Our View: Janet Napolitano is showing a clear-eyed view of UC mission

01/16/2014 12:00 AM

01/16/2014 12:53 PM

UC President Janet Napolitano has her priorities for the university system in correct alignment; the question will be in the execution.

In a visit to The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board on Wednesday, Napolitano showed she is a quick study. Three months into her tenure, she exhibited laudable knowledge about the 10-campus system with its six medical schools, including UC Riverside, and five law schools.

Importantly, Napolitano was clear-eyed on the basic point that UC was “designed to build California,” and that its role in educating the children of California “has to be one of our primary missions.”

“We teach for California,” she said. “We research for the world.”

Napolitano said UC must do a better job of letting all Californians know that a University of California education is attainable for all qualified students, regardless of income. To this end, there must be greater numbers of transfers from the community college system.

Underscoring the need for seamless integration within the public college system, Napolitano intends to appear before the UC regents later this month with California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White and Community College Chancellor Brice W. Harris, and will join them in appearances before their respective boards. That show of solidarity is welcome.

Napolitano made clear that as former homeland security secretary and Arizona governor, she has a national profile, one reason why the UC regents appointed her.

Californians should be pleased that she will be among the educators gathering for an education summit at the White House today, and that she will know President Barack Obama more than in passing.

We hope she will use that standing to advocate for more research funding, as she said she would do. She also promised to use her position to argue for an immigration law overhaul, which affects Californian students whose parents brought them here without legal immigration documentation.

Napolitano arrived in California to find an institution that is deservedly prestigious but that withstood a doubling of tuition in the past decade. There’s no chance of a tuition rollback.

But she hopes to avoid the upward spikes that occurred during the recession. To this end, she is seeking to become more efficient by, for example, consolidating functions such as payroll, and trimming middle management.

In the hourlong visit, she was too quick to explain away questions about the high salaries paid to administrators by saying some of the heftiest pay goes to medical school faculty and high-end researchers who have administrative duties. No doubt that is true.

But as The Bee and other publications have noted, salaries paid to administrators have grown faster than faculty pay, and a surprising number of staff not directly involved in teaching or research earn $200,000 and more.

UC benefits and pension remain rich, even though, as one of her aides noted, university staff must pay 8 percent of their pay toward their pensions. That’s hardly exorbitant, especially given the pension liabilities faced by the university.

All Californians have a stake in her success. So far, she has shown herself to be up to the job. As she noted, her tenure starts at a good time; the economy is rebounding, and improving higher education is on the agenda. She must make the most of those opportunities. Her success will measured by her performance during the next five years.

Being University of California president is not a résumé builder. It is a trust and a mission. She seems to be treating it as such.

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