Q&A: UC President Is Bullish on California’s Future, and the Next Generation

Q&A: UC President Is Bullish on California’s Future, and the Next Generation

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Ed. Note: In this installment of an ongoing interview series with University of California President Janet Napolitano, NAM writer Anna Challet sat down with Napolitano at the UC’s Oakland office to discuss this year’s graduating class and the future of the UC in a rapidly changing California.

What inspires you most about UC students?

I continue to be impressed by the number of first-generation students who are getting their degrees – their families are there at commencement and it’s such a point of pride.

I always think, ‘Where did those brains come from? They’re a lot smarter than I am!’ In every field, from medicine to engineering to agriculture to the arts and humanities, they’re doing amazing research. I recently hosted a competition for graduate students called the Grad Slam. Each finalist gives a 3-minute elevator pitch on their research for a panel of judges. Our students are working on everything from a new material made of shrimp shells to a new way to make mental health care more accessible for students.

What is your top issue at the UC right now?

My top issue is always around funding. Do we have enough funding to do what we need to do? Will Sacramento support us? How do we keep tuition as low as possible? How do we account for the cost of attendance?

We have a working group now in the UC Regents looking at the total cost of attendance, and one of the things they’re looking at is whether we calculate financial aid the right way. I know they’re particularly looking at middle-income students. With the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, students from families making less than $80,000 a year pay no tuition or fees. That’s been a terrific help to low-income students, but we have to look at our middle-income students too. Almost half our students graduate with zero debt. We want to continue to fight to stay that way.

What’s happening with the UC’s immigrant students, given the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants?

We’re really trying to do all we can within the context of an unfriendly national environment to show that they’re part of the university community. Immediately after the election we reached out to our undocumented student community. We reiterated that they’re important members of the university community. We’ve let them know that university police will not be surrogates for ICE. We won’t be turning over records voluntarily. We have an undocumented student advisory council and we fund an undocumented student legal services center where we provide free legal services to undocumented students.

What is the UC doing to addresses global issues?

We set a goal of being carbon neutral by 2025. We purchased the largest solar farm of any university in the country. We’re doing research on alternative forms of energy and scalable solutions that we can export. We’re working now to form a coalition of higher education institutions to support the Paris Accords. Even though President Trump has withdrawn the United States, it doesn’t preclude states or universities from adhering to the goals of the agreement.

The Global Food Initiative is another area where we’ve united the campuses. The goal is looking at how we can set the world on the pathway to a nutritious, sustainable food future. That involves funding for food insecurity among our own students, but expands all the way to what we can do internationally.

How do you see education changing around major shifts in labor, like the increasing number of jobs that will become automated?

Education constantly changes. Regarding the growth in robotics and in artificial intelligence, you have to ask the question: What are humans going to do? Historically, whenever there’s been a major shift in the means of production, like with the Industrial Revolution, human creativity has come into play and the economy grows in other places. There may not be the same kinds of hard manufacturing jobs, but there will be a continued emphasis on creativity. Things will happen that we can’t even conceive of right now.

When you talk to students and families, what are they most hopeful about?

In California, the economy overall makes people optimistic. It’s a state that’s growing economically, where our students when they graduate can get good jobs. There’s a difference being in California. There’s a sense of the future. California continues to move forward. It’s not mired in the past. The UC’s business is educating the next generation and pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge. It’s a strong and vital place and for me it’s a privilege to be here.