Santa Clara’s first female valedictorian becomes U.C.’s first female president. Can she help fix the system?
In mid-July, Janet Napolitano ’79 made national headlines when she announced plans to step down from her post as U.S. secretary of homeland security to helm the University of California system, becoming U.C.’s 20th president and the first woman to hold the position in U.C.’s 145-year history. Napolitano also has the distinction of another first—she was the first female valedictorian at SCU.
In a press release announcing her appointment, the University of California noted that Napolitano was chosen from among 300 people considered for the position—and that, in fact, she was the search committee’s unanimous choice. Though Napolitano herself has acknowledged that she may not be the most traditional candidate, she has a record of prioritizing higher education. “I have not spent a career in academia,” Napolitano told the U.C. system’s governing board in July. “But that said, I have spent 20 years in public service advocating for it.”
Napolitano has also advocated for what she says could and should happen more: people (with their ideas and energy) moving between work in government and higher education and industry.
Prior to her homeland security role, during the two terms she served as governor of Arizona, Napolitano argued for such changes as a fixed four-year tuition rate for incoming freshmen and salary increases to encourage top faculty members to remain in Arizona schools. She also helped bring about the opening of a new medical school in Phoenix, increased funding for research, and advocated for state schools to educate more students in the health sciences and tech fields, even amid budget shortfalls.
At a time when the U.C. system still faces financial challenges, those who know her from the Santa Clara community are confident that she is not only up to the task but capable of securing U.C.'s legacy into the future. Former classmate Elise Thurau ’79, now legislative director for state Senator Fran Pavley, told the San Jose Mercury News, “She may not have worked in the academic world before, but she is one of those people who—whatever you put into her hands—will do it with all her might.” Another classmate who worked with Napolitano on the staff of The Santa Clara, Paul Totah ’79, told the Oakland Tribune that he believes Napolitano’s new role will be a good fit. “She is a fixer,” he said.
For those who have raised concerns about Napolitano moving from a role of enforcer on immigration policy to heading the U.C. system, where student immigration concerns include support for undocumented students, an interesting place to look for Napolitano’s ideas might be our Spring 2010 piece “Connect the dots,” from her talk as part of SCU’s President’s Speaker Series. There she calls for immigration reform that may be a reality in the months ahead.