Reflecting on UC President Napolitano's Tenure: 'I Want It to be Remembered as Being Lively'

Janet Napolitano speaks with Scott Shafer on KQED Newsroom in 2013. (Monica Lam/KQED)

In August, University of California President Janet Napolitano will step down after seven years at the helm. In a one-on-one interview with The California Report's Lily Jamali, Napolitano talked about the decision to suspend the standardized test requirement in admissions, the ongoing pay dispute with grad students, the future of the UC's Dreamers and how she views her legacy.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

KQED's Lily Jamali: On immigration, the Supreme Court could issue a decision at any moment on whether so-called "Dreamers" can stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. For people who don't know, you created DACA during your time as Homeland Security Secretary and your UC has led that legal fight. If Dreamers end up losing their status, what does the UC plan to do with Dreamers within the system?

Janet Napolitano: We will provide support to our DACA students. We have a legal services clinic for our undocumented students. Some of them may actually be able to change their immigration status if they work with a lawyer who is experienced in immigration law. But there's a big concern here, because along with deferring any deportation, if you're in DACA you get work authorization. Our DACA students primarily come from poor families and they need to work to be able to go to school. We're  evaluating what our options are there. They're not terrific options, but philanthropy and private fundraising to help support these students is definitely part of the solution here.

And potentially some financial help?

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And potentially some financial help. We estimate that at the University of California — I think this is a conservative estimate — that we have some 1,700 DACA students. And you know what's ironic about the case in the Supreme Court? There were hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients across the country. And there was a supplemental brief filed pointing out that 29,000 of them are actually health care workers. They're nurses, respiratory therapists, and physicians. To put them under the risk of deportation at this particular point in time just makes no sense whatsoever.

If the Supreme Court ends up siding against Dreamers, is there a game plan to fill the positions that they would leave behind within the UC?

Not in that way. One of our next steps would obviously be to continue to urge the Trump administration to leave the program in place. Just because the Supreme Court rules that the administration can rescind the program the way it did, doesn't mean it ought to rescind the program. And then Congress will need to get involved should the Supreme Court rule against us.

When the pandemic first hit California, the UC was dealing with a strike by graduate students at UC Santa Cruz, and it looked like students at some other campuses in the system were ready to join. The union has filed charges of unfair labor practices and hearings on that start this month. I wonder if you can share your position right now on that dispute. Those students say that they're not making a living wage.

The graduate students who were on strike went on an unlawful wildcat strike. We have a union. We have a collective bargaining agreement. We simply seek to enforce the agreement that students themselves voted on and approved. They have filed some complaints against us in connection with the wildcat strike. We have filed a complaint against the union for not enforcing the no-strike provisions in their collective bargaining agreement. One of the chief values we get from a collective bargaining agreement is the assurance of labor peace and that there will not be strikes while there is a contract in place. And we think PERB [California's Public Employment Relations Board], which is the body that hears these kinds of issues, ought to enforce the contract that the union and its members agree to.

I've spoken to members of the union who went on strike. One of them was making something like $20,000 a year in Santa Cruz, where the cost of living is pretty expensive. It's expensive in L.A., it's expensive in Berkeley. Do you think that $21,000 or $22,000 is a living wage in a place like Santa Cruz?

Well, I think you ought to look at the total compensation that graduate students get. They get a waiver of tuition, health insurance, a pretty hefty childcare subsidy. So the overall package is very competitive with other grad student compensation packages around the country. We thought it was a fair deal when it was struck. It will be renegotiated, obviously, when the contract is due to expire. I think it has another two years to go and that would be the appropriate time for these kinds of issues to be raised. It's not appropriate, however, for grad students to hold undergraduate grades hostage, which is what was occurring here. You know, they have a contract. Part of that agreement is that they post grades in a timely manner. They get all of the benefits that I've described, plus some. And a wildcat strike really undercuts the core of why we have collective bargaining to begin with.

I also want to get your reaction to reports from Vice News that the UC Santa Cruz Police Department coordinated with the state's National Guard to do surveillance on students during those strikes. I just want to have you address concerns that the situation was approached like a military operation in the view of some.

That question is probably more appropriately addressed to the campus. They will have the real detail on that. But I will tell you that the Santa Cruz campus is very hilly. And I don't think it was so much coordination as UC Santa Cruz Police and National Guard — knowing where each other, where they were — because you couldn't see them just because of the topography of the campus. So I think some of those practicalities came into effect.

So this notion that there was surveillance happening to repress protesters, what's your response to that? Because that's the charge: that it was not about logistics but about suppressing protest.

Well, I don't think the protests were suppressed. They happened. They were very active. Anti-protest surveillance is the perception. I think it's an inaccurate one.

Given the moment that we're in, I have to also ask you about the role of police, not just during those strikes, but in general. Is there any discussion about defunding the police departments within the UC?

Not defunding, but we want to make sure that our police are well-trained and are using best practices in terms of de-escalation and that complaints — when made — are handled properly. That there's reporting and accountability, and that we have a systemwide use-of-force policy. There's a campaign — 8 Can't Wait. It's eight fundamental actions that reduce the risk of violence by police departments and we're implementing all of those. We had a very extensive policing task force a year ago that came out with a report with a number of recommendations, all of which are being implemented by the campuses as we speak.

Let's talk about the SAT decision: the UC last month announced it's suspending those testing requirements through 2024. Can you take us inside how that that debate played out within the UC system?

Sure. So in 2018, I asked the academic Senate to review the use of the SAT and ACT as a requirement for admission. There's been a lot of public controversy about the SAT exam: that it is unfairly biased in favor of students from wealthier families, that there was an unhealthy correlation between the SAT and your zip code, that a whole industry had developed for students to prepare for the SAT and that disadvantaged students from lower-income families just plain couldn't afford it. So the faculty did a very extensive report which came to me. I disagreed with the conclusion of the report that we ought to maintain the SAT in part because in our admissions process, we were turning all kinds of gymnastic leaps to mitigate for the biases in the test. And so it seemed to me it was time for the UC to wean its way from the SAT.

So for the next two years, we'll be test-optional, meaning students can elect to submit a test or not. And then, for the following two years, we'll be what's called "test blind" — meaning if a student submits a test score, it won't be used in the admissions decision but it can be used for other purposes: some scholarships, for example, or course placement. And then, by 2025, we either will have developed an alternative test or we'll simply have no standardized test requirement.

Why does UC plan to make yet another admissions test amid criticism that tests are classist, racist and exclusive? What do you think that test will emphasize?

So first of all, we haven't made a decision whether to have an alternative test. We are looking at the feasibility of that right now. We require, as does CSU, that high school students take what's called A-G courses. These are the sequence of courses to prepare you to enter university. An alternative test could be more closely aligned with what we want students to have learned in the A-G classes so that admissions officers can evaluate whether students are prepared to enter the university. So that may be one aspect of a new test should a new test actually be developed.

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You have been the president of the UC since 2013. How do you want your tenure to be remembered?

I want to be remembered as being lively. We just did so many things. We had the goal of being carbon-neutral by 2025. In pursuit of that goal, we became fossil-free, and also invested some of our own funds into new, sustainable energy practices. We took on the issue of sexual violence and sexual harassment on college campuses, and totally re-did the framework for how we handle those matters. We grew substantially in enrollment. We added some 46,000 students during my tenure. But not only did we add students, we improved things like graduation rates — so our 4-year graduation rate went from 63% to 70%, and our 6-year graduation rate went to 85%. And for transfer students, the graduation rate is 90%. We added transfer students and formed a transfer guarantee with the community college system so that now, for every two freshmen, we have a transfer student from the community colleges. We worked on issues like free speech on college campuses and started a new National Center on Free Speech and Civic Engagement in our Washington, D.C. facility. We've taken on a lot of big issues, as well as improving the standard metrics like graduation rates.

Do you think you'll stay in public service after this?

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Well, my plan is to have a sabbatical year. I'll have been president seven years, so I'll have a sabbatical. And then I'll join the faculty at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, where I'm actually a tenured professor.