My Freshman Year

Janet Napolitano reflects on lessons of first year leading the University of California.

September 30, 2014
Janet Napolitano at UC Riverside.

To linger for too long on the vastness and complexity of the University of California is to risk a form of intellectual paralysis. With its 10 distinct campuses, each a major university in its own right, five medical centers, three national laboratories, and an agricultural and natural resources division with representatives in every corner of California; with its $24 billion budget, its more than 230,000 students, and its 190,000 employees — nuclear scientists, literature professors, doctors and nurses, staff members of all types (some union, some not), you name it — the University of California is one of the largest, most complicated organizations in the world.

One year ago, on September 30, 2013, I began my freshman year serving as the 20th president of the University of California. I’m not sure how much I have changed the university, but I would like to tell you how the university has changed me.

For starters, I no longer wear red. Once was enough for the Old Blues of Berkeley, as Cal alumni are called, and for the Bruins of Los Angeles, not to mention the Banana Slugs of Santa Cruz or the Anteaters of Irvine. Message received. Blue and gold will define my sartorial palette ever more.

I no longer chuckle over the fact that somewhere within our institution a committee on committees is plugging away, guided no doubt in part by our policy on policies. Some university traditions can seem archaic and almost comic to an outsider, especially one without a background in academia. But something I learned early on is that all traditions have their reasons, and it’s best to understand where and why they are rooted before presuming to challenge their purpose. Message received … but I’m still going to stand firm on the subcommittee on subcommittees.

To say one has been humbled is too often shorthand for having been caught. But I can truly say my most common experience has been being humbled at every turn.

I have been humbled by students.

My very first night on a campus as president of the University of California was at UC Merced — and I do mean “night.” Merced is our newest campus and does not yet have a lot of classroom space, so classes start early and run late, six days a week. This biology class started after 9 p.m. There were two dozen undergraduates, most of whom I was told were first-generation college students, peering into their microscopes, hours after the sun went down. Talk about a passion for learning.

This passion is infectious. These students don’t come to UC to mess around. They come to learn, and along the way, to be transformed. Thousands upon thousands of UC alumni were first-generation immigrants and the first in their families to attend college. Today, that tradition continues, as reflected in the unparalleled number of students we enroll who are low-income, hail from underrepresented minority groups, or are first-generation college students. But all, it must be said, are academically qualified. They earn their way in. 

I also have been humbled by professors, the research they do, and their dedication to students.

In the first few months of my time here in California, I made an effort to visit every campus and as many related UC outposts as possible. Along the way, I learned some of the key distinctions that exist on the academic side of public research universities. One is the distinction between basic research and applied research. The latter often makes for a better, neater story, but without chaotic, messy basic research, there would no life-saving or money-making applications.  Another distinction is that, as one professor told me, there is no toggle switch delineating research from teaching. It is not an either/or proposition. The blend of teaching and research is its own phenomenon. It’s the magic mix that leads both to creating new knowledge and to educating students, not just instructing them. And finally, I learned that beyond research, and beyond teaching, faculty members have a seat at the table of leadership. Shared governance is one of UC’s key values.

In this first year, I’ve learned that the president of the University of California needs a porous skin as much as, if not more than, a thick one. Much of what I learned was through osmosis, while sitting in on classes, participating in discussions, and attending all types of public performances. I sat in on a poetry class run by the California poet laureate at UC Riverside. I listened to presentations by researchers who are mapping the activity of the human brain at UC San Diego. I came face-to-face with a dolphin at the Long Marine Lab at UC Santa Cruz, and at UCLA, I dropped in — unannounced — at a student services center to hear the answers students get when they ask questions about, say, applying for financial aid. And yes, I took many a meeting. And then I took more meetings.

As I traveled throughout California, one thing I absorbed was just how much the mission of UC extends beyond the borders of our campuses, and out into the world. I knew that the reach of the university was long, but I did not understand that it was also deep — farm advisers in every county, counselors in hundreds of high schools, research exported around the globe.

Having said all that, my tenure as UC president so far has not been a ceaseless parade of epiphanies. I have led both a state (as governor of Arizona) and a large federal agency (as secretary of homeland security). I know well what you have to do to hit the ground running when you commence leadership of an institution. Dive into the budget. Listen and learn. Launch initiatives to galvanize efforts. Build your base of institutional knowledge.

On my first day at the university, I stated three things. First, I said that I faced a steep learning curve, and that my first job was to climb it. Consider it a project launched.

Second, I said that the University of California is a high-stakes proposition — not only for the state it serves, but also for the nation as a whole. To stand still is to fall behind. We are pushing forward on many, many fronts.

And third, I made a promise. I promised that I would get up every day and serve as the best advocate I could be for UC. I have held true to this statement, and what I know now is just how important this advocacy is. The fundamental responsibility of the president of the University of California is to make the connection between the institution and the people it serves — not just students, not just professors or staff members, but all of society.

I knew these things were true when I said them. I just didn’t know how true.

I can’t wait for my sophomore year to begin.



Janet Napolitano is president of the University of California.


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