Napolitano calls on students to engage in public service

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University of California President Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of Homeland Security, speaks about the role of politics at the Power Center Wednesday. Buy this photo

By Anastassios Adamopoulos, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 14, 2015

The Ford School of Public Policy hosted University of California President Janet Napolitano, former secretary of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, for a lecture and question and answer session on public service and politics Wednesday.

Napolitano, who also served as Arizona’s governor from 2003 to 2009, spoke to an audience of almost 300 at the Power Center on a number of issues including public higher education institutions, negative perceptions of politics and her experiences serving in various posts.

Napolitano urged the crowd to change their views on the role of politics, which she said has turned negative across the country, and to strive to become leaders and improve what they see as problematic with the current leadership.

“When practicing politics is perceived as a lesser, not greater form of public service, practicing politics becomes unattractive to those who like many of you here seek to engage in public policy for the public good,” Napolitano told the audience.

She attributed this problem to political partisanship, the media’s focus on negativity, potential candidates’ concerns about intrusions into their private lives and lack of communication about the importance of politics. She added, however, that this should not mean that people exclude themselves from political life.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily after the event, Napolitano expanded on that idea adding if individuals want to affect change, running for office is the direct way.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to be a civil servant, a policy adviser,” she said. “Those are all wonderful things. But the way our government is organized, it’s the elected official who makes the decision. So if you want that, then at some point you need to do it yourself.”

She also touched specifically on female leadership, telling the attendees that though women have proven that they can successfully run for office without help from men and party bosses, they often still choose not to run for elected office.

More generally, she said politics must become a more attractive engagement for citizens.

“We need to reset and reboot how we view political leadership in this country and enlarge the pool of talented individuals who are willing to engage in elected politics,” she said.

Napolitano also fielded several questions after the speech about her time in office, including her knowledge of the National Security Agency wiretapping programs. Though she declined to discuss the level of intelligence she to which she had access, she did say both the president and the Senate, who have oversight responsibility of the NSA, need to have greater oversight of the intelligence gathering process.

However, she acknowledged that she does not know if the situation has changed since her departure from the Obama Administration.

In the interview, Napolitano also discussed what public universities can do to cope with reduced state funding, a prevalent issue in both Michigan and California. The UC system recently proposed raising tuition by 5 percent yearly to cope with reduced funding.

She noted that universities can reduce costs internally and discussed UC’s Working Smarter initiative that aimed to reduce costs within universities.

“We have identified $660 million in costs,” Napolitano said. “We didn’t replace certain people who were in management or administration when they retired. So we actually have fewer senior managers now than we did in 2007, 2008. And we really worked to bring down administrative overhead on students, so all those things go together.”

Napolitano added that decreased state funding and efforts to persuade the state to reinvest in higher education has been her biggest challenge since becoming UC president. She said she intends to use her bully pulpit both in California and Washington D.C. to support the role of public higher education as means for creating opportunity for students.

In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder enacted cuts to higher education in the first years of his term. Though recent budgets have included funding increases for higher education, the funding has not been restored to its former levels. In June, the University’s Board of Regents enacted a 1.6 percent tuition increase for in-state students and 3.4 percent for out-of-state students.

State investment, she said, is key for schools especially for increasing a student body’s socioeconomic diversity. She said universities both need build pipelines between high schools in poor areas and public universities and establish robust financial aid policies, adding that schools need to be conscious of the burden that tuition increases cause for middle-class students.

She cited the UC system as an example — where students with families making less than $80,000 annually receive free tuition — though she said tuition increases remain a concern, particularly for middle-class students who just miss the threshold.

“(The policies) are an engine of social mobility,” she said. “We want to keep that up. But we can’t provide (students) with the quality of education that their predecessors got, and do that, without some more money getting into the system. And the more money either has to come from the state or needs to come from tuition, from those who are paying tuition.”