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Janet Napolitano urges ‘passionate conversation’ on higher education

In the 37th annual Pullias Lecture, the University of California president puts tuition in a wider context of the state system’s tradition of innovation

USC President C. L. Max Nikias, University of California President Janet Napolitano and Pullias Co-Director William G. Tierney.
USC President C. L. Max Nikias, University of California President Janet Napolitano and Pullias Center co-director William Tierney (Photo/Steve Cohn)

Janet Napolitano does her homework.

When the Pullias Center for Higher Education invited the president of the University of California system to deliver its 37th annual lecture, she prepared for the assignment by reading the lectures of the former UC chiefs who delivered the 1988 and 1997 lectures.

With her Feb. 18 talk, “A Trifecta for the Future: Higher Education, California and Innovation,” Napolitano added her name to the long list of nationally recognized scholars and academic leaders who have delivered the annual address named in honor of Earl V. Pullias, one of the founding faculty members of USC’s Department of Higher Education.

Napolitano served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2009-13 and as governor of Arizona from 2003-09.

President Napolitano is trying to forge a conversation with California citizens about what kind of state we want.

William Tierney

“President Napolitano is trying to forge a conversation with California citizens about what kind of state we want,” said William Tierney, co-director of the Pullias Center and Wilbur Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the USC Rossier School of Education. “She’s arguing persuasively that a full-employment, high-skills economy requires a first-class public system of higher education.”

Supplying context

Napolitano established the context for her remarks by summarizing the messages of her two predecessors, David P. Gardner and Richard Atkinson.

As the Cold War was drawing to its conclusion in 1988, Gardner had spoken of the ways global transformation would internationalize the reach and mission of America’s research universities. A decade later, Atkinson lamented a public that did not understand the true value of research universities, calling for a passionate conversation about higher education that recognizes that “the discovery and application of knowledge are not at the periphery but at the heart of what research universities are about.”

Napolitano picked up where Atkinson left off, declaring that California’s conversation “needs to focus on the unique role research universities have played in making California a bastion of innovation and a world leader in its own right.”

Costs of a public higher education

Napolitano’s nod to Atkinson allowed her to share a startling fact with an audience eager for her to say something about the recent tuition hikes at the University of California. She would get there, but first she said: “Today, the University of California is funded by the state in constant dollars at the same level as it was in 1997, the very year President Atkinson came here to plead for a better public understanding of the myriad and vast contributions research universities make to California.”

That support has remained level for a 10-campus University of California system that has 75,000 more students since 1997, the equivalent of adding two more universities the size of UCLA.

Napolitano then explained that despite public perception, the cost of producing a degree has not gone up since 1997. Instead, the University of California has grappled with a 30 percent decrease in state support since the economic recession of 2008.

What has changed at the University of California is not the cost of producing an education, it is the amount of the cost borne by students.

Janet Napolitano

“What has changed at the University of California is not the cost of producing an education,” she said. “It is the amount of the cost borne by students.”

It was in this context that she announced that the University of California would put planned tuition increases on hold, at least through the summer session, as it waits to see how budget negotiations play out with Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators.

“It is my most fervent hope,” Napolitano said, “that we will be able to reach a funding accord with Sacramento that will be significant enough to forestall any in-state tuition increase for at least the next academic year.”

Innovation through collaboration

“Our negotiations are not about just dollars,” Napolitano added. “They are about a down payment on California’s future. Full investment in the university is ultimately a full investment in the California Dream.”

Napolitano evoked the sentiments of a November op-ed by Thomas F. Rosenbaum and John L. Hennessy, presidents of the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University, respectively, who put forward a counterintuitive plea to reinvest in public higher education.

“Our campuses and the University of California are partners in making the state of California the economic and innovation powerhouse it is today,” Napolitano said, quoting directly from Rosenbaum and Hennessy. “Much of the world-class research conducted on our campuses is inextricably linked with research emanating from the University of California. If California is to remain an economic dynamo, then it needs the full capability of its research universities to be well supported.”

Napolitano concluded by citing several examples of collaborations between the state’s public and private universities, including the USC/UCLA Center on Biodemography and Public Health, which is housed on both campuses; a three-way partnership between UC Irvine, the UCLA Stroke Center at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and the USC Comprehensive Stroke and Cerebrovascular Center at Keck Medicine of USC; and a three-way partnership between USC, UCLA and Caltech to form an innovation hub funded by the National Science Foundation.

“We may hash it out on the football field as spirited rivals,” said Napolitano, “but when it comes to research and education, the relationships between these research universities — public and private — are far more seamless and symbiotic.”

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