Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano

Scott Henrichsen, CGS

The higher education of Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano may be the rookie president of the University of California (UC) system. But that doesn’t make the 57-year-old lawyer any less of a politician than when she served two terms as governor of Arizona or 4 years as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security during President Barack Obama’s first term.

Last month, Napolitano scored what pundits are calling an initial victory over California Governor Jerry Brown in what is expected to be a long battle over her proposal for an annual 5% hike in UC tuition to offset what she calls the state’s “disinvestment” in higher education. Fresh off that success, Napolitano came to Washington, D.C., yesterday to press federal lawmakers to increase support for graduate education.

Her first stop was the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, where her message of activism clashed with the association’s traditional low profile on the federal scene. Only a half-dozen of the 600 deans and other university officials in attendance raised their hands when Napolitano asked how many planned to find time during the meeting to meet with congressional leaders and agency officials. “I was shocked,” she told ScienceInsider after her speech. “That’s what I mean by the echo chamber,” she added, noting that talking to like-minded colleagues isn’t going to move the needle.

But a savvy policymaker like Napolitano—who Forbes described in 2012 as the ninth most powerful woman in the world—knows that simply making your case to elected officials isn’t enough to win the day, either. She admitted as much when speaking to ScienceInsider about the attacks on federally funded social science and climate research by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chair of the House of Representatives science committee, and other Republicans.

At first, Napolitano offered the politically correct answer: “There’s a grant about meditation that Lamar Smith has picked out,” she said. “And you might say it’s crazy. But if you want to know about early intervention that could reduce stress and help people get off drugs, there are huge public health benefits in that. We just have to do a better job of explaining what social scientists do.”

When asked for the roots of that criticism, she acknowledged the limits of rationale discourse. “They don’t like it. That’s really what it comes down to.”

Here are other excerpts from our conversation with her. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: A lot of legislators say they worked their way through school and wonder why the federal government should be subsidizing college tuition.

A: I suspect that a lot of them went through school when tuition was a lot lower because the states were investing a lot more in higher education back then. The University of California was basically free 30 years ago. Making public policy through personal anecdote never works.

Q: Do university officials risk overselling the role of basic research by promising big economic returns on their investment?

A: Yes, that’s an issue. First of all, a lot of the research is long term, and you don’t know where it will lead. So that’s why you need to be an advocate and educate people about the process.

At the same time, there are whole industries that emanate from our research. The biotech industry in San Diego came out of us; the wine industry and the growth of agriculture came out of the University of California. And Silicon Valley came about because of Berkeley and Stanford.

Q: Some people argue that Congress should reinstitute earmarks [requests by individual investigators to fund projects in their districts that agencies have not requested] as a way of breaking political gridlock. Many of those have benefited universities. What do you think?

A: Well, they are trade bait. And I guess Congress is a little low on trade bait these days.  Earmarks can be useful. And they can help the legislative process, as it turns out. But they were being overused and abused to the degree that the normal appropriations process was being undercut.

So if they want to bring back limited earmarks, they need to do it in a way that respects the budget appropriations process. But I should emphasize that’s my personal opinion. I’m not speaking on behalf of the Board of Regents.

Q: The number of African American and Latino faculty members at major research universities remains abysmally low despite efforts over the past several decades. Why is it so much harder for academia to overcome racial and ethnic barriers than, say, gender barriers?

A: One of the things we’ve observed is that first-generation college students, particularly from URMs [underrepresented minorities], if they go to graduate school, they want to become a doctor or a lawyer or an MBA. They tend to go into the professional schools rather than the Ph.D.-granting schools. That’s why our efforts with minority-serving institutions on summer research experiences are so important. In order to diversify the faculty, you need to diversify the pipeline. And that’s not going to happen without specific programs.

Q: Should there be specific federal programs to help graduate education?

A: I think that from the mid-19th century to post–World War II, there was an unwritten compact in higher education that the federal government would provide the land and fund the research and that the states would build the buildings and pay for the academic experience for the students. And then if there were any activities left over, the student would pay. But that compact no longer exists. The disinvestment by the state of California in higher ed is striking.

The University of California is a big, deep, resilient place. But we must get additional funding to maintain our excellence and serve our residents, because we want to increase our enrollment by 5000 or more. But as far as specific programs to supplant the decline in state support, I’m not sure that this Congress is ready for it.