Clear and present dangers of Janet Napolitano’s appointment as UC President

With no experience in higher education, the appoint of Napolitano raises concerns about the future of the UC system.

Janet Napolitano
Even though Secretary Napolitano's record as a public servant is well respected, however such experiences have not necessarily prepared her to steer the UC system to safer waters [AP]

The now confirmed appointment of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as President of the University of California should raise loud alarms for anyone concerned about the present state and future development of UC, for three reasons.

First, there is the manner in which her selection was made. Her candidacy was developed in the course of a secretive process that excluded meaningful participation of UC faculty, thus departing from the transparency of information and free exchange of ideas to which the University of California and the Academy more broadly aspire. Such secrecy not only violates the governing principles of the American Association of University Professors, it is also a process from which other university systems, including those in Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Minnesota, Vermont, Nebraska, Florida, and Wisconsin, are increasing moving away in the hiring of senior administrators. 

Equally if not more troubling, Secretary Napolitano has no professional experience in higher education. However strong her record as a public servant and manager of complex organisations, at a moment of major transformation in higher education and particularly of public universities and their relationship with the people of the states they serve, hiring as President of the most important public research university system in the US someone with no record of thinking about, developing and/or executing higher education policy reflects a lack of appreciation of the unique challenges UC faces today, and the specific intellectual and management experience that will undoubtedly be required to help it return to a healthy state. 

To imagine that someone can walk into as complex and even treacherous a terrain as higher education in California without ever having worked a day in the field is naive. To believe that Secretary Napolitano’s Washington connections or star power will be worth more than real world experience in the field is to make a bet on UC’s, and California’s, future, that the Regents don’t have the right to make, particularly without meaningful consultation with the system’s major stakeholders.

The latest scandal involving Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is a good example of the need for someone with strong educational experience at UC’s helm. Key members of the California State Senate have as well as the Regents have backed MOOCs, despite clear evidence of law performance by students. Now San Jose State University has pulled out of a much-hyped contract with the online course company Audacity because of student pass rates as low as 12 percent. Yet such are the financial incentives of the online education business that they are creeping into the UC system despite all the problems that have plagued the program. How can a President with no articulated educational philosophy or real-world classroom experience develop a coherent response to attacks by financial interests looking to suck money out of much depleted public coffers with their bright shiny objects du jour?

The areas where Secretary Napolitano does have experience raise even greater concerns: security, surveillance, intelligence, immigration and border control.

These are all sectors of government and industry defined by values that are the antithesis of the commitment to the free exchange of ideas, open and public expressions of dissent, the first amendment, the fourth amendment, and the privacy rights of faculty, students, and staff that must define the life of any university. Secretary Napolitano has been responsible for policies including (but not limited to) confiscating and searching through travellers’ computers without a warrant, participating in broader government surveillance activities such as those precipitating the latest NSA scandal, and managing the highest deportation levels on record. Her Department also has warned employees that they can be penalised for opening a Washington Post article containing classified slides about the NSA. All all of these activities, even if “legal” (whether they are, or should be, constitutional is another matter), clearly violate core principles of academic freedom, free speech and the creation of a safe and nurturing environment for students regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality or political views that every university must provide.

The fact that a secret selection process was used to choose someone with no experience as an educator and a long history working in fields that are, at best, adversarial to the ethics and practices of the Academy, is deeply distressing. Colleagues have informed me that two of the other finalists for UC President were Colin Powell and Leon Panetta, both of whom are also entrenched in the security-intelligence-surveillance bureaucracies and supported and/or executed government policies, including the invasion of Iraq and more recently drone strikes and indefinite detentions, that are clear violations of international law. Napolitano also supported the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Shouldn’t that massive lack of judgement, which cost so much in American and Iraqi lives and treasure, be enough to disqualify her from being UC President? 

Put simply, that a committee tasked with finding a new President for a University of UC’s stature could only find candidates from the heart of the bureaucracies most antagonistic to the spirit of higher education demonstrates a clear lack of vision and an inexcusable myopia built into a selection processes. Of course, it could turn out that Panetta and Powell were not among the finalists, but since the process has remained secret despite calls from many quarters to open it up and explain her choice, and to give her a chance to address increasingly vocal concerns about her selection (here) and (here), there is no way of knowing who the alternatives where, and thus we are left with speculation and rumours.

Indeed, by nominating Napolitano during the summer when the University is essentially out of session, preventing her from speaking publicly about her nomination and scheduling a Regents’ meeting to vote on her so soon after the nomination was made public, leaves little time for scrutiny or discussion by the university community, putting to the lie the idea of shared governance that is supposed to be at the heart of the UC system. This is a problem that has become all too familiar to faculty across UC as well as at the CSU system, where top administrators are now routinely hired with little or no input from faculty.

At the very least, the Regents should have afforded a longer period for consideration of Secretary Napolitano’s nomination. Instead, in the very announcement of her nomination they actually forbade any discussion: “Note to reporters: Out of respect for the appointment process, neither Napolitano nor the University of California will comment further until after the regents have acted on her recommended appointment”. How can anyone trust the Regents when they consider “respect” to be not questioning their decision until after its been confirmed. Shades of pre-Arab Spring Tunisia or Egypt, anyone? 

What is truly frightening here is that the senior academic leadership, in the system-wide Academic Senate, seems to have completely supported not just her hiring, but this closed, secretive and completely undemocratic process through which it has proceeded. It’s one thing when the Administration wants to stop all debate. When the colleagues who are supposed to be representing your interests so easily fall into line, the future of faculty self-governance at one of the universities that pioneered the concept is truly dark. And with the end of self-governance, any remaining hope that UC can return to its former state of health will be lost.

Napolitano herself should have affirmed her unequivocal support of core policies impacting the future of UC, including the Dream Act, the University’s Master Plan, and faculty and student rights to freedom of speech, petition, assembly, and control of intellectual property. She should and could have explained whether she intends to devote more of UC’s resources to the creation of nuclear weapons, cyber-warfare, and surveillance technologies and techniques, or to the increasingly discredited MOOCS model (which also has significant potential as a surveillance tool). Her views on whether state taxes should be increased slightly to enable UC to restore its funding and lower its tuition to sustainable levels, and on the de facto privatisation of public universities along the lines of the “Michigan model” (in which universities are public in name but obtain the vast majority of their funding from high tuition and private funding), would have allowed the university community to gain insight into whether she is in fact the best person to lead UC into a very unpredictable future. But instead we know nothing, and if the last decade is any guide, what we will get are platitudes that bear little relationship to policies that will continue to erode all the qualities that made UC such a great place to teach, work and study.

As one of the world’s premier public university systems, UC’s highest priority must be the production of knowledge and the protection of the free exchange of ideas without which no university can fulfill its public mandate to educate future generations and help sustain a healthy and robust economy. Since the Regents and Secretary Napolitano were unwilling or unable to offer a vigorous defence of her experience, qualifications, and views before the Regents’ vote, and allow the university community a meaningful role in determining the wisdom and viability of her nomination, UC faculty should consider ourselves served notice that the UC to which so many of us have devoted our professional lives has finally been put out to pasture, and that a very different institution, administered by people with increasingly little experience, understanding or even concern for the core purposes and ethics of higher education, is emerging in its place. The question is, What are we going to do about it?

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming