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Keepin’ It Real with President Napolitano: The State of the State’s University

December 8, 2016
by Pat Joseph

Janet Napolitano and I met in her office in downtown Oakland on the afternoon of November 4, 2016, just four days before Hillary Rodham Clinton was thwarted in her attempt to make history by becoming the first woman president of the United States of America.

Some people thought that Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona and Secretary of Homeland Security in the first Obama administration, might herself have been a candidate for the White House. Instead, she became the first woman president of the University of California in 2013.

It is no small job. UCOP, as the Office of the President is known, oversees not only the ten University campuses but also five medical centers and three national laboratories. Its budget tops $25 billion—nearly the gross domestic product of Vermont.

When I told her that the theme of our issue was “Reality,” she asked what other content would appear in it. I told her about Bishop George Berkeley, the University’s namesake philosopher, who denied the existence of matter (see “Mind Tricks” in this issue), and she held up a yellow stress ball she’d been squeezing. “This is not an object,” she said to her press secretary. “It’s an idea of a sphere.”

I told her that was my piece of the puzzle. Hers was the reality of the UC. And with that, the interview began.

Pat Joseph: It seems to be received wisdom, at least among officials at UC Berkeley, that past levels of state funding in higher education in California are never coming back.

Janet Napolitano: California’s state budget has Higher Ed—the UC, CSU system—as a discretionary funding item. And you’ve got so much else that’s mandated. Under Prop 98, I think almost half of the general fund goes to K–14. You’ve got to fund the corrections system. You’ve got to fund Medicaid—Medi-Cal in California. That means there’s a lot of competition for those discretionary dollars. And so we’re in that fight and we fight very hard for everything, but we also have to be creative and resilient and be thinking of other ways to raise money.

So, where are we now in terms of state funding levels as a percentage of the UC budget?

JN: Well, I think for the University as a whole, it’s about 12, or 12-and-a-half percent. And some parts of the University are markedly less—it’s like 3 percent of UCSF’s budget. So, in short, the reality is that because so much of the general fund is tied up and pre-allocated in a way, there’s only a small amount of discretionary dollars left. And that means that returning to those days of yore, while it is something we keep advocating for—because I think we need more, the state should put in more—nonetheless, we don’t build the budget that way.

Space cadets: UC President Janet Napolitano shares a laugh at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. Credit: Robert Durell

When you’re talking to ordinary California citizens, do you find that they have a good sense of where the level of funding is?

JN: I find that most Californians think that most of the University is funded by the state. And that’s just because it is called the University of California. Nonetheless, it’s not the reality,… to go back to the theme of the issue.

Thank you very much.

JN: I’m trying to help.

The UC system was built on Clark Kerr’s Master Plan, the vision of which was to balance the “competing demands of fostering excellence and guaranteeing educational access for all.” If the rankings are anything to go by, many of the UC campuses have achieved and sustained excellence. I think I saw six UCs in the Top 10 public universities…

JN: And another couple in the next tranche…

Right, which is great. But many Californians, and even Governor Brown, lament that Berkeley no longer admits, in the Governor’s words, “normal people.” Is it possible for the system to accomplish both goals—excellence and inclusiveness—or are they simply at odds with each other?

JN: I think we are balancing those things out. I mean when you look at our entering class, it’s probably the most diverse class in UC’s history. If you look at who’s in that class, 42 percent, 43 percent are the first in their family to go to college. We have about 57 percent of in-state residents in the socioeconomic bracket where they pay no tuition or fees at the university. And we have excellent students. So, I think we can be inclusive and excellent. And I do not accept the notion that a public university, because it’s public, has to be mediocre. I think that is not worthy of California.

So you don’t agree with the governor that “normal” Californians are not getting in?

JN: No, we’re still meeting our obligation under the Master Plan. Under the Master Plan we were not intended to take all students. We were intended to take the top 12.5 percent of California graduates, and we offer a seat—it may not be at Berkeley—to every eligible Californian who applies.

And so getting back to perception vs. reality, do you think most people in the state are aware of that?

JN: Well, I think that during admissions season the focus is only on Berkeley and UCLA and somewhat on San Diego. And because those campuses have such a plethora of applicants, they do take a smaller percentage than some of our other schools. But this fall 67 percent of freshmen applicants were admitted, and 70 percent of transfer applicants.

Back to the subject of rankings, the recent U.S. News and World Report once again segregated public universities from their private peers. Berkeley, as usual, was number one. But why is there a different set of standards for public and private universities at all?

JN: First of all, there are lots of ranking systems now. There’s a market for ranking systems. Each one has good attributes and also deficits. And the way U.S. News does theirs, they give a higher ranking the fewer students you admit, which I think is ironic and wrong. We’re a public university. And they overestimate endowment resources and don’t count the resources that come into public universities adequately. Because of their methodology, they separate public and private. But what I look at is the trend among all the ranking systems, because as I said, they all have things that are good and bad. But when you look at Washington Monthly, when you look at The New York Times, when you look at Shanghai University world rankings, when you look at the London Financial Times, our schools—and particularly Berkeley—are always ranked at the top.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders earned both cheers and jeers when he campaigned on the promise of making college education free in America. Those jeering said it was simply unrealistic. But not so long ago, higher education in California was effectively free, another goal of the Master Plan. Was it utopian to think that a state could give its citizens higher education at nominal cost?

JN: Well, I think times change and the reality is, the state puts in fewer dollars. The reality is that costs do go up. And we have an obligation to be as efficient with our dollars as we can be. But it costs money to offer a world-class education at a research university. Our number-one cost is our personnel, and that’s one of the reasons we are a major world-class university.

But what I think also has changed is that as tuition has gone up, so has financial aid. So as I mentioned, 57 percent of in-state residents pay no tuition or fees, and they’re from families who make less than $80,000 a year. If you make up to $150,000, you get generous aid and you get the Middle Class Scholarship Fund kicking in. So, overall, 75 percent of our California residents will get financial aid. It may not be Bernie Sanders’s view of utopia, but it’s still the best deal going in higher ed.

Overlook: The Space Sciences Laboratory is one of three labs administered by the president’s office. Credit: Robert Durell

At present, the “gross state product” makes California the sixth largest economy in the world. How big of a role does UC play in shaping that?

JN: Huge! I mean you literally can’t drive ten miles in California without seeing some imprint of the University of California. I can give you some numbers. We did a study recently. We contribute roughly $33 billion a year to California’s economy, to the state’s gross product. The impact of our own activities is about $46.3 billion a year. And we’re the third- or the fourth-largest employer in California. So we have a huge imprint on the economic picture of the state.

As you said, times are changing. Do you think attitudes have changed amongst voters in terms of the importance placed on higher education?

JN: No. I think everyone values higher education. I think the notion that it’s paid for out of tax dollars is really the fight. And I think that originates with the fact that there are only so many discretionary tax dollars in California’s budget because of the way the tax system is structured, because of the pre-apportionment of dollars in the state budget.

Two UC chancellors have recently stepped down: Linda Katehi at Davis and Nicholas Dirks at Berkeley. And there have been some high-profile sexual impropriety cases at Berkeley in particular. Have these things hurt the system’s reputation, and if so, what do we do to repair that?

JN: Well, I think change is a constant in a great university, and I think you take advantage of change and use it as an opportunity. The two chancellors stepped down for very different reasons. They’re not analogous. We’re in the search process now for new chancellors. I’m committed to finding the best possible chancellor for Berkeley that we can. It deserves a world-class chancellor and I’m confident that we’ll find one.

The sexual harassment cases, they’re not the kinds of stories you want to read on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Because we’re a public university, our negative stories make it into the media much more easily than those at private universities do. Nonetheless, we have totally reformed how we handle sexual harassment, sexual violence matters, both involving students and faculty. And we’ve strengthened the system for adjudicating those cases, sanctioning those cases, but also prevention and education, which I think is key. Let’s try to prevent them from happening in the first place. The change that’s coming from that is a culture change.

You know—what is acceptable behavior? So I think we have the opportunity to find two excellent chancellors—and we have taken what was a bad set of stories and, I think, made it into a good set of reforms.

So how do you get through to college freshmen this new mindset about sexual behavior?

JN: Well you start on entering orientation week. They all got training. Each campus in the system is doing different kinds of trainings—some are peer-to-peer, some are scenario-based. There’s also a lot of what I call “buddy system” training. For example, students go to parties where alcohol and other things are involved, and when a student sees a friend get into trouble, they get their friend out of there.

And what about the adjudication part of the process? When something does happen, how does the University handle that?

JN: Well, one of the things that needed to happen was to kind of reorganize things at Berkeley so they were more centralized and there was greater accountability with the chancellor’s office, and that the chancellor him- or herself is apprised of what is going on. And Dean Carla Hesse led that reorganization effort over the summer. It also means strengthening and supporting our Title IX offices, so that when, for example, a high-level administrator is the one accused, the process is handled not only internally but by an outside review committee of high-level administrators appointed from throughout the system, so that you avoid this situation where you are sanctioning someone you work with. That was a change made this spring.

At a 2015 news conference, UCLA student Savannah Badalich, founder of 7000 in Solidarity: A Campaign Against Sexual Assault, is flanked by Napolitano (left) and Kamala Harris. Credit: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Many see the affirmative consent standard as a good step toward, if not ending, then at least minimizing sexual assault incidents on campuses. But there are those, particularly in the legal field, who are concerned that the new standard shifts the burden of proof onto the accused and potentially denies that individual due process. How do campuses effectively thread that needle?

JN: We adopted the “yes means yes” standard before state law did. And we did it out of the belief that sexual conduct must be by mutual consent of the parties, and that the consent must be affirmative. I think campuses can protect the interests of both parties in these cases by having resources available to help both parties understand their rights and the resources available to them, to have a fair disciplinary process, and to make sure there’s appropriate notice of charges and meaningful opportunity to respond to them. And remember these are student disciplinary cases; these are not criminal cases. There’s a big difference.

In cases where it is rape or sexual assault and not some less-serious sexual impropriety, should it be a criminal case instead of being a campus disciplinary case?

JN: It can be both. It depends really on whether the complainant wants to also file a criminal charge. And so we leave it at that. But whether or not there’s a criminal case does not prevent a student case from going forward. They’re different. Often the complainant doesn’t want to be in criminal court but does want there to be some sanction. Sometimes the sanction they desire is something akin to a protective order, where the student who committed the misconduct can’t be within the presence of the complainant. But we don’t limit our own sanctions to what the complainant necessarily wants. What we want to be sure happens is that there’s fair notice, there’s a fair opportunity to respond, both parties are given knowledge of what resources are available to them.

And that’s standardized across all ten campuses?

JN: Yes, and that was part of our reforms. What I found when I became president and these cases started popping up was that every campus was handling things very differently. So we convened a systemwide task force that very methodically did an inventory of what every campus was doing, and we reached a consensus on what the systemwide framework was going to be.

You’re a former state governor and, as such, oversaw a state university system. Now you’re a university president whose work is overseen by a governor. Few people have been on both sides of that relationship. What insights has it given you?

JN: Well, I have been on both sides of that dynamic, and I appreciate in particular the difficulties a governor has in dealing with the budget. In Arizona we did not have quite so much of our state budget already pre-decided by the initiative process, and that makes a difference here in California. I think Governor Brown and I have reached a common understanding of a framework. It’s one we reached in 2014 and includes funding that goes through the end of his term. So we did reach an agreement. I’ll just leave it there.

Fair enough. One last question.

JN: Fire away.

In a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, you wrote in defense of free speech on college campuses—something that’s increasingly at odds with student expectations of safe spaces and trigger warnings and the like. At the same time, the political discourse in the country seems to be coarsening. And there seems to be this corresponding polarization between those who feel students are being coddled, and people who believe that their rights aren’t taken seriously, that they’ve been systematically marginalized. So the question is, do you see a place for public universities in undoing some of this polarization in America?

JN: I hope so! I think part of the education process should be to empower students to argue persuasively, to have an informed opinion when they disagree with something, and to have the skills necessary to make that disagreement known, should they so desire. I think the notion behind liberal democracy—small l, small d—when you look at the philosophy of it, is that it requires an educated citizenry to work. And with our depth and our breadth and our scale, part of our role is to help create that educated citizenry. And an educated citizenry is one that is enabled to deal with free speech.

In your op-ed, you quoted Clark Kerr’s line about “not making ideas safe for students, but students safe for ideas.” I always found it ironic that he was the martyr, if you will, of the Free Speech Movement.

JN: You know, the history of that era and the end of his tenure as president is really fascinating. But I quoted his statement because I think it captures the essence of a public university.

And the line about preferring a “campus that is loud, to one that is quiet”—where did that come from?

JN: I just wrote it.

It was good.

JN: Thank you. And I think of all people, I’m equipped to say that, because sometimes the protests are about me. [laughs]

It comes with the job here, no?

JN: It is part of the ethos, and what I want is for our students to be equipped not only to protest, but to advocate and to effect positive change. 

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