Q&A: A Year In, Napolitano Uncovering Treasures of UC

Q&A: A Year In, Napolitano Uncovering Treasures of UC

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Ed. Note: One year since becoming head of the University of California, Janet Napolitano says she's taken an archaeologist's approach to uncovering the many layers of California's priemiere public research university. Having spearheaded a number of key initiatives -- from global food security, enhancing ties with Mexico, and easing the transfer process for community college students -- she says now is the time to "put our shoulders to the wheel" to push these and other projects along.  She spoke with NAM Education Editor Peter Schurmann. This interview has been edited. (Photo credit: Susan Merrell, UC San Francisco)

Now that you are in the trenches of working with young people in California, what have you learned about the millennial generation?

When I was in college, a lot of people talked about going into politics, elected office, that sort of thing. I have yet to hear a student ask me about doing that. They want to engage on big problems: the climate, hunger, and social inequality. There’s a great sense of social purpose in what they want to do, but the kind of traditional, government approach is not very appealing. And I wonder, with the money in politics and how the media covers politics, whether we’ve kind of ruined it as an attractive and important thing to do. Nobody can think of going to Congress today and think they’re going to make much of a difference.

The UC has gotten high marks for that sense of social purpose that you mention.

You can see it in the kinds of student organizations that exist. I met yesterday with the leadership of the [fraternity and sorority] communities on the Berkeley campus. About 15 percent of the students belong, which is higher than I had thought. But it wasn’t to talk about their social life or parties; it was to talk about sexual assault, or ways they could plug into different initiatives like climate change and food. It was a very different kind of conversation.

Is it your sense that students on the UC campuses are getting the message about sexual violence?

It’s getting out there. It’s a culture change, it’s really a culture change. It’s going to require leadership, persistence and consistency.

The recently launched UC Ventures fund has been criticized by academics who say it undermines the academic purity of UC research. How do you respond to that concern?

It’s important to understand what the venture fund is. UCOP invests about $90 billion a year, specifically through the office of the chief investment officer. $60 billion are pension deposits of our faculty and staff, another $20 billion is an endowment, which are private gifts, and the rest is working capital. We have always invested a little bit of that in the venture capital community for startups and things like that. What UC Ventures says is let's take that – it’s up to $250 million – and refocus that on work that emanates out of the University of California, and share the risk. You’ve got a grad student with a great idea. He’s got a 2 or 3-person startup. Let’s invest in that guy, provided it meets certain standards and protocols.

What are your priorities going forward?

I want to be able to take the initiatives we’ve launched and accomplish substantive things under each one. I’m not really looking at designing another initiative right now. What I will spend a lot of time on this year will be matters of budget, finances, tuition, and having that greater discussion with California, both in Sacramento and throughout the state, about "why" a public research university and how important it is to support UC.

In recent remarks you’ve hinted at growing public skepticism around the value of investing in a college degree. Do you see it as a personal challenge to address this?

Yes. With tuition, we have what I call the “sticker price myth.” People only see the highest sticker price, not recognizing that 55 percent of our California students don’t pay any tuition at all, and another big chunk gets a big discount. That’s something we need to do a better job at getting out there.

I worry, particularly about first generation students [first in their families to go to college] presuming they can’t afford to come to the university, and thereby not even applying. When in point of fact, there are a lot of ways to get to here. And even when an undergraduate student graduates with debt (and that’s a small percentage), it’s less than $20,000 for the full four years on average. That’s (the price of) a car; I get that. But it’s a car you will be driving for the rest of your life.

With the recent shift to the new Common Core standards in California's K-12 public schools, UC has agreed to revise its admissions process. What are your thoughts on the standards?

Common Core first arose when I was a governor out of the National Governors Association. It originally came from the Republican governors, who felt our students were not getting the basics. They were for it before they were against it, and they weren’t against it until the Department of Education and the Obama Administration took it on. Then they said you are federalizing education in the wrong way.

It’s such an example of pure partisan politics overtaking policy and losing sight of what this is about. What it’s about is trying to make sure that every young person in this country has access to certain standards of education that don’t preclude them from going and getting a higher education, which is the leading vehicle that we have to cure the income inequality gap.

You’ve tried to make the UC both a global and a California institution. After a year, is your sense that it can be both?

Yes. The obvious example is on the research side. Our research is truly global, in scope and in impact. Actually, it’s interstellar and intergalactic when you think about it. We’re probably one of the leading astronomical institutions in the world. Focusing on some of the fundamental questions like how the universe was created, and the laws of physics that govern that. Those basic theorems are what ultimately create the platform from which so many things devolve.

You’ve expressed skepticism about online education. Do you see a place for it in the learning community that defines a public research university?

I think it can add variety and accessibility. There’s a version of on-line learning called hybrid, where what we would traditionally have gone to as a lecture is conducted online. You still have class but its aimed more at discussion or breaking into work groups. So it enables you to enlarge the academic experience. The other thing I like about online is for those who want to be continuous learners, who don’t want to stop learning after they get their degree. I definitely think it is an important additive to the community of a public research university.

What are the lessons learned from your first year?

When Heinrich Schlieman discovered Troy, it was eight levels of city before he got to Troy. There were all these layers. That’s very true here. I came in kind of knowing part of the surface strata. But now being able to act in a leadership role and as an archaeologist, kind of digging and uncovering different layers and what’s going on in those different layers. These are lessons learned. I can be here who knows how long, and I am confident I will never know this whole place.

Any surprises?

Surprise good: Even with all the budget cuts, how fundamentally strong and resilient the university is. Surprise bad: that there needs to be a continued and rededicated effort to communicate the value of a university like the UC to the people of California.