In a surprise move, a search committee of the University of California on Friday nominated as its next leader a candidate with no record as a scholar or campus administrator.
The UC Board of Regents will vote next Thursday on the appointment of Janet Napolitano, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, giving students, faculty, staff, legislators and Californians less than a week to digest the nomination.
In their six-month search, the regents were seeking "an individual who is an outstanding leader and a respected scholar who has successfully demonstrated these abilities in a major complex organization."
Napolitano has a long record of public service, legal acumen as a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general, and administrative experience as Arizona's former governor and head of the third-largest U.S. Cabinet-level department. In her years of public service she has shown energy, enthusiasm, courage and stamina. She certainly has experience tackling difficult problems and has described her leadership style as keeping her eye "on long-term vision while dealing with the crisis du jour."
With her national stature and incredible work ethic, she could be a fine university president. But it is disappointing that the university community and the public have so little time to consider her record and for her to interact with university constituencies and the public in open forums before the regents make a decision.
Can she explain to all Californians why UC is important to the social, political and economic vibrancy of the state? Can she inspire UC's students and staff? Can she command the respect of the faculty?
Such a public vetting of its finalists has not been the UC tradition, but it should be. Outgoing UC President Mark Yudof's nomination was announced on a Thursday in March 2008 and regents approved his appointment the following Thursday.
Public interaction would be helpful for the nominee, the university community and the public, part of the relationship-building needed to have a successful UC presidency. Unfortunately, secrecy and springing an appointment on the Friday before the regents' Thursday meeting, with no hint in the agenda of the upcoming presidential decision, do nothing to help the nominee's credibility.
That's why, in Texas, the names of University of Texas presidential finalists must be made public at least 21 days before the Board of Regents decision.
That's why the University of New Mexico, University of Utah, University of Minnesota, University of Vermont, University of Nebraska, University of Florida, University of Wisconsin and others announce presidential finalists and have the candidates meet and interact with faculty, staff, students and community members in open public forums.
With 10 campuses, five medical centers, three national laboratories, 240,000 students, 190,000 faculty and staff, a budget of $24 billion and a two-decade history of declining state support, the new president needs to be able to garner and draw on the support of Californians. The search process needs to move beyond the rarefied air of select committees and reach out to the public.
Napolitano has great potential for leading the University of California. The regents should ensure that she gets a chance to interact with the university community and the public before their vote.