In September former secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano took over as president of the University of California, the first-ever woman to hold that position. She now heads a $24 billion system of 10 campuses, five medical centers and three national laboratories. In an interview with New America Media, Napolitano says it was the promise of the California dream, which is really the “American Dream on steroids,” that drew her to the state.
NAM: What attracted you to California and to the University of California in particular?
Napolitano: California is really the engine for the United States, and in some respects for the world. And the University of California is a big engine for the state. The demographics of California are changing … 45 percent of [UC] students are now first generation [immigrants]; 30 percent are from historically underrepresented groups; we have more people receiving financial aid at four of our campuses than the whole Ivy League combined. So it’s a very open university, and it’s a world-class university. And that reflects California. California has always been at the head of innovation and creativity … this notion of the California dream [is] really the American dream on steroids.
NAM: What’s your strategy for increasing social and economic diversity at UC schools?
Napolitano: One of my major strategies involves a lot of outreach into lower income neighborhoods and schools. We know there are a lot people who don’t understand or know about the University of California, [including the fact that] if your family makes $80,000 a year or less, you pay no tuition. And we can wrap other financial aid around that to cover room and board.
One of the things I am concerned about, though, is that students who are in ninth grade, who are making decisions about what classes they are going to be taking and what track they’re going to be on, are prematurely self-selecting out of the classes that would qualify them for the University of California out of the mistaken belief that they can’t afford to go. The answer is, they can and we will help them get there.
NAM: Are there any plans to increase faculty diversity?
Napolitano: When I went to law school in the 1980s – I went to a public university, the University of Virginia – there was only one woman on the entire faculty. That was noticeable. So I can put myself a little in the shoes of some of our students today … if they look at the faculty they see the same thing. Diversity really matters in that respect.
That’s why one of the first things I did was focus on post-docs. They are researchers, they teach, they are future faculty, inventors and creators. They are going to be a big source of diversity in our faculty long term, and so we want to make sure we recruit and have a diverse post-doc cadre moving forward.
NAM: What do undocumented students need to know right now about access to a UC school?
Napolitano: You need to know that you pay in-state tuition. You need to know that we have set aside some additional funds to provide special student services for undocumented students, including helping to offset some of the financial burden caused by the fact that they can’t get federal aid or work study grants. We are here to educate Californians, and it doesn’t really matter to us [or] to me whether they are documented or undocumented. It matters whether they are a good student, and whether they are pursuing their passions and their dreams, and are putting themselves into that.
NAM: What will you do to enhance the university’s relationship to California community colleges?
Napolitano: That’s one of the things that surprised me the most when I took over as president, the large percentage of our students who are transfer students from community colleges. Historically community colleges were free and were an open doorway to higher education. Looking now at what the transfer student experience is, [the questions to ask are] how do you qualify, how easy or difficult is it, have we streamlined the processes enough, and what are the problems that our transfer students encounter when coming to a UC campus.
NAM: Can the university play any role in addressing the growing social and economic inequality now on the rise in California and across the country?
Napolitano: The University of California is a tremendous bridge for lower income [students] or from historically underrepresented groups, for those whose families haven’t gone to college before. Again, over 45 percent of our students are low income, and over 40 percent are first generation. In this day and age, a world-class university education … is really the ticket to success for so many young people. It’s not a guarantee, but it certainly opens up more possibilities.
NAM: What role can technology play in this?
Napolitano: There is a role for online education, but it has to be done carefully and in a way that does not substitute for the academic experience.
NAM: With the growing emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), what role is there for the humanities at UC?
Napolitano: Let’s go back to the meltdown on Wall Street. The meltdown didn’t happen because people didn’t understand mathematics. It happened because of a crisis in values. Knowledge of the humanities – of history, and philosophy, and literature – is key for critical thinking, for exploring nuance and how decisions are made, and the values embodied in those decisions. We have to get out of the business of saying, ‘You can’t get a job if you have a humanities degree.’ That is absolutely not the case. If you have a humanities degree you are a well-educated person.
NAM: Are you concerned that international students might be crowding out eligible in-state students?
Napolitano: Our students are going to graduate into a very interconnected and international world. It’s beneficial for them to meet and get to know international students. And it’s great diplomacy for the United States.
I have heard the perception that places for California students are being taken by students from other states or by international students. And the answer is, they’re not. We are sustaining the same number of places for California students as we have historically. What’s happened is we’ve added on.
NAM: What is UC’s role in the growing trans-Pacific partnership?
Napolitano: The first thing I’m going to do is take an inventory of where we do have relationships … and identify areas of the world that would be key partners potentially with the University of California. And given that we’re on the Pacific Coast, it makes ultimate sense that we would look toward Asia in that regard. We also ought to look south, to Mexico, Central America and South America. There’s a whole host of issues about international relations that can be led out of the office of the president.
NAM: Are you concerned in any way that higher education is becoming more of a job incubator as opposed to a social and political thought leader?
Napolitano: I think it needs to be both. As a public university, we are educating for what the public needs … but hopefully in an environment and in such a way that the graduates of this university are thinkers, so that when they leave the university they are capable of being part of a well-informed citizenry. If California is going to thrive, it’s going to need those UC graduates to do so. It’s a key driver for this state.
Part of the question goes to the notion that universities have somehow retreated from public involvement … that they are independent of addressing the real problems of the day. One of my visions for the University of California is, to the extent that perception exists, to wipe it away. To make sure our talents, and the things we’re doing in our laboratories and classrooms are focused on some of the world’s most pressing problems. World hunger, energy, climate change … these are all things we have leading efforts underway in. That’s not isolated from being involved in the public, but is linked up with what the public is looking for. If I can help to be that bridge, I hope to do so.
The interview was conducted by Peter Schurmann, NAM education editor, and Jacob Simas, videographer/youth media coordinator