Objection is mounting to the nomination of Janet Napolitano as the next University of California president, with students and immigration activists planning to protest against her at Thursday's meeting of the governing Board of Regents in San Francisco.
Napolitano, a former governor and attorney general of Arizona, announced Friday she would step down as President Barack Obama's U.S. Homeland Security secretary after her nomination to UC is confirmed. She is expected to attend the meeting, where regents are scheduled to vote on her nomination.
As the head of the national Department of Homeland Security, Napolitano is the face of the nation's immigration policy, a role that is making her unpopular with some UC activists. In her first two years as Homeland Security secretary, the United States deported more undocumented immigrants than ever before, the federal government announced in 2011. She also oversaw the so-called "Secure Communities" program that allows law enforcement and immigration officials to share fingerprints of arrestees.
UC Irvine student Andrea Gaspar, 22, said many students are upset by the Secure Communities program and object to its architect taking the reins at UC.
"A lot of families were being affected and harassed and searched for documentation, for their background and they were profiled," Gaspar said, adding that immigrant students fear that they will be unwelcome at UC with Napolitano at the head.
"It's going to be hard to be part of the university knowing that the head of the university has harassed your family and your friends," she said.
"We need someone who is willing to embrace a student as a human being and not as someone with a documentation status."
Napolitano supported a federal bill known as the DREAM Act, which sought to stop the deportation of children whose parents brought them to the United States illegally if they have no criminal record and are pursuing a college education or military career. Congress never passed the bill.
Despite her support for the DREAM Act, the website dreamactivist.org is collecting signatures on a letter that asks UC regents not to confirm Napolitano.
"Secretary Napolitano is the architect of the deportation machine that has resulted in over 1.5 million deportations during President Obama's tenure," the letter says. "She has no expertise in higher education, only in family separation, and no place in our public university system."
Napolitano is an unusual choice for UC, which for more than 100 years has been headed by men with rich backgrounds as scholars and university administrators. She would be the first woman – and the first career politician – to head California's premier system of higher education.
While she wouldn't be the first politician in the country to take the reins of a university, some California faculty are unhappy that someone with a thin academic background is in line to take UC's top job.
"Napolitano is contrary to every other president that UC has ever had. It seems to be a sign that they want to make a change, but it's not clear what that direction is," said William Drummond, a professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
"This is a question that will be hotly debated as people drift back from vacation – what does this mean about who the university is? Are we still the crown jewel in the academic world? Or now are we turning into more of a political entity, something that's kicked around within the framework of partisan politics? That's the uncertainty about what this means."
Christopher Newfield, a UC Santa Barbara professor who studies higher education issues, wrote a blog post criticizing UC for its interest in what he called the nation's "top cop."
"Meritocracies define 'being qualified' for the biggest job in a field as requiring prior experience in other jobs in the field. One is co-pilot before being pilot, a medical intern before being a licensed physician, Provost at Columbia before being Chancellor of UC Berkeley, and so on," Newfield wrote.
"Ms. Napolitano has no experience with university life or management and no known body of organized thought on the subject. It is not easy to make up for this. Being a political heavyweight is not a qualification for being a university president. Earning President Obama's trust is not a qualification."
Bob Powell, a UC Davis professor who chairs UC's statewide academic senate, defended the selection of Napolitano.
Being president of the UC system is very different than heading a campus, he said. The statewide president already acts as a political figurehead, he said, and does not hire faculty or make decisions about which professors get tenure – decisions made by campus-level chancellors.
"The president is (at the Capitol) a lot and is the first person anyone in the Legislature is going to call when they want to talk about the University of California," Powell said. For that reason, he said, a political president makes sense.
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.