Napolitano At the End

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

I liked the idea of Janet Napolitano as leader of the University of California system.

The UC had become a convenient political punching bag for the governor and the legislature. Instead of investing in the system to transform it, California’s politicians would cut the UC – and then blame the UC for its responses, especially higher tuition fees, to those cuts.

The University of California, having been run by academics, had not fought back against these blasts. And so lawmakers have attacked the system with impunity, even as they themselves hurt it.

So why not bring in a politician—Napolitano—to fight back and put the legislature under fire?

And that’s what Napolitano did. She pushed the governor and the legislature on the tuition fee front, and, with the help of an economy and revenues, stopped the budget bleeding at first, and then got more money for the system.

But that momentum stalled. And then Napolitano – in irony of ironies – made a huge political error that she couldn’t correct.

She and her team decided to fight yet another audit from the State Auditor, and interfered so ham-handedly that the Auditor noticed and made a point of disclosing it. (There are so many audits and reports on UC, she could have ignored it and shrugged it off, and it would have quickly been forgotten).

The resulting bad publicity has been just about the only news Californians have heard about the UC in month. A number of papers have called for her resignation. And Napolitano, showing poor political instincts, has contributed to the drip-drip-drip. Instead of owning up to the audit right off, and taking the responsibility for herself, there have been small revelations and shake-ups on her staff.

Why couldn’t Napolitano pivot? Because her failure wasn’t merely her overly defensive response to an audit. She also failed to offer a compelling vision for transformation of the UC. She never had a policy offense, just defense.

Napolitano made popular moves to increase student diversity and to focus on climate. But what UC needs is a systemic change that gives the universities the footing to expand their enrollment, quality and production of graduates – rapidly.

The opening for this is obvious; PPIC says the state will be short more than 1 million college graduates by the end of the next decade. UC’s leaders should enact a plan to cover half that shortage themselves.

That would mean the doubling or more of its number of graduates. Which would be great. California is no longer the national leader it was during the 20th century in college graduates—21st century leadership requires a return to that.

Also, being able to produce excellent graduates at scale is the essential question for public higher education in the world right now. If UC really is a leader, it needs to lead and show us how to do this.

When I made this point to Napolitano once, she answered by suggesting that would represent mission creep—UC isn’t for everybody. True, but California needs it to be for a lot more people than it currently is.

And to do that, it looks like the UC needs a new leader.

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