Janet Napolitano has announced she will be stepping down from her position as President of the University of California (UC). She was the 20th individual to occupy the position and the first woman to lead the 10-campus system.
In a statement in September, Napolitano referred to her time at UC as “deeply gratifying and rewarding. The decision was tough — and this moment, bittersweet — but the time is right.”
“I think the university will benefit from some fresh blood,” she added.
Following a one year sabbatical, Napolitano, 61, plans to teach at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy in the fall of 2021.
Prior to her appointment at UC, Napolitano served as the governor of Arizona from 2003 to 2009. Then she worked as secretary for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during the Obama administration between 2009 and 2013.
During her time as UC President, Napolitano increased enrollment by more than 17,500 students above planned enrollment since 2015, pioneered an effort to assist first-generation college students by matching them with first-generation faculty members, and was named Green Power Leader of the Year by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2018.
A month after becoming president in 2013, Napolitano announced that she would be dedicating $5 million in university funds to aid students who were illegal immigrants and didn’t qualify for federal financial aid. In January of 2015, she helped UC become one of the first universities in the country to offer free legal services for undocumented students.
In 2017, Napolitano spearheaded UC’s lawsuit against the DHS challenging an attempt to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which according to the suit, “protected from deportation nearly 800,000 individuals brought to this country as children.”
DACA was a program formally initiated by Napolitano as secretary of Homeland Security on June 15, 2012 to permit certain people who came to the United States as juveniles to request deferred immigration action.
“I recognize that it is unusual for a former Cabinet official to sue the agency she once led,” she said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “It may be even more unusual to challenge as unconstitutional, unjust and unlawful the elimination of a program originally established by the plaintiff — me — in this litigation.”
“President Napolitano has championed increasing the number of community college students who transfer to the University of California and channeled her role in immigration policy under the Obama administration to become a national leader for DACA students in higher education,” California Community Colleges Chancellor and UC Regent Eloy Ortiz Oakley said in a statement following Napolitano’s retirement announcement. “Her leadership and support for DACA students have significantly improved the lives of immigrant students in the California Community Colleges and for this work I will forever be grateful.”
UC Regent Sherry Lansing, head of health services committee, told the Los Angeles Times that Napolitano led the university with “great integrity, vision, and fairness,” praising the president as “someone from the outside [who brought] a fresh look.” Lansing added that Napolitano’s resignation was “an extraordinary loss” for UC.
While Napolitano’s track record include a number of accomplishments, her tenure at UC has been criticized, and at times characterized as somewhat rocky.
A state audit in 2016 reported that out-of-state students who applied to UC held an advantage over California students due to lowered admission standards. The audit advocated for stricter entrance requirements, an enrollment cap, and suggested implementing an emphasis on recruiting California students of color.
For her part, Napolitano declared that the findings of the report were “disappointingly pre-baked…unfair and unwarranted,” according to the Los Angeles Times, before suggesting that tuition costs for out-of-state students contributed $728 million to UC, which in turn allowed the university to admit more Californians despite budget cuts necessitated by the 2008 recession.
Meanwhile, the specter of state audits continued to haunt Napolitano.
In 2017, her office came under fire by a new audit that concluded that UC administration failed to disclose $175 million in surplus funds and accused the university of misleading budget practices.
The report found that UC offered its executives salaries and benefits that were disproportionate to state employees who worked in a similar capacity.
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, one of the legislators who asked for the audit, called the findings “shocking” and “disappointing,” according to the Los Angeles Times, saying, “We’re jacking up tuition for middle-class families, we are squeezing access, and at the same time we are sitting on this $175-million suitcase.”
An investigation conducted by the UC Board of Regents found that top aides interfered with the state audit by analyzing responses on confidential questionnaires. However, it was never proven that Napolitano “was aware of [the aides’] conduct in purposeful and systematically targeting unfavorable responses,” according to the report.
Napolitano apologized and the regents continued to fully support her as the leader of UC.
Her resignation will be effective as of Aug. 1, 2020.