U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano resigned Friday to lead the University of California system, which is expected to approve her appointment by the time students return to school in fall.
When Raquel Morales, president of the University of California Students Association, answered her phone on Friday she was surprised to hear Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on the line.
Napolitano resigned from her post as secretary Friday to become the next president of the University of California system and lead its 10 campuses and more than 234,000 students starting in September.
Morales, a UC San Diego senior, said she respected Napolitano for contacting her because outgoing president Mark Yudof did not often reach out to student leaders.
“She just wanted to introduce herself,” Morales said. “I’m really happy because this shows she is going to be willing to work with students.”
As president, Napolitano will serve on the school’s Board of Regents and help set policy, which leads students to question how she will tackle key issues including tuition increases, securing state funding and low minority enrollment.
Napolitano will become the 20th president of the UC system after her appointment is confirmed Thursday following a vote from UC’s Board of Regents.
Before joining President Obama’s Cabinet in 2009, Napolitano was governor of Arizona. Although she has an extensive background in politics, students have expressed concern about her lack of experience in higher education, especially considering the push for online classes at UC, said Morales, 22.
“We didn’t know that it was going to be someone who doesn’t have a background in education,” she said. “That was something that came as a shock to all of us.”
In a UC press release, Napolitano acknowledged she was a “non-traditional” appointment.
But in addition to academics, UC’s new president will oversee the $24 billion yearly operating budget and address pressing funding concerns.
With the passage of Proposition 30 last November, the UC system avoided about $375 million in cuts over the next two years and froze tuition for the 2012-13 school year. Still, the system has been losing state funding, and recent cuts have left students paying for more of the system’s budget than the state for the first time in California history.
Napolitano’s high profile and her political savvy could give her an edge in working with the state of California, said Safeena Mecklai, a senior in the student government at UC Berkeley.
“It feels like the state of California has completely divested from higher education,” Mecklai, 20, said. “The president of UC really has the opportunity to meet with the legislature, to meet with the government and ask that they re-prioritize.”
Yet Napolitano’s immigration policies during her tenure at Homeland Security have caused concern among undocumented students. Though she oversaw Obama’s initiative that stopped deportation of immigrants who arrived as children, a record 1.5 million people have been deported during Napolitano’s tenure.
A petition by the undocumented student network DreamActivist calls on the Board of Regents to block Napolitano’s appointment, saying she has “no expertise in higher education, only in family separation.”
UC San Diego senior Bruno Huizar said many of his undocumented classmates were unhappy with the decision. Students were the driving force behind California’s DREAM Act, which passed in 2011, and appointing a leader whose legacy includes intense surveillance and racial profiling is upsetting, Huizar said.
“Putting this woman into the presidency of the UC system is terrifying for the UC students and parents and families,” Huizar, 20, said.
UC Los Angeles junior Devin Murphy said he wants Napolitano to increase minority enrollment and support the repeal of Proposition 209, which bans affirmative action in California’s public universities.
The ban, which took effect in 1998, has decreased underrepresented populations in the UC schools, Murphy, 19, said. She noted that last school year only 3.9% of UCLA’s students were black.
“It is important that we reflect the diversity of California,” Murphy said. “(Napolitano’s) voice is crucial to what the California state legislature does.”
Murphy said he hoped for more student input regarding the appointment. Napolitano will meet members from the UC Student Association for the first time Thursday.
In a statement, Napolitano said she would prepare for her role by learning about the UC community. Mecklai saw Napolitano’s comment as positive and said her working with UC students and faculty can help make up for her lack of experience in higher education.
“The No. 1 thing that is important to me is that she’s a good listener,” Mecklai said. “I want to be able to see her at different UC campuses interacting with students.”
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