The Fixer

The Fixer
Janet Napolitano '79 addresses an audience at Santa Clara University. Photo by Charles Barry
by Kristen Intlekofer |
Santa Clara’s first female valedictorian becomes U.C.’s first female president. Can she help fix the system?

In mid-July, Janet Napolitano ’79 made national headlines when she announced plans to step down from her post as U.S. secretary of homeland security to helm the University of California system, becoming U.C.’s 20th president and the first woman to hold the position in U.C.’s 145-year history. Napolitano also has the distinction of another first—she was the first female valedictorian at SCU.

In a press release announcing her appointment, the University of California noted that Napolitano was chosen from among 300 people considered for the position—and that, in fact, she was the search committee’s unanimous choice. Though Napolitano herself has acknowledged that she may not be the most traditional candidate, she has a record of prioritizing higher education. “I have not spent a career in academia,” Napolitano told the U.C. system’s governing board in July. “But that said, I have spent 20 years in public service advocating for it.”

Napolitano has also advocated for what she says could and should happen more: people (with their ideas and energy) moving between work in government and higher education and industry.

Prior to her homeland security role, during the two terms she served as governor of Arizona, Napolitano argued for such changes as a fixed four-year tuition rate for incoming freshmen and salary increases to encourage top faculty members to remain in Arizona schools. She also helped bring about the opening of a new medical school in Phoenix, increased funding for research, and advocated for state schools to educate more students in the health sciences and tech fields, even amid budget shortfalls.

At a time when the U.C. system still faces financial challenges, those who know her from the Santa Clara community are confident that she is not only up to the task but capable of securing U.C.'s legacy into the future. Former classmate Elise Thurau ’79, now legislative director for state Senator Fran Pavley, told the San Jose Mercury News, “She may not have worked in the academic world before, but she is one of those people who—whatever you put into her hands—will do it with all her might.” Another classmate who worked with Napolitano on the staff of The Santa Clara, Paul Totah ’79, told the Oakland Tribune that he believes Napolitano’s new role will be a good fit. “She is a fixer,” he said.

For those who have raised concerns about Napolitano moving from a role of enforcer on immigration policy to heading the U.C. system, where student immigration concerns include support for undocumented students, an interesting place to look for Napolitano’s ideas might be our Spring 2010 piece “Connect the dots,” from her talk as part of SCU’s President’s Speaker Series. There she calls for immigration reform that may be a reality in the months ahead.

Johnson Riggs '08 said on Aug 6, 2013

If she runs the UC system anything like the DHS, they'll be bankrupt in a year.

Dan Landry '86 said on Aug 6, 2013

Nailed it.

Susan Fry '79 said on Aug 6, 2013

I was also in Sec. Napolitano's graduating class at SCU, and it seems to me that she has been denied the recognition she richly deserves for a list of truly impressive accomplishments.

I have often heard experts on shows like "Meet the Press" or "Charlie Rose" talk about how FEMA has been completely turned around since Hurricane Katrina and how good its response has been during the large number of horrific disasters that have occurred during Sec. Napolitano's tenure—yet I have never heard anyone mention her by name or give her credit for that transformation.

I went down to UCSF's Mission Bay campus the day Sec. Napolitano was confirmed as President of UC. The group of protesters chanting "Education not deportation" were mostly teenaged, well-organized, and well-behaved. I tried to imagine the courage it took for them to be there and I admired their commitment to trying to effect change.

I stood and chanted with them while holding aloft a hand-made sign that read "Welcome, Janet! We need you!" on one side and "You fixed FEMA, please fix UC!" on the other.

I don't think the demonstrators expected a middle-aged woman supporting Napolitano to also be supporting them. To their credit, some of them engaged me in conversation. They said Napolitano hated immigrants and had no background in education and should never be appointed.

I asked them if they were aware of Sec. Napoltano's record when she was the governor of Arizona (they were honest and said "no"). I said that, if they did some research, they'd find that for years she'd been talking about the desperate need for immigration reform in her speeches. Did they know what statements she had made regarding allowing the children of illegal immigrants to attend college?

I pointed out that Arizona has a state school system, too—including some large universities. And that, as governor, Janet would have been actively involved in issues pertaining to that system. And since the President of U.C. would have to tackle complex and difficult business issues such as funding, budgeting, and staffing, selecting a woman who had been in charge of the U.S. Coast Guard and had fixed FEMA sounded like an excellent choice to me.

We disagreed—but we let each other speak. And I think we all actually tried to listen.

I hope the people protesting will meet Janet. I feel certain she would admire their courage and commitment to work for change. And I know they would find not the adversary they imagine, but an accessible, caring, and thoughtful person, who would listen carefully to their concerns and continue working to find a solution to the deeply troubling situation these kids are in.

Dan Sapone '72 said on Aug 7, 2013

Thank you for that, Susan Fry '79. I agree with you and I suspect that Janet can apply her thoughtful approach not only to the issues you discuss, but also to foster a civil approach to dialogue among those who disagree, as you have done, as Santa Clara has always taught us.

Glen in AZ said on Aug 7, 2013

Well, at least now [Napolitano] will be confining her lack of ability to the sorry State of California. We are happy that she is gone from AZ!

Kevin Dowling '84 said on Aug 7, 2013
Secretary Napolitano is a great selection for the UC system. Go fellow Bronco!
Disgusted Peter Principle said on Aug 8, 2013

Another disastrous Obama appointee. Epitome of incompetence—now will taint UC.

An immigration and illegal immigrant debacle, fast and furious, etc., etc. Embarrassed that she also graduated from SCU and was a valedictorian. Goes to show grades and the university mean nothing—it is what you do after!

Summer 2014

Table of contents


A day with the Dalai Lama

High-spirited and hushed moments from Feb. 24: a day to talk about business, ethics, compassion.

The Catholic writer today

Poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia argues that Catholic writers must renovate and reoccupy their own tradition.

Our stories and the theatre of awe

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Marilynne Robinson speaks about grace, discernment, and being a modern believer.

Mission Matters

What would the next generation say?

Hossam Baghat, one of Egypt’s leading human rights activists, was awarded the 2014 Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize for his work defending human rights.

Breaking records on the maplewood

Scoring 40 points in one game. And besting Steve Nash’s freshman year.

How's the water?

A lab on a chip helps provide the answer—which is a matter of life and death when the question is whether drinking water contains arsenic.