Analyzing Surprise Pick to Lead U. of California System

July 15, 2013

University of California regents appear to want to shake up the system with their choice of Janet Napolitano as the next system president, The Los Angeles Times reported. The university system -- unlike some others -- has not typically sought out non-academics for senior positions. Napolitano is currently secretary of homeland security and previously was governor of Arizona. Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, in San Jose, called Napolitano's hiring "a radical departure" for the university system, which he called "a very insular place in the way it looks for leadership."

Faculty groups sometimes question appointments of non-academics to presidencies. But Robert Powell, the faculty representative to the Board of Regents -- who had the opportunity to talk with Napolitano during the search process -- endorsed the selection. He noted that she supported public higher education in Arizona, has a strong record managing complex government organizations and is committed to transparency. Further, he said in a statement that she indicated strong support for the faculty. "She has deep respect for the faculty and she will listen to what we say," Powell said. "She knows that, as the core of what makes UC great, the faculty must have an environment in which they can thrive as scholars and teachers. And she is ready to engage the many challenges that face us all, such as meeting master plan obligations, promoting our research mission, diversifying our faculty and student body, and insisting on unparalleled academic excellence."

Not all faculty members agree, Christopher Newfield, professor of American culture at the University of California at Santa Barbara, outlined several objections, and rejected the idea that success in a political career necessarily made someone qualified to lead a university. "[A]lthough Ms. Napolitano appears to be a very senior manager with lots of political experience, she is unqualified to be a university president," Newfield wrote on his blog. "This would be obvious were the direction of appointment reversed: no mayor or city council would appoint a dean of Engineering as chief of the LAPD.  None would justify such a choice by explaining, in the words of Regent Selection Chair Sherry Lansing, that the engineering dean will be a great police chief because she 'has earned trust at the highest, most critical levels of our country's [engineering profession].' "



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