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Editorial: Janet Napolitano offers narrow, political agenda in first major speech

University of California’s newest president, Janet Napolitano, in her first major speech to Californians had the opportunity to show, in the words of the search committee that selected her, that she could bring “fresh eyes and a new sensibility – not only to UC, but to all of California.”

She fell far short.

With no record as a scholar or in campus administration, she had to show that she would bring more than her background as a politician and political appointee to the job.

But in her first major speech, delivered on Wednesday to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, she sounded like she was trying inoculate herself against protests of her tenure at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, rather than offer a principled, thoughtful vision of the future of the University of California.

This was a missed opportunity.

In the first part of the speech, she staked her out role as a high-level bureaucrat. She explained that she has run “large, complex institutions” and is spending her time learning the UC budget, “the most direct road map to what truly matters to an organization,” and launching an “efficiency review” of the 1,500-person Office of the President. She is visiting the 10 campuses. This is necessary work for a newcomer to academia and to California, but it is hardly inspiring.

More than 1,500 words into the speech, Napolitano backed into the issue of student and faculty diversity. This could have been a strong, original statement coming from the leader of one of the nation’s leading public university systems on the importance of increasing the variety of life experiences and perspectives on campus to enhance the academic mission and “opportunity society” of the future.

Instead, the former Arizona governor made general statements about the UC as a vehicle for social advancement and then announced new money for three diversity programs.

She will put $5 million toward services for 900 UC students brought to the United States illegally by their parents. She referred to them as a “subset” of first-generation college students “that deserves special mention.” That’s her first big initiative as president of the University of California in a system of 239,000 students.

Let us be clear. The editorial board of The Sacramento Bee long has supported giving legal status to children who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents, so-called DREAM Act kids, and we still do. It remains important for the nation to resolve their status. But why is this Napolitano’s first priority in her first major speech as president of the University of California?

Then 2,700 words into the speech, Napolitano announced that she would put $5 million toward expanding a postdoctoral fellowship program that currently serves about 15 women and minority Ph.D. recipients a year with the aim of diversifying the UC faculty pipeline. This is important, certainly, but among the first priorities of the new president?

Napolitano said she would put $5 million toward recruiting the “world's best graduate students” to UC campuses. International graduate students are an important talent pool for research and innovation and our post-9/11 visa system and large out-of-state tuition expenses can be difficult for these students.

But why focus on “subsets” of the university community in this first major address? What is Napolitano’s vision for access and affordability for all qualified California students, not just small subsets? What is her vision of the 10-campus system?

Napolitano said that in two weeks, she would bring “big ideas” to the UC regents for their consideration. We look forward to that. We hope Napolitano has more to offer at the regents meetings Nov. 12-14 than she did in the Commonwealth Club address.