Protests and Gloom over Janet Napolitano

A long-time university insider told me she could not remember any prior appointment of a new president of the University of California made in such an unhappy atmosphere. Since joining the UC Santa Cruz faculty in 1966, I’ve seen eight new presidents, and I too have never seen such gloom over any of the previous seven.  Severe criticism of Janet Napolitano’s nomination had come from all sides–from left, right, and from just ordinary academics. The Regents “should be ashamed of themselves,” said UCLA’s Michael Meranze in a particularly trenchant blog on the UCLA Faculty Association’s official web-site. Dan Walters, dean of California journalists, bluntly said he could see no possible point in her appointment to the UC presidency.  During the time allowed for public comment at the Regents’ meeting almost everyone spoke against Napolitano, while many Regents were themselves uncharacteristically silent. But what most signaled a horrible mistake was the LA Times’ editorial. Why the hurry, said the Times, why not take more time to think about the nomination when it’s not at all obvious she’s a good fit.

This was absolutely devastating, but to understand how and why some background is needed. First, the LAT is virtually the paper of record for UC, and has often seemed almost to be the University’s mouthpiece. Second, with the nominee already publicly announced as President-designate and due to be present as such at the Regents’ meeting, any decision to have second thoughts would be a humiliation that would virtually force Napolitano to withdraw. The LAT’s call for a delay and more thought was an only lightly veiled message: don’t do it.

Why the widespread and determined opposition? Some of it was certainly to do with her positions on matters of public policy, but the critics didn’t agree among themselves on that score.  Far more serious was the impression Napolitano had given of her limited intellectual capacity in one public gaffe after another. Take one typical instance: when the underwear bomber managed to board NWA flight 253 on December 25 2009, evading all the safeguards that had been put in place, he failed to blow up the plane only because of his own incompetence. Janet Napolitano said that this showed that “the system had worked.”

To say that this was a dumb remark is to understate. UC professors are proud people, and the citizens of the state take pride in their University too. It is humiliating for faculty and citizens alike to have UC headed by a person who has so frequently shown herself to be a dimwit.

By the time the nomination was voted on by the Regents many must secretly have wished that this would go away, but it was too late. The custom has always been that a subcommittee makes the choice, with the final vote of the full board not a choice but merely a ceremony. And so the President-designate is on hand for the vote, something not possible if it were anything but a rubber stamp.  That does not mean that the procedure can’t be criticized. No less a person than the state Assembly’s speaker, John Perez, criticized the extreme secrecy of the search committee’s deliberations. He’s right: in the past, public feedback about names that were being considered was sometimes engineered in one way or another. One has to suspect that a few prime movers on the search committee knew that the only way to get someone with Napolitano’s baggage through was by fait accompli. They knew what public reaction would be and didn’t care.

Yesterday’s LAT had a front page essay that was still trying to sell the appointment to the public four days after it had been finalized, from which we can infer that UC knows it has a public relations disaster on its hands. The essay makes much of Napolitano’s administrative experience and involvement in decisions about education while Governor, but none of this gets to the real problem: what good is experience if it hasn’t resulted in better judgment and understanding of issues than that displayed in Napolitano’s idiotic public statements?

John Ellis

John Ellis

John Ellis is the Chairman of the Board of the California Association of Scholars and the author of "The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done."

One thought on “Protests and Gloom over Janet Napolitano”

  1. I think it’s safe to assume that Napolitano will be just as hostile to the report Professor Ellis co-authored for the California Association of Scholar, decrying the rampant politicization of the university, as was the previous president, Mark Yudof. Indeed, the degree of politicization will probably increase under Napolitano.

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