EDITORIAL: Napolitano's first UC speech misses the mark

Janet Napolitano had the opportunity to show, in the words of the search committee that selected her, that she could bring "fresh eyes and a new sensibility -- not only to UC, but to all of California" in her first speech as University of California president.

She fell far short.

With no record as a scholar or in campus administration, she had to show that she would bring more than her background as a politician and political appointee to the job. But in her address to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Wednesday, she sounded like she was trying to inoculate herself against protests of her tenure at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Early in the speech, she staked out her role as a high-level bureaucrat. She explained that she has run "large, complex institutions" and is spending her time learning the UC budget, "the most direct road map to what truly matters to an organization," and launching an "efficiency review" of the 1,500-person Office of the President. She is visiting the 10 campuses. This is necessary work for a newcomer to academia and to California, but it is hardly inspiring.

More than 1,500 words into the speech, Napolitano backed into the issue of student and faculty diversity. This could have been a strong, original statement coming from the leader of one of the nation's leading public university systems on the importance of increasing the variety of life experiences and perspectives on campus to enhance the academic mission and "opportunity society" of the future.

Instead, the former Arizona governor made general statements about the UC as a vehicle for social advancement and then announced new money for diversity programs.

For example, she will put $5 million toward services for 900 UC students brought to the United States illegally by their parents. She referred to them as a "subset" of first-generation college students "that deserves special mention." That's her first big initiative as president of the University of California in a system of 239,000 students.

Let us be clear. We support giving legal status to the so-called DREAM Act kids. But why is this Napolitano's first publicly announced priority?

Then 2,700 words into the speech, Napolitano announced that she would put $5 million toward expanding a postdoctoral fellowship program that currently serves about 15 women and minority Ph.D. recipients a year with the aim of diversifying the UC faculty pipeline.

Napolitano also said she would put $5 million toward recruiting the "world's best graduate students." International graduate students are an important talent pool for research and innovation, and our post-9/11 visa system and large out-of-state tuition expenses can be difficult for these students.

But why focus on "subsets" of the university community? We need to know Napolitano's vision for access and affordability for all qualified California students, and her vision for the 10-campus system.