Napolitano at the UCs

We were surprised to learn that Janet Napolitano was chosen to head up the University of California system. This is a gamble on a high-profile person with experience in organizations —though none in academia— and with strong lobbying and fundraising capacity.

Her appointment signals that the regents are prioritizing economics in times when tight budgets have led to major tuition increases.

The UC’s financial situation is quite significant, but there’s a lot more that needs to be tackled in the changing world of university instruction. New technologies in the Internet era are reshaping basic principles of learning acquisition, unleashing a major debate in higher education. Napolitano’s lack of experience in academia doesn’t help.

Neither can Napolitano be dissociated from the era of our nation’s highest deportation rate. To be fair, she should also be given credit for her role in the positive Deferred Action program for childhood arrivals. Yet perhaps she should best be seen as the implementation arm of whatever President Obama’s programs were, for better or for worse.

What might hurt Napolitano most in her new job is not the politics she implemented while at the Department of Homeland Security, but precisely her strong point: her organizational track record.

Napolitano is responsible for implementing the disastrous Secure Communities program, where confusion reigned from the very start. Chaos and inadequate communications confused state and municipal authorities, with instructions containing contradictory interpretations. This is hardly the best example of how to lead an enormous organization such as Homeland Security or the UCs.

Despite everything, we hope Napolitano will stabilize the finances of the university system, thereby reducing the financial burden now borne by the students. We also hope she will find ways to increase enrollment and graduation rates for Latino students —on the decline ever since Proposition 209 was passed— and find ways to use technology wisely, without impairing the quality of education.