President, University of California Janet Napolitano

The University of California President discusses college affordability and diversity in higher education.

Janet Napolitano is the current President of the University of California where she leads a university system with 10 campuses, five medical centers, three affiliated national laboratories, and a statewide agriculture and natural resources program. Prior to the University of California, Napolitano served as Secretary of Homeland Security (2009-13), as Governor of Arizona (2003-09) and as Attorney General of Arizona (1998-2003). Napolitano earned a B.S. in Political Science from Santa Clara University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.


Tavis: So if you think that most college students are fresh out of high school, young, carefree and living at a university, you’re way behind the times. More often than not, today’s typical college student is over the age of 24, bilingual, working and juggling college with real life responsibilities.

Joining us tonight to talk about what colleges are doing to fit the new student demographic is UC President Janet Napolitano. Of course, you recognize her as the former Governor of Arizona and a former member of the cabinet in Barack Obama’s administration. President Napolitano, good to have you back on this program.

Janet Napolitano: Well, thank you.

Tavis: There was a debate earlier tonight. We’ll get into some analysis tomorrow night on this program. But what do you think that your candidate, Secretary Clinton, has to do over the course of these three debates to convince the American people that she ought to be their choice?

Napolitano: You know, I think what she needs to do is explain how is she going to work for people and address their concerns and put her energies to that over the next years of her presidency, what motivates her, why she cares so much and what she’s going to do.

Tavis: Do you think she can turn these numbers in her favor, specifically the demographics like young women, young people, period? You keep seeing these stories every other day about the fact that she has a problem with younger voters.

You’re the president of a university. We’re going to talk about college students in just a second. Can she do it? What does she need to do to convince those young voters and pull in that Obama coalition that was so successful for him?

Napolitano: I think younger voters are thinking about their futures and what is the country going to be like, what is the world going to be like, as they matriculate, as they graduate. What can they look forward to and how is she going to help them get there?

Tavis: Have you been pleased over the course of this campaign–say nothing of tonight’s debate–but have you been pleased over the course of the campaign with the level of conversation, the importance, the impetus or lack thereof, placed on affordable education?

Napolitano: It’s been okay. It turns out that higher education rarely makes it into the presidential cycle for whatever reason, although it’s so very important for our country. Actually, this campaign of 2016, we’ve heard more about it than we have had in campaigns past, and I think that has to do with primarily the economy and finances.

Tavis: But she has, though–Secretary Clinton–has promised tuition-free–is it junior college or two-year college…

Napolitano: Any public up to $125,000 of family income. Now at the University of California, we already do that for students with families up to $85,000. You know, unanswered yet is, well then, who pays for that quality of education and what do you do with states that have already been supporting students to the degree California has versus states that haven’t done anything? Do they get more support rather than less? That doesn’t seem fair either.

So those are the kinds of things you think about in terms of implementation. At this level of a campaign, at this late date, I think the goal is to set forth this is the vision. This is where we’re headed. This is where I need your help, and she needs to ask for that help.

Tavis: More now since, again, specifically about tonight’s debate, on our program tomorrow night, I believe our scheduled guests tomorrow night are the great writer Andrew Sullivan and, speaking of great writers, Frank Rich of New York magazine. I think those are our guests tomorrow night.

But we’ll have some analysis tomorrow night in depth about the debate that you saw earlier tonight here on PBS and, for that matter, around the world. I suspect the ratings on this thing earlier tonight were humongous. We’ll see tomorrow with that conversation tomorrow night.

Now back to why I wanted you on specifically since we have seen some talk and heard some talk about education on the campaign trail. I led with this introduction a moment ago letting people who might not understand that the demographic of what students look like today is so fundamentally different.

I want to talk in a moment about how we serve the needs of that demographic, but tell me more about how students don’t look perhaps the way we think they look or used to look.

Napolitano: Well, we are in the process of welcoming our next entering class. Berkeley and Merced have been up and running for a couple of weeks. They’re on semesters, but UCLA, the other campuses, are all opening their dorms now. Classes are starting, etc.

This is the most diverse class in UC history. It has the highest number of transfer students in UC history. 42% of our undergraduates are the first in their families to go to college. It’s a very different perhaps demographic picture of the University of California than 10, 20, 30 years ago.

Tavis: There’s a proposition–it’s been so many years now–was it 187 or 209 that made it even more difficult to get funding here in California for students of color? Ward Connerly…

Napolitano: 209, yeah.

Tavis: 209. They were both deadly, to me, but anyway–so when Prop 209 passed, there was a great deal of concern in this state before you arrived at UC. There was a great deal of concern in this state that, when Prop 209 passed, it was going to make it difficult for us to see the kind of diversity that we needed to see on college campuses in this state. To hear you now say that this class is the most diverse is actually heartening to me.

Napolitano: Yes, but it’s taken a lot of work and a lot of years to get there. It’s been decades since 209 passed, particularly with respect to African American students. This year is the first year in a long time where we’ve seen a substantial measurable increase.

Part of that is attributable to lots of extra effort we put into outreach with the African American community about the University of California and the great opportunity that this university presents for a young person. But we’re going to have to continue to do that. 209 certainly doesn’t help where diversity is concerned.

Tavis: So how do we serve the needs of this new prototype of a student at UC?

Napolitano: Well, in terms of age, they’re perhaps not that different with more transfer students a bit older. But these students are very competitive academically. They have to be to get admission to the University of California.

They’re very interested in kind of global challenges, so helping them find their passion in that regard, we have things on carbon neutrality and food by way of two examples. And then it’s making sure that, because we are a research university, all of our students get exposure to the research process, what that means, and what kinds of doors that opens to their futures.

Tavis: What does it say about the state of our economy and how do we address it when there are students who are a little bit up in age than what we typically think of in part because the economy has turned so sour for so many of them that going back to school for them and getting more education is the best option? As a society, how do we start to address that influx of students trying to get back into the classroom?

Napolitano: Well, you need to think about older students and what they bring. Many of them have started families. We see this particularly with particular populations like returning veterans. So we have an increased population of those who have been serving in our military. They’re older, they’ve already had that experience.

There’s a maturity that goes along with that and they want to get done. They’re ready to get on with their lives. So making sure that credits transfer, that they’re not having to repeat course work that perhaps they took in community college, and get on with their major and get on with their lives.

Tavis: Across the board, I know that UC has an example already in place. What say you about the lack of affordability of college these days for so many Americans?

Napolitano: I think it’s a big issue and it kind of crept up on America as a society. What happened, as we know, is after the recession in ’08, ’09, states–and California was no exception–which had been putting a lot of money into public universities cut back a lot. In our case, you know, 35%, upwards of 40%.

So universities cut costs, but in order to maintain enrollment, in order to maintain graduation rates, they needed to, you know, keep paying the faculty, the staff, everything else that goes in the university. And that meant tuition went up by a lot in just a few years. That, unfortunately, became the new normal.

So the question is, if that’s not going to be the new normal, then how are we going to pay for public higher education? Or if it is going to be the new normal, how do we make sure that students have the financial aid resources so they don’t graduate with mountains of debt?

Tavis: In a place like the UC system–you were talking earlier in this conversation which I was delighted to hear–that the diversity issue seems to be getting back on track all these years after Prop 209 here in California. As you know, there are other states who passed similar measures.

Michigan and other states come to mind who Ward Connerly went to those states and kind of took the same measure around the country. But it’s a beautiful thing and a good thing, I think, to have a diverse student body, but when those diverse students walk in the classrooms, do they see professors who look like them?

Napolitano: Right. That’s another issue and I think that’s important as well. It’s something that we have on our minds. How do we make sure that the teaching faculty are diverse? Part of that’s a pipeline issue, so part of that is encouraging our students who are studying in things like the stem disciplines to think about that PhD so they can go into the classroom.

Part of it’s a recruitment issue and being able to compete for those who are already out there, and a retention issue to keep those that we already have. So it’s all of those things.

None of that will happen without us focusing on it and being very intentional about doing all that we can with respect to diversity in our faculty, and we’re making progress. It’s very slow and many of us would like to see that, you know, speeded up. But it’s not an on-off light switch. It’s going to take some time.

Tavis: Finally here, California for so long led the nation when it came to higher education and the numbers at one point took a dive and it wasn’t a whole lot to brag about. I ask this softball to the president of the UC system, whether or not California is getting back on track now, leading the nation where higher education is concerned?

Napolitano: Well, the University of California, you know, it’s the fall so all these various rankings come out. All of them, you can debate, etc., particularly the U.S. News and World Report, one which is so flawed. However, even given that, the UC system, it wipes every other public university off the map. In public universities, we’re six of the top 10. You know, eight of the top 20 in other rankings.

We’re the number one and number two in the country for public universities, Berkeley, UCLA. And you see that repeated over and over and over again. Whatever measure you use, Californians can take real pride on what’s going on in our universities, but we want Californians to join us in the fight to keep these great universities great. We can’t do it alone.

Tavis: A little chest-beating tonight here in California with Janet…

Napolitano: There you go. Well, you asked the question. I’ll take that pitch [laugh]!

Tavis: I threw the softball, and she put it over the fence. Madam President, good to see you.

Napolitano: Good to see you.

Tavis: Thanks for coming on. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: September 27, 2016 at 3:16 pm