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.


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Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard/Creative Commons

Napolitano said that, when she was secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, going after Dreamers "made no sense."

Most recently, she released a statement saying the university won’t cooperate with federal, state, or local law enforcement agents to prosecute undocumented students and that UC medical centers will continue to treat any patient, regardless of race, color, origin, religion, or citizenship.

She, along with California State University Chancellor Timothy White and California Community Colleges Chancellor-Designate Eloy Ortiz Oakley, also sent a letter to Trump urging him not to end DACA. In an op-ed in The New York Times explaining her justification for signing the directive, Napolitano cited her exercise of prosecutorial discretion—prioritizing the use of resources in law enforcement—as the main driver of her decision-making, not politics.

As president of UC, Napolitano has taken a similarly ethical, common sense approach. While some early critics of Napolitano believed her law enforcement background was inappropriate for a position as head of an institution of higher education, it turns out that her prosecutorial experience has been useful after all—perhaps more than anyone imagined.

Even before Linda Katehi assumed her post as chancellor of UC Davis, questions arose about her leadership.

Katehi had overseen the admissions department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which a Chicago Tribune investigation found had admitted hundreds of students because of political connections. Katehi told the Sacramento Bee that she was not only unaware of the situation but also of the campus’ admissions policy, which didn’t bode well for a future administrator of a world-class institution.

Then, as chancellor of UC Davis, she became the center of a firestorm when, in 2011, a campus police officer pepper-sprayed student protesters at point-blank range, and video of the incident went viral. As the Sacramento Bee reported, internal investigations found a lack of leadership within the campus police department, as well as among campus administration. The university eventually paid a $1 million settlement to the students.

Graphic Courtesy of CBS Sacramento

In early 2016, the Bee also uncovered that Katehi had accepted a paid seat on the board of the for-profit DeVry Education Group, which had been under federal investigation for unsubstantiated claims about job placement and that she had served as a paid board member of the textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons from 2012 to 2014, earning $420,000. When the news broke and outrage followed, Katehi resigned from the DeVry board and donated $200,000 in Wiley stock to student scholarships. Napolitano said Katehi made a mistake by taking the DeVry post without first getting her permission, but said she didn’t think it was appropriate for her to resign as chancellor, citing Katehi’s contributions to UC Davis’ fundraising efforts and academic performance.

But then the Bee discovered that UC Davis had paid consultants at least $175,000 to scrub the internet of negative sentiments about the pepper-spraying incident and to improve the reputations of the university and Katehi. (The total amount ended up being more than $400,000.) At that point, Napolitano offered Katehi the opportunity to step down, but she refused and instead sent an email to faculty saying she was “100 percent committed to serving as Chancellor at UC Davis.” Hours later, Napolitano placed Katehi on administrative leave and announced she would hire an outside investigator to look into the matter, as well as questions about potential nepotism involving Katehi’s son and daughter-in-law.

The Napolitano-commissioned investigation ultimately found that Katehi violated university policies for filing travel expenses and serving on corporate boards and had lied to Napolitano about hiring outside consultants to improve her online reputation.

“The investigation is now concluded, and it found numerous instances where Chancellor Katehi was not candid, either with me, the press, or the public, that she exercised poor judgment, and violated multiple university policies,” Napolitano wrote in a statement to the campus community on Aug. 9. “In these circumstances, Chancellor Katehi has now offered to resign, and I have accepted that resignation.”

A week later, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks would do the same.

From the time he first arrived at UC Berkeley from Columbia University in 2013, Dirks was up against huge challenges. For starters, the university had a sizable structural deficit, due in part to construction projects and the fact that the state had gradually decreased its funding. According to the Daily Cal, the campus lost about $200 million in state funding from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. In 2016, Cal’s debt totaled $150 million, or 6 percent of its operating budget.

While Dirks is credited with setting new records for fundraising, he also came under fire for some of his spending and budget decisions. Among them: a security fence built around his campus residence that ultimately cost $700,000 and an emergency exit from his office that totaled $9,000—both related to his desire to avoid student protesters. Meanwhile, he planned to merge or eliminate some programs, causing uproar among faculty. An online petition, which garnered 4,420 signatures, successfully stopped the dissolution of the College of Chemistry.

Then, in April, Napolitano’s office launched an investigation into allegations that Dirks used the campus Recreational Sports Facility and its professional services without payment and misused public funds to pay a personal fitness trainer to travel with him on non-university-related business. After the trainer, Devin Wicks, complained, he was placed on paid administrative leave.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Dirks also hired a former staffer of Hillary Clinton to help improve his and UC Berkeley’s reputation. All this happened as Dirks was paid a salary of $532,000.

But it was his handling of sexual harassment cases involving high-profile faculty members, including former law school dean Sujit Choudhry, world-renowned astronomer Geoff Marcy, and former vice chancellor of research Graham Fleming, that sparked the most outrage.

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