Q&A: Napolitano On Diversity, Academics and the Undocumented at U.C.

November 15, 2013 /











photo: New America Media

by New America Media

Editor’s Note: In September former secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano took over as president of the University of California, the first-ever woman to hold that position. She now heads a $24 billion system of 10 campuses, five medical centers and three national laboratories. In an interview with New America Media, Napolitano says it was the promise of the California dream, which is really the “American Dream on steroids,” that drew her to the state. The interview was conducted by Peter Schurmann, NAM education editor, and Jacob Simas, videographer/youth media coordinator.

Janet Napolitano from New America Media on Vimeo.

What attracted you to California and to the University of California in particular?

California is really the engine for the United States, and in some respects for the world. And the University of California is a big engine for the state. The demographics of California are changing … 45 percent of [UC] students are now first generation [immigrants]; 30 percent are from historically underrepresented groups; we have more people receiving financial aid at four of our campuses than the whole Ivy League combined. So it’s a very open university, and it’s a world-class university. And that reflects California. California has always been at the head of innovation and creativity … this notion of the California dream [is] really the American dream on steroids.

What’s your strategy for increasing social and economic diversity at UC schools?

One of my major strategies involves a lot of outreach into lower income neighborhoods and schools. We know there are a lot people who don’t understand or know about the University of California, [including the fact that] if your family makes $80,000 a year or less, you pay no tuition. And we can wrap other financial aid around that to cover room and board.

One of the things I am concerned about, though, is that students who are in ninth grade, who are making decisions about what classes they are going to be taking and what track they’re going to be on, are prematurely self-selecting out of the classes that would qualify them for the University of California out of the mistaken belief that they can’t afford to go. The answer is, they can and we will help them get there.

Are there any plans to increase faculty diversity?

When I went to law school in the 1980s – I went to a public university, the University of Virginia – there was only one woman on the entire faculty. That was noticeable. So I can put myself a little in the shoes of some of our students today … if they look at the faculty they see the same thing. Diversity really matters in that respect.

That’s why one of the first things I did was focus on post-docs. They are researchers, they teach, they are future faculty, inventors and creators. They are going to be a big source of diversity in our faculty long term, and so we want to make sure we recruit and have a diverse post-doc cadre moving forward.

What do undocumented students need to know right now about access to a UC school?

You need to know that you pay in-state tuition. You need to know that we have set aside some additional funds to provide special student services for undocumented students, including helping to offset some of the financial burden caused by the fact that they can’t get federal aid or work study grants. We are here to educate Californians, and it doesn’t really matter to us [or] to me whether they are documented or undocumented. It matters whether they are a good student, and whether they are pursuing their passions and their dreams, and are putting themselves into that.

What will you do to enhance the university’s relationship to California community colleges?

That’s one of the things that surprised me the most when I took over as president, the large percentage of our students who are transfer students from community colleges. Historically community colleges were free and were an open doorway to higher education. Looking now at what the transfer student experience is, [the questions to ask are] how do you qualify, how easy or difficult is it, have we streamlined the processes enough, and what are the problems that our transfer students encounter when coming to a UC campus.

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