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California higher education hangs in the balance as UC, Cal State search for new leaders

Teresa Watanabe and Nina Agrawal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The UC job is "probably the most complex and challenging job in higher education," said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents North America's top 65 research universities. "It could also be a very exciting job because the platform the UC system has is enormous and enormously important."

Napolitano has been credited with using that platform to support immigrant students and sexual assault survivors. But some higher education leaders say the next UC president must step up to champion an even broader task: marshaling public support for the value of a university education amid mounting skepticism about rising costs and perceived political biases.

The UC regents recently released a list of 29 criteria for the next leader based on closed-door consultations with committees of students, staff, faculty and alumni. The top two criteria have drawn particular attention: knowledge of the academic enterprise and a demonstrated track record promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.

The regents themselves are believed to be the most diverse board in UC history, with both Chairman John A. Perez and Vice Chairwoman Cecilia Estolano of Mexican descent and nearly half of the 26 voting board members Latino, African American and Asian American. Perez has said UC particularly needs to work harder to increase geographical diversity, as most students come from urban areas.

Faculty were thrilled by the regents' stated preference for candidates with "exceptional academic administrative experience" and the highest possible degree in their field. At recent faculty town halls at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Santa Barbara, participants lamented that regents ignored their desire for an academic in the last presidential search six years ago when they selected Napolitano, then U.S. Homeland Security secretary and a former Arizona governor.

Although many faculty eventually came to appreciate Napolitano, they said it took time for her to learn how to manage the UC system and consult with them on key issues as required by the UC tradition of shared governance, which gives the Academic Senate a uniquely powerful voice in university operations.


Other top priorities named in a UC Santa Barbara faculty survey were a commitment to academic freedom, shared governance, research, graduate education and budgetary transparency.

At both sessions, faculty members complained about the "secrecy" of past search processes. Regents, however, have announced that they would hold open public forums at the University of California, Davis on Dec. 13 and at the University of California, Los Angeles on Jan. 14.

Cal State has held four public forums, with two more planned at its campuses in San Marcos on Dec. 3 and in Fresno on Dec. 5. At a recent Long Beach forum, speakers said they wanted the next chancellor to champion full access to all eligible applicants, more faculty diversity, support for students with disabilities and increased programs for prison inmates.

For their part, UC students want a leader who is familiar with California public education and will commit to meet regularly with them, as Napolitano did, said Varsha Sarveshwar, a UC Berkeley senior and president of the UC Student Association. Top issues, she said, include affordable housing, food security and meeting the basic needs of all students.


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