The University of California is about to get a little less Ivory Tower and a little more White House.
Janet Napolitano, President Barack Obama's homeland security secretary, has been nominated as the next president of the 10-campus UC system, the university announced Friday. Her selection signals a major shift for California's premier public university system, which for more than a century has been led by men steeped in academia.
Napolitano will not only be the first woman to lead UC, she will also be the first former governor, former attorney general and former U.S. Cabinet secretary to steer the institution that serves 234,000 high-performing students.
"I recognize that I am a non-traditional candidate," Napolitano said in a written statement. "In my experience, whether preparing to govern a state or to lead an agency as critical and complex as Homeland Security, I have found the best way to start is simply to listen."
The UC Board of Regents is expected to confirm Napolitano's nomination on Thursday, when the university will report details of her compensation package.
Napolitano, a Democrat, served five years as Arizona's attorney general, six years as its governor and four years at the helm of the national Department of Homeland Security. She went to college in California at the private University of Santa Clara.
Napolitano, 55, would succeed Mark Yudof, who announced earlier this year that health problems were prompting him to step down as president and assume a teaching position at UC Berkeley's law school.
During Yudof's five years as president, UC experienced steep budget cuts from the state and enormous tumult on its campuses. Faculty objected to a year of furloughs, nonacademic staff picketed during contract negotiations and students routinely protested soaring tuition. Tensions reached a crescendo in 2011 when a UC Davis police officer pepper-sprayed protesters, inspiring global outrage.
Throughout those years, UC's students and its 208,000 employees urged Yudof to engage more heavily in Capitol politics to try to sweeten UC's funding situation. Gov. Jerry Brown became an active participant in UC governance after voters approved his Proposition 30 tax increase last year, which boosted funding for the university's $24 billion budget.
Brown released a statement Friday saying Napolitano "has the strength of character and an outsider's mind that will well serve the students and faculty. It will be exciting to work with her."
Yudof enjoys a good relationship with Brown, said Bob Powell, a UC Davis professor who heads the university's statewide faculty Senate. But the possibilities for Napolitano to bond with the governor are much greater, he said, because she's been in his shoes.
"When he starts talking about the pressures he's under, she's going to understand those things in a different way from Mark (Yudof)," Powell said. "She'll know how far she can take a conversation, and Jerry is going to know she understands."
Powell also said UC may benefit from being led by a Washington insider when it comes to the flow of federal dollars for financial aid, UC's five hospitals and the three national laboratories it manages.
"If there's a way we can help lobby on those issues, she'll know as well as anyone how to do that," he said.
Raquel Morales, a UC San Diego student who heads the UC Student Association, said students were a little taken aback that the university's next president will have no background in education.
"A lot of the issues we're facing right now are academic – such as online education," Morales said. "Just how familiar she is with education, that's where the concern lies."
Morales said Yudof made himself accessible to students, and she hopes Napolitano will do the same.
"We just hope she will be willing to work with student leaders on student issues," she said.
Though Napolitano may be a gifted politician with experience leading large organizations, her skills might not translate to UC, said Jack Stripling, who covers college leadership nationally for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
"Balancing the politics of the academy against the politics of the state is something she hasn't had to do," Stripling said.
"There is a process and patience required to academic administration that some politicians probably find tedious. It's a very consensus-driven environment. And hard-charging political figures who are used to getting their way, and getting their way quickly, don't always adapt well to that change."
Stripling could think of just a handful of people who have transitioned from high-level politics to academic leadership: Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, who became the president of Purdue, and Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, a Clinton administration staffer who became president of Marlboro College in Vermont.
Age: 55, born in New York City
Education: Law degree, University of Virginia, 1983; bachelor's degree, Santa Clara University, 1979
Experience: Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2009-present (will step down in September); Arizona governor, 2003-2009; Arizona attorney general, 1999-2003; attorney, Lewis and Roca, 1997-1998; U.S. attorney for Arizona, 1993-1997; partner, Lewis and Roca, 1989-1993; associate, Lewis and Roca, 1984-1989; clerk to Judge Mary Schroeder, 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals, 1983-1984
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.