California's constitution provides that the University of California shall be kept free of all political influence. That clause should have made the Regents think twice before nominating a nationally prominent political figure such as Janet Napolitano for appointment as the new President of UC. All the more so when many polls show that the California public is much concerned about the politicization of UC classrooms. But instead of carefully assessing the dangers of a political appointee, the Regents' search committee has stumbled thoughtlessly into a minefield, and is now on the point of bringing disaster to the University.
It's not that it's impossible to find a prominent political figure that could inspire confidence in his or her ability to lead a great university. Suppose, for example, that the search committee had chosen Leon Panetta. Panetta is certainly a committed Democrat, but he is also widely respected in both parties as a man of great ability and unimpeachable integrity. His cabinet confirmation vote was a perfect 100 to 0. Nobody on either side of the aisle would doubt that a Panetta would be a highly competent and fair-minded leader of UC.
Unfortunately, Janet Napolitano is a completely different case. To make a successful transition from party politician to president of an institution that must be aloof from politics, she would have to enjoy the respect of both sides of the political spectrum. The simple fact is that she does not, and it's not even a close call. Some (but by no means all) Democrats respect her, but virtually all Republicans have a low opinion of Napolitano. It doesn't matter whether the one side or the other has the better case. What matters is that she cannot command respect beyond her own circle because she is seen as a narrowly partisan figure, and a polarizing one.
Napolitano's competence has been questioned consistently throughout her tenure as a cabinet secretary. She has a habit of making statements that have struck a great many people as foolish, and these verbal gaffes are particularly unfortunate when she is being nominated to head an institution in which intellectual excellence is central to the mission. She is hardly a shining example of that.
Napolitano's record as administrator has been just as questionable. In 2012 James Hayes filed a lawsuit against Napolitano which portrayed her office as one in uproar because of her habit of hiring her long time female cronies over more knowledgeable and better qualified people, and then not properly supervising them. What is most unfortunate about that part of her record is that it sounds far too like the well-publicized scandals in UC's recent past that it should be trying to put behind it.
There is nothing in Napolitano's record that would make up for these handicaps. She has no experience of working in, still less managing, institutions of higher education -- unlike many other senior political figures, Panetta again being an example.
Instead of looking for new leadership chosen specifically to solve the most serious of its problems, UC seems with this appointment to be simply doubling down on them. What the Regents' committee seems unable to grasp is evidently well understood by the California public. The LA Times' own on-line poll is heavily (78 to 22) against Napolitano's appointment, and the three hundred plus on-line comments on the main Times article concerning the appointment are even more heavily against it. The Times readership can hardly be accused of slanting to the right. Is it fair to the public of this state to appoint as leader of its flagship university system someone with such overwhelming public opposition?
This nomination is a major blunder. The Regents have the constitutional responsibility to maintain both the University's excellence and its reputation. Napolitano's appointment would damage both. The full Board of Regents ought now to protect the University's reputation by sending this nomination back to the search committee with a resounding "no".
John M Ellis is Professor Emeritus of German Literature and former Dean of the Graduate Division at UC Santa Cruz