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 by Neon Tommy/creative commons

Napolitano repeatedly butted heads with Gov. Jerry Brown on state funding and student tuition.

Marianela D’Aprile, a student at UC Berkeley, also said she’s pleased that Napolitano took “very pointed action to pressure Chancellor Dirks to handle these issues, as well as to bar Sujit Choudhry from campus.” She wrote in an email: “I think actions like these are certainly strong and powerful. They need to continue, as well as be reflected in actions by the individual UCs.”

Napolitano is not only holding people accountable but, perhaps more importantly, shifting the culture around sexual harassment on campus.

And her decisiveness has extended beyond university campuses to the halls of the state Capitol, where she’s proven herself to be one tough negotiator.

In 2014 and 2015, Napolitano butted heads repeatedly with Gov. Brown over state funding. She threatened to raise tuition unless the state coughed up more funds. Brown, meanwhile, criticized UC for overpaying faculty while making education less affordable for and accessible to California residents. According to an analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California, between the academic years 2007-08 and 2012-13, state appropriations to UC and CSU fell by $2 billion, or more than 30 percent. To make up for the loss, the university had been increasing its enrollment of out-of-state students because they pay higher fees.

Last year, after a series of negotiations, Napolitano and Brown finally reached an agreement to freeze tuition for California residents for two years in exchange for more state funds, including a 4 percent base budget increase for each of the next four years, until the end of Brown’s term in 2019. UC also agreed to ensure that at least one-third of its new students enter as transfers.

Senator Hancock said Napolitano’s success as a negotiator can be attributed to her “grounded, direct, and honest” communication style. “So often people talk around issues,” Hancock said. “I have really enjoyed her style, just laying out what’s at stake, what the options are, and kind of throwing it back at us—us being the regents, the public, the legislature, the governor, all of us—to say, ‘OK, what would you do? This is what I’m planning to do.’ It’s really been very helpful to me as a strong advocate for education and UC and all our higher ed partners to really have a picture of what’s happening and why it’s so difficult.”

While this may sound like a no-brainer, Hancock said Napolitano’s approach is actually unusual for a UC president. “Let me put it this way: I’ve been in the state Legislature and on the education committee for 14 years,” Hancock said in an interview before being termed out of office in early December. “I have never before had a president of the university sit down with the Legislature—not once, not twice, but many times—for a very direct, honest, and informative conversation, which is what we’ve had with President Napolitano.”

Dianne Klein, Napolitano’s press secretary, described her boss as “180 degrees different” than former UC president Mark Yudof.

“Communication is key. I think that’s the primary difference,” said Klein. “The president goes out and explains things, puts forward initiatives. She’s much more proactive. … Just no fear, going for the challenges.”

Despite UC’s budget woes, Napolitano has made significant improvements toward improving access to education. In 2016, UC increased its enrollment of California residents by 15 percent, and in-state community college transfer students by 14 percent—the largest increase in UC history.

But as the tuition freeze is set to expire, UC leaders are considering another student fee hike in January because state support isn’t enough to cover growing enrollment. It’s not a popular idea. UC tuition has more than tripled in the past 20 years, and now costs $12,294 annually. (Although the university has a generous financial aid program: Students from families that make less than $80,000 a year pay no tuition or fees—almost half the student body, said Napolitano.)

Undoubtedly, California’s next governor won’t have it easy.

Napolitano seems to have an almost superhuman work ethic. During our interview, she appeared to be falling asleep several times—yet her voice never faltered. A 2009 New York Times profile offered a possible explanation: “She is rumored to live on almost no sleep.”

In addition to dealing with chancellor resignations, sexual harassment scandals, and budget woes, Napolitano has found time to help Oakland youth as part of the Oakland Promise initiative, a city project supported by the university that aims to triple the number of college graduates within the next 10 years.

“President Napolitano skillfully leveraged existing partnerships to create a pathway to make a college degree and a world-class education accessible and affordable to all Oakland students,” Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement.

Meanwhile, chancellor searches are underway and on schedule, according to Napolitano. Looking ahead to 2017, she said there is still much work to do on curbing sexual harassment, preparing for a Trump administration, dealing with UC’s growing enrollment, and creating a capital budget.

It sounds like it’ll be another exhausting year. When asked why she has chosen to tackle such demanding positions in her life, Napolitano’s response harked back to the spirit of her father.

“You know, for whatever reason I’ve always enjoyed big jobs that are complicated and that have a great mission,” she said. “This university is educating the next generation. That’s a great mission. And as long as you’re going to get up in the morning and go to work, I just assumed to be doing something that’s interesting and that is purposeful. Right now, it’s being president of the UC.”


Published online on Dec. 27, 2016 8:00 a.m.

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