil liberties. Conservatives will never forgive Napolitano for turning the word "terrorism" into PC mush – as she put it, a "manmade" threat.

Second, credit the regents with bringing Berkeley and California up to speed with America's other great public universities. The University of Michigan and the University of Virginia both have women at the helm. At last, touch-feely Cal can boast that it, too, believes that ivory towers and glass ceilings are incompatible.

Personally, I'm more curious as to what's behind door No. 3. And that would be the regents' decision to choose, from a pool of a reported 300-or-so candidates, a prospect with precious few California ties – other than attending Santa Clara University. She isn't an academician, though her father was a medical school dean, and I'm guessing she hasn't whiled away the hours at Homeland Security doodling big thoughts about what comes next for higher education in the Golden State.

Then again, maybe UC's regents are smarter than we cynics give them credit for and they recognize a hard truth: Though we talk about California as an uber-imaginative nation-state, the reality is we're not led by dreamers or visionaries and rabble-rousers. It's true of the political class – and please don't cite Gov. Jerry Brown's water tunnel plan, as it was first trotted out three decades ago.

Napolitano, should she try to fashion herself at UC as more an administrator and fund manager than rebel who wants to tear down ivied walls, would be a bookend to the image Brown has crafted in the state Capitol: sober, not scintillating management.

Curiously, a lack of an agenda as she enters the new job might work to Napolitano's short-term benefit in that for now it's politically wise for her to avoid being a bull in UC's china shop – in Berkeley, that would be a lit match in a hemp store. Just ask Teresa Sullivan, the University of Virginia's president since 2010 – and before that, provost at Michigan. Sullivan's forte is crunching budget numbers. At Virginia, she had the nerve to start questioning the school's academic priorities, the result being peeved ideologically opposed donors, a board of governors that tried to kick her off a campus, an angry student body that protested against her ouster – and plenty of egg on the face of Mr. Jefferson's university.

Napolitano, like Sullivan, comes to UC as an outsider – a politician unschooled in the way of university politics. If she pushes hard for reform, good luck with academics whose over-inflated sense of entitlement would make even members of Congress blush. If, like Sullivan, she wants to talk fiscal reality, good luck with an institution still licking its wounds over the past several years of financial restrictions – to say nothing of those still stuck in the bygone era of former governor Pat Brown and free education.

The shame of the situation is the time couldn't be better for UC and its 10 campuses to reassess their mission as a provider of an affordable and world-class higher education. Is the UC system fully living up to its responsibility as a feeder to California's global economy? Is it time to revisit – and possibly revamp and rewrite – a master plan instituted in 1960 (the heyday of Don Draper) and only a year after William Draper founded California's first venture capital firm.

You likely won't hear such tough talk coming out of Napolitano – not until she's figured what threat level she represents to UC's order. Sadly, you probably won't hear it in next year's gubernatorial election, which will probably skirt an in-depth discussion of the future of California higher education.

A final thought: as important as this decision is, how sad that it's veiled in much secrecy and put to a rushed vote before we know where Napolitano stands on a host of contentious issues: affirmative action, the "toilet bowl" of a new logo, strains between Jewish and Muslim undergrads over the nomination of the first practicing Muslim to sit on the Board of Regents

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. We also don't know if Brown championed Napolitano's cause and pressed the regents – the guess here his interest is more than casual, as then-UC President Clark Kerr's inability to control the Free Speech Movement was a contributing factor to Pat Brown's defeat in 1966. Or, was this more the regents' idea than the governor's? If so, is that a window into the alpha-dog politics of the UC system?

Who else was on the regents' not-so-short list? Could it have been someone with a résumé similar to Napolitano's but who is in a different league of her own – Hillary Rodham Clinton?

What about another former secretary of state who, in addition to being a Californian and just across the bay from Berkeley, was a university provost in a past life? The thought of Condoleezza Rice trading in her Stanford cardinal red for Berkeley blue and gold is far-fetched. Far be it from UC's regents to do something that suggests dramatic change is on the way.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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