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Spotlight: From Berkeley to the Biden Administration

March 15, 2021
by Katherine Blesie and Fischer Davis, illustrations by Patrick Welsh

Five Cal alumni and one faculty member have joined the U.S. government—now under new management.

Jennifer Granholm

Former governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm ’84, will forge a path toward a net-zero-carbon future as the new U.S. secretary of energy under President Joe Biden, a role formerly held by her fellow Berkeley alum and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, Ph.D. ’76, who led the department under the Obama administration. In her two terms as Michigan’s first female governor (2003-2011), Granholm focused on revamping the state’s auto industry by sourcing clean energy. After Lansing, she returned to Cal to join the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) as a senior research fellow. In 2014, CAA honored Granholm with its Excellence in Achievement Award.

Julie Chávez Rodriguez 

As the new director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Julie Chávez Rodriguez ’00 will serve as President Biden’s liaison with local, tribal, county, and state governments. A longtime political activist, Rodriguez was influenced by her grandfather, Chicano labor leader Cesar Chávez. Rodriguez worked full-time for both the Obama 2008 and Harris 2020 presidential campaigns and from 2011 to 2017 served at the White House Office of Public Engagement, where she managed outreach to minority ethnic, religious, and political groups, as well as veterans and the LGBT community. She is reportedly the highest-ranking Latina in the Biden administration. 

Janet Yellen 

On January 26, 2021, Kamala Harris, the first female vice president of the United States, swore in Berkeley Professor Emeritus Janet Yellen as the nation’s first female secretary of the treasury. The former Federal Reserve chair (2014-2018) will have her work cut out for her as the country confronts a growing, pandemic-fueled economic crisis. Shortly after taking her oath, Yellen, who spent more than two decades teaching at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, took to Twitter. “Economics isn’t just something you find in a textbook,” she wrote. “It can be a potent tool to right past wrongs and improve people’s lives. That’s why so many of Treasury’s 84,000 public servants joined the Department. Today, I am proud to be one of them. ”

Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo 

Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo ’03 will join his new boss, Janet Yellen, in making Treasury history by becoming the department’s first Black deputy. The Nigerian-born economist immigrated to California with his family as an infant and grew up in the Inland Empire. He earned his political science degree from Berkeley before continuing on to Yale Law School. A 2015 CAA Mark Bingham Award recipient, Adeyemo is a Treasury veteran, having worked under the Obama administration as deputy executive secretary. As President Obama’s international economic adviser he served as the U.S. representative for both the G7 and G20 summits. In the Biden-Harris administration, he will likely take the lead in implementing a new economic strategy with respect to China.

Frances H. Arnold 

Frances H. Arnold, Ph.D. ’85, the first American woman Nobel laureate in chemistry, has been appointed cochair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Arnold, a professor at Caltech, won the Nobel in 2018 for her work on the directed evolution of enzymes, a technology that could be crucial for developing sustainable biofuels and green chemistry. She will be joined in her role by MIT geophysicist Maria Zuber. The duo will be the first women to lead the PCAST. Other members of the council include geneticist Eric Lander, who will be the president’s top science advisor, a position Biden has, for the first time, elevated to a cabinet-level appointment. Said Arnold, “I have great hope that we can put science back to work for the benefit of all.”

Alejandro Mayorkas 

On February 2, Alejandro Mayorkas ’81, who fled to the United States with his family after the Cuban Revolution, became the first immigrant to be sworn in as secretary of homeland security. His confirmation had the strong support of four former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) heads—including former UC President Janet Napolitano—who decried the “leadership vacuum and turmoil” in DHS under the Trump administration. Previously, Mayorkas served as deputy secretary of DHS in the Obama administration, and helped spearhead Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Under his direction, the department is expected to roll back the more draconian immigration policies of the Trump administration. Mayorkas says he also plans to focus on increased cybersecurity and strengthened emergency response protocols.

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