Napolitano—A Disastrous Choice

Peter Wood

Janet Napolitano’s appointment as president of the University of California is among the oddest choices ever for chief executive of a major university. 

Napolitano has no discernible qualification to serve as president of the nation’s premier public university. This is not to say that she lacks attainments. Before she was appointed Secretary of Homeland Security in 2009, she was twice elected governor of Arizona (2002 and 2006); and she had previously been elected Arizona’s attorney general (1998). Before that she was appointed by President Clinton in 1993 as a U.S. Attorney. And before that, as a law partner at Lewis and Roca, she had been an attorney for Anita Hill.

That is to say Napolitano has behind her a very successful political career. She is also bright and ambitious: a valedictorian of her college class (Santa Clara University); a Truman Scholar; a J.D. from the University of Virginia Law School; and a clerkship under Judge Mary Schroeder in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

To express dismay at the University of California Board of Regents for appointing her as the new president of the system is not to derogate Napolitano’s talents. It is simply to recognize the gulf between those talents and the position she is now set to assume. Talented she may be, but Napolitano is also hyper-partisan. She set a record in Arizona for the most gubernatorial vetoes. In one year alone—2005—she vetoed 58 bills. 

Problems with Male Employees

And talented as she may be, she is also dogged by a record of lawsuits and allegations that she engages in cronyism and unfair treatment of male employees. A federal lawsuit along these lines last year prompted the resignation of Suzanne Barr, the chief of staff in Immigration and Customs Enforcement, amid claims of “inappropriate sexual behavior” and glaring mismanagement of her department. Barr admitted no wrong-doing. She was one of Napolitano’s first appointments in Homeland Security and had worked for her since 2004. 

Napolitano was also sued in 2012 by Sunil Walia, an agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who claimed to have been retaliated against after filing two successful discrimination complaints. 

The lawsuit filed by the ICE officer in charge of the New York office, James Hayes, Jr., that eventuated in Barr’s resignation was rife with broader allegation. National Public Radio summed those allegations up as the charge that “the department, under Napolitano, has been turned into a female-run ‘frat house’ and that Napolitano promoted women because of friendship instead of merit.” It isn’t just NPR. The New York Post took to characterizing Napolitano as the “embattled anti-terrorism chief.”  She acquired the not-very-affectionate nickname in the American press of “Big Sis.” The caricature was of a blundering but ever-ready-to-step-on-toes busybody who offended with insouciance and left her main work a mess. 

Strange Response to the Underwear Bomber

This started early in her tenure. In December 2009, the now infamous “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to ignite the explosives hidden on his body while his plane from Amsterdam flew into Detroit. What saved the 278 passengers was an alert Dutch filmmaker who jumped Mr. Abdulmutallab and ripped “a smoldering object” from his crotch. Napolitano’s comment?  ”The system worked.”  The words astonished most Americans who didn’t know that our system of protecting airlines from mid-air suicide bombing depended on Dutch filmmakers ready to take the initiative. 

It wasn’t Napolitano’s only excursion into the bizarre. In April 2009, she prompted an international kerfuffle when she falsely asserted that the 9/11 terrorists had entered the U.S. through Canada and that Canada was the major point of access for other terrorists as well. Canada’s ambassador set the record straight:  the 9/11 terrorists all entered the U.S. directly into U.S. airports from airports abroad. Napolitano scrambled to “clarify.”  She meant the unsuccessful “millennium bomber” who was arrested in 1999 in Port Angeles, Washington. But then she dug in, claiming that Canada is lax about security, and that the U.S. should treat its Mexican and Canadian borders “equally.” 

So early on, we could see our Secretary of Homeland Security would have some trouble distinguishing between the real and the hypothetical, setting realistic priorities, and offering plausible explanations. 

Fearing Imaginary Terror from the Tea Party

But minimizing the real threat from the southern border by conjuring an imaginary one from the north wasn’t Napolitano’s most spectacular flight of fancy. In April 2009 she also issued Rightwing Extremism:  Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, a 9-page “intelligence assessment” that warned that the “economic downturn” and “the election of the first African American president” were driving “rightwing radicalization” that could lead to terrorism. The report especially warned about “military veterans” bringing their know-how back to the states and affiliating with hate-groups as a new breed of “domestic rightwing terrorists.”  Even the top House Democrat with oversight of the Department of Homeland Security said he was “dumbfounded” by the report. 

This was really nothing more than a preemptive smear of the entirely peaceful Tea Party movement, which then and ever since has had no role whatsoever in domestic terrorism. The “Rightwing Extremism” report epitomizes Napolitano’s approach to her job. She approached homeland security through the lens of Democratic partisan interests. Our peaceful border with Canada was called out as a present threat, while our not-so-peaceful border with Mexico was downplayed. The Tea Party was to be demonized. But the much more violent and lawless Occupy Movement never warranted an “intelligence assessment” from Homeland Security.

Her record in office is suffused with such misjudgments. In 2010, for example she appointed Mohamed Elibiary to Homeland Security’s Advisory Council. Elibiary, president of a Texas-based Freedom and Justice Foundation, is a follower of Sayyid Qutb, the father of modern Islamic terrorism. 

A Comfortable Spot for Retired Pols

So what were the Regents of the University of California thinking?

They could well have reflected on the long-standing practice of recycling successful (and not so successful) politicians into college presidencies when they were ready to return to civilian life. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, was plucked to be president of Purdue University; Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala resorted to the presidency of the University of Miami; Treasury Secretary Larry Summers steamed into the presidency of Harvard (until he spoke inopportunely); Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey husked his old office to become president of the New School; New Jersey governor Tom Kean limned his way to the presidency of Drew University; Oklahoma senator David Boren was soon president of the University of Oklahoma. It isn’t a new-found way of putting retired politicians on a comfortable pillow. Minnesota governor (1939-1943) and perennial presidential contender Harold Stassen also ran as the president of the University of Pennsylvania from 1948 to 1953. 

The roll-call of political re-treads as college presidents is no doubt much longer. Let’s give the practice its due. Successful politicians usually have decent managerial abilities. They are also typically well-attuned to appeasing multiple constituencies that can have conflicting purposes. A college president needs to deal with persnickety faculty members as well as hubristic football coaches. College presidents have to raise money. That’s second nature to a successful politician. And college presidents give speeches—typically long, empty speeches touched with a little bit of self-deprecating humor and a bit of pathos. Where better to find someone practiced in the art of vacuous oratory than in the precincts of American electoral politics?

But grant all the hostages you want to the practice of posting public officials to higher ed’s corner offices, the practice can’t quite explain seconding Janet Napolitano to the presidency of the University of California. Sherry Lansing, who chaired the Regents’ selection committee “acknowledged Napolitano is an unconventional choice,” according to one press account, but said she “brings management experience and leadership” to the job. That’s all she said. No further comment. I guess bad management experience is still experience, and leadership is still leadership even if it offends more than half the country. Governor Jerry Brown, however, is pleased. He thinks Napolitano’s “outsider’s mind” will help the university. 

I don’t think the bland effusions of Lansing, Brown, or others in the loop tell us much about what really happened, though some of these bromides are inadvertently amusing.

“Bruce Varner, chair of the university’s board of regents, said in a statement that Napolitano has a track record for taking on and tackling the toughest challenges.

“She has a reputation for seeing things through, no matter how difficult the effort,” he said.

What she has a reputation for seeing through is her political agenda, and she doesn’t let much stand in the way. That’s apparently what the UC Regents want.

A little over a year ago, the National Association of Scholars issued a report, A Crisis of Competence, which documented the University of California’s accelerating descent into political activism. It is activism that affects the curriculum, the classroom, campus events, and alas, the Regents too. For over a year we have tried to get the Regents to respond to the report with something other than a perfunctory dismissal. Now, in a manner of speaking, they have. 

They aren’t unhappy with the transformation of the University of California into a conveyor belt of partisan politics. They are unhappy with the speed of the conveyer belt. They have appointed someone who will do her best to improve its efficiency. 

There is a public policy problem with this. Political advocacy these days is so fused with pedagogy that we forget that our schools and colleges are meant to be neutral ground. There is a lot at stake in this principle. Public trust in higher education is in great part trust in the integrity of faculty members and administrators to advance knowledge, understanding, scholarship, and the pursuit of truth, unmixed with their ideological preferences. 

The wall between ideology and knowledge has been under siege for a generation or more. Those besiegers are equipped with ladders of sophistry with which they mount the wall by saying that “everything is political” and that “it is all about power.” 

I don’t expect Janet Napolitano to say it in so many words, but that’s the view she embodies. And by appointing her as UC’s new president, the Regents have surmounted the wall entirely. Her appointment is the plain and cynical declaration that UC is dedicating itself to a certain kind of hackery that triumphs over scholarly principle. 

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on July 17, 2013.

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