2016 East Bay Person of the Year: Janet Napolitano

In dealing decisively with campus leadership scandals, budget battles, and sexual harassment cases, Janet Napolitano has become the most effective UC president in recent memory.



Janet Napolitano is our 2016 East Bay Person of the Year.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

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Janet Napolitano looked weary yet resolute. It was a recent Friday afternoon, and she was sitting in her dark office on the 12th floor of the University of California’s headquarters, overlooking downtown Oakland. “Is it Friday?” she asked her press secretary, Dianne Klein, who was sitting across from her desk. “It’s Friday,” Klein responded, adding, “I know, it’s just like …” Napolitano finished her thought: “oof.”

The UC president was referring to her whirlwind week—which included two full days of meetings of the UC Regents discussing such topics as raising student tuition, tightening rules on sexual harassment for board members, and reassuring undocumented students of UC’s commitment to them following the presidential election of Donald Trump—but she could just as easily have been talking about 2016.

After all, it was an exhausting and productive year.

In August, two chancellors—UC Berkeley’s Nicholas Dirks and UC Davis’ Linda Katehi—announced their resignations amid separate scandals. Dirks had badly mishandled several sexual harassment cases against high-profile faculty members and endured criticism for his budgetary decisions, while a Napolitano-commissioned investigation found that Katehi violated UC policies for filing travel expenses and serving on corporate boards. After the 2011 pepper-spraying incident of student protesters by campus police, Katehi had also tried to clean up her online reputation by hiring outside consultants and then lied about it to Napolitano.

Meanwhile, UC is grappling with a staggering $17.1 billion debt. UC is also considering another student fee hike after the expiration of a tuition freeze that Napolitano had negotiated with Gov. Jerry Brown in exchange for more state funds. And the sexual harassment allegations won’t go away, including, most recently, against UC Regent Norman J. Pattiz and UC Berkeley architecture professor Nezar AlSayyad.

Any one of these would have been enough to overwhelm even the most competent administrator. But Napolitano has tackled these challenges with fierce determination.

“President Napolitano inherited a huge crisis in higher education funding in the state of California,” said ex-state Sen. Loni Hancock, who recently retired after serving for years on the Senate Education Committee. “I think she has been grounded, a good negotiator; she’s involved a broad range of people to help them understand the decisions and choices she has, and that goes a very long way.”

“I think that she’s made some pretty clear demonstrations that there’s certain kinds of behavior that she won’t tolerate,” said Ralph Washington Jr., a Ph.D student in entomology at UC Davis and president of the University of California Student Association.

“She sees a problem and says, ‘That’s the big problem. Let’s go for that,’” said Klein, executive director, Strategic Communications, UC Office of the President. “Everybody else says, ‘How?’”

While 2016 has been one of the most difficult years for the University of California since Napolitano first took office in 2013, her effectiveness as a leader of the 10-campus UC system has never been more apparent.

But given her background and experience, maybe that’s not surprising.


Looking back on her long career, it’s clear that Napolitano doesn’t gravitate toward anything easy. After earning her law degree from the University of Virginia, she served as an attorney on the legal team representing Anita Hill during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her to be the U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona, after which she served as attorney general of the state of Arizona (1998-2003), governor of Arizona (2003-2009), and secretary of U.S. Homeland Security (2009-2013) under President Obama before being appointed to the highest office in the University of California. She shattered glass ceilings along the way, being the first woman attorney general of Arizona, the first woman head of Homeland Security, and now the first woman head of the UC system.

Napolitano credits her parents for instilling her sense of ambition and drive. “They weren’t politically active, like in electoral politics,” she said. “But they were always active in the community.”

Her father, the son of Italian immigrants, was the longest-serving dean of the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine and is credited with turning it into a world-class institution, while her mother was the board president of the Albuquerque Museum. Despite her parents’ prestige, “they did not emphasize making money over everything else in terms of how you think of a well-lived life,” Napolitano said.

In fact, they seemed to shun even the appearance of making money. Napolitano recalled the time she was living at home between her first and second year at law school and had to share a car with her father, who drove a Toyota he bought from a rental car agency. “I remember the first day driving into the parking lot of the med school with this little not-great car,” she recalled. “There’s the Mercedes, the Volvos, the Beamers, the this and that. Then, you got to space number one, and it was the Toyota. So to me, that kind of illustrated where his values were.”

These values, as well as her perspective as a woman, helped inform her life in law enforcement. When she became attorney general of Arizona, she noticed there was a huge backlog of child protective services cases. And children couldn’t get placed into a permanent home until their cases were adjudicated, which could mean spending a year in foster care. “When you’re a little kid, a year in foster placement waiting for the permanent placement—that’s a lifetime,” she said.

So Napolitano re-staffed the office and cleared the backlog. What seemed on the surface to be the mundane task of running an office had a much deeper moral implication. “The business of just administering an office, it gets very rich in terms of how your experiences come to bear and the priorities that are set and then how you motivate people,” she said.

As secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Napolitano was also responsible for DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as minors, have not committed serious crimes, and have a certain degree of education (or have served in the military) to apply to remain in the country without fear of deportation.

“To me, both morally and as a matter of effective law enforcement, going after Dreamers made no sense,” she said.

But Napolitano has also been criticized for her immigration policies. Her nomination as president of the University of California was met with protests, mostly due to the record number of deportations of undocumented immigrants under her watch as head of Homeland Security. (It’s worth noting that the Los Angeles Times reported that there was a change in how deportations were counted, thus inflating the numbers.)

But throughout her tenure as UC president, Napolitano has repeatedly shown her commitment to undocumented students. One of her first initiatives was committing $5 million for services to support them. She also created the President’s Advisory Council on Undocumented Students and, in 2015, hosted the university’s first summit on undocumented students. In May, UC announced that it was earmarking $8.4 million a year through the 2018-19 academic year to support them.

Since the election of Trump, Napolitano has doubled down on her commitment. The morning after the election, she released a statement, signed by all the UC chancellors, reaffirming the University of California’s commitment to “supporting all members of our community and adhering to UC’s Principles Against Intolerance.”

“I think that was important just to say, ‘Look, there was an election, but our values have not changed. Our principles are the same,’” Napolitano said.

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