Capitol Alert

UC regents defend Janet Napolitano, blame media for ‘salacious’ coverage of state audit

University of California President Janet Napolitano listens to speakers at a UC Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco on Jan. 22, 2014.
University of California President Janet Napolitano listens to speakers at a UC Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco on Jan. 22, 2014. The Associated Press

The University of California’s governing board on Thursday defended President Janet Napolitano against a critical state audit of her office and media coverage that some members felt unfairly maligned her.

Discussion of the audit – which slammed UC’s central administration for building up a secret $175 million reserve that it used to fund presidential initiatives – quickly turned to praise for Napolitano, who has disputed the report’s findings but promised to implement 33 recommendations to improve the transparency of budgeting practices.

“I was delighted when I found out we had a chance to have Janet Napolitano as our president. I’m still delighted,” Regent Norm Pattiz said. “I think, frankly, you lucked out that the president agreed” to the recommendations.

Chair Monica Lozano stressed the importance of “actually changing the culture” that led to the problems identified in the audit, but several regents continued to push back on the conclusion that Napolitano’s office had ever withheld information about its spending from them or the public. Some complained that newspaper headlines about the report were “salacious.”

“Seeing how some in the press have characterized it as a slush fund or a secret fund hurt my heart,” Regent Bonnie Reiss said. Regent Sherry Lansing wanted to clear up “distortions” that Napolitano had done anything wrong: “Her leadership of UC has been incredible.”

The regents largely steered clear of Auditor Elaine Howle’s assertion that UC interfered in the audit process by consulting with campuses on surveys meant to independently assess the value of its administrative operations. The board voted last week to hire a third-party investigator who will report at its next meeting in July.

The Legislature, meanwhile, has been less supportive. In a hearing on the audit earlier this month, lawmakers said the were troubled by the allegations of interference with the audit. Napolitano apologized and said that her actions had been misinterpreted.

On Thursday, Howle emphasized that her report was not a critique of Napolitano or her policy priorities, but rather the lack of a clear university policy for establishing and spending reserves.

“This is not an audit of the president. This is an audit of a process,” Howle told the regents. “The Office of the President is not doing a good job.”

Napolitano said she was committed to not only meeting the auditor’s recommendations, but exceeding them: “Our opportunity now is to look forward and work together to provide a solid foundation for the future of the university.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff