Will Janet Napolitano Be a Good University President?By Richard Winchester
Janet Napolitano has announced she will resign as Secretary of Homeland Security to become president of the University of California system. Napolitano, who has been Secretary of Homeland Security since 2009, will leave the position in late August or early September.
There are many aspects of her departure; each will be thoroughly aired. I focus on Napolitano's shift from politics to academe. There are interesting implications of her move.
Consider, first, Napolitano's educational background. A daughter of the dean of the New Mexico School of Medicine, Napolitano attended Santa Clara University, a private Jesuit institution of higher education in California's Silicon Valley. The university's first woman valedictorian in 1977, she spent one term in 1978 at the London School of Economics on an exchange program with Santa Clara. She went to law school at the University of Virginia, and received a Juris Doctor before becoming a clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She then entered law practice in Phoenix, Arizona.
She was Anita Hill's attorney during the controversy over Clarence Thomas' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. In 1993, Bill Clinton appointed her to be U.S. Attorney in the District of Arizona. The next twenty years saw her hold several political offices, including Arizona's Attorney General, a two-term governor of that state, and, since 2009, Secretary of Homeland Security.
Other than being the daughter of a medical school dean, Napolitano has no experience in academe.
Permit a sidebar on the University of California System, which has ten campuses. The first, at Berkeley, is 145 years old. The newest, at Merced, opened in 2005. The U. Cal. System enrolls 234,464 students, employs 18,896 faculty and 189,116 staff. The system has over 1.6 million living alumnae/alumni, and around 50,000 retirees. Its annual budget is around $25 billion.
If confirmed by the Board of Regents, Napolitano will be the system's 20th president and the first woman. Hers is a non-traditional appointment.
Her predecessor, for example, Mark G. Yudof, has been a much more traditional university president. He is a law professor, and a university administrator for almost a quarter of a century. He rose from assistant professor in 1971 to a series of senior administrative posts at the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota.
There are two aspects of Napolitano's appointment that raise questions. First, given her experience, which has been entirely in politics, can she adjust to a very different world, academia? The second concern centers on her partisan, and especially, ideological, proclivities.
As someone with nearly 40 years' experience in academe, most of that spent at what used to be called a "Carnegie Research I" institution, I think I have a pretty good idea of the opportunities and pressures facing any university administrator. A family member is also a career academic and presently a university administrator.
In recent years, the pool of those willing to be a top academic administrator has shrunk, and search firms and/or search committees have increasingly had to look outside academe for new blood. Presidential search consultants say the most successful academic presidents who came in via nontraditional routes are those who have Ph.D.s and some experience in academe.
Just because an individual has spent a lifetime in academe, however, and been president of more than one major university for many years does not guarantee he/she will always make wise decisions. Gordon Gee's fate, who recently resigned as Ohio State University's president after slurring Roman Catholics, illustrates this.
Nevertheless, the track record of individuals who move from the world of politics to academe is mixed. Think of Lawrence Summers, who had to resign from Harvard's presidency in 2006 after offending African-American Studies Professor Cornell West and later angering feminists. (Perhaps the best characterization of Summers' problem is that he suffered a terminal case of "foot-in-mouth" disease.) Summers, by the way, has a Ph.D. from Harvard (of course!) in Economics, and spent nearly a decade as a professor at Harvard (where else?) before going, first to the World Bank, and later to work for Bill Clinton.
Over the years, we've seen several examples of individuals brought in from outside academe -- sometimes from business, sometimes from politics, other times from the military -- to become university presidents. Some, such as David Boren of the University of Oklahoma, have made good academic presidents. Many, however, have come a cropper. This includes Dwight Eisenhower, who had a checkered experience as president of Columbia University between 1948 and 1950.
Anyone becoming president of a major university faces daunting problems and several disparate, and often conflicting, constituencies. In addition to financial shortfalls, which have been very well advertised, the winds of change are blowing through institutions of higher education -- often at gale force.
A university president has to be, above all, proficient at raising lots 'n lots of money. Even publicly-funded universities, which have been facing reduced financial support from state governments, expect their president to "bring home the bacon." In states like California, which are chronically short of dough, a new president will have to bear a major burden of fundraising.
Universities have large bureaucratic entities -- such as foundations -- charged almost entirely with raising money. But a university president has to be deeply involved in working with donors... or else.
Napolitano will also have to be a good administrator, overseeing a very large and complex bureaucratic entity. Here, her track record at Homeland Security may foretell problems. For example, she leaves the department when at least a third of top administrative offices are either unfilled or occupied by "temporary" heads.
Napolitano will also have to establish -- and do so fairly quickly -- a reputation as an academic leader. Not being a career academic will put her at a severe disadvantage when she attempts to oversee a large and fractious faculty. She can get help from strong academic vice-presidents, but their help can go only so far. (I predict that, if Napolitano fares poorly at U. Cal., failure to convince the faculty that she has solid academic values will prove her undoing.)
Now we come to Napolitano's partisan, and especially her ideological, leanings, which could also trip her up.
Her "shoot-from-the-hip" tendencies -- as illustrated by the Homeland Security Department's memo on "rightwing [sic] extremists" of April, 2009, her claim that "the system worked" when the underwear bomber failed to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight #253 over Detroit in December, 2009, and her knee-jerk Leftist advocacy of amnesty/a-path-to-citizenship for illegal aliens -- bode ill for someone who will have to cope with the diversity of pressures a large university president will be expected to finesse.
The most successful university presidents these days are those men and women who can keep their partisan and ideological proclivities from clouding their judgment.
In the short run, Napolitano may be just what the U. Cal. System's "powers-that-be" want. Over the long run, however, she may prove a liability.
I'm betting on the latter.
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