Credit: Courtesy of University of California
University of California President Janet Napolitano.

University of California President Janet Napolitano announced Wednesday that she is resigning.

Napolitano, 61, who said it was a “tough decision” to step down, will continue to serve in the role until August of 2020.

“This particular chapter in my professional history has been especially meaningful. My years with the University of California have shown me the monumental value of public higher education,” Napolitano said as she made the announcement during a UC Regents meeting at UCLA.

Napolitano, the first woman to lead the 10-campus system, became president in 2013 after previously serving as the Secretary of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2013, under President Barack Obama, and the governor of Arizona from 2003 to 2009. Her appointment as UC president was initially met with protests from some UC students over her role in overseeing deportations as the Homeland Security secretary, but she ultimately became an advocate for undocumented students and pushed to help them with both access to state financial aid and legal assistance.

Napolitano on Wednesday touted her support of undocumented students as well as the growth in UC enrollment during her tenure, stabilized tuition costs, her work on combating sexual violence and the expanded access to the UC system for community college transfers, among other accomplishments.

She added that she believes the UC system is on a “solid path forward.”

“Challenges, however, remain,” she said. “With many new board members, with a new governor and what will be seven years of service behind me, I think the university will benefit from some fresh blood.”

In 2017, Napolitano came under fire when a state audit alleged overspending, financial mismanagement and unethical behavior at her office. The state auditor’s report said it found $175 million in undisclosed UC reserves and accused Napolitano’s office of trying to interfere with the audit’s results. In the aftermath, some state legislators called for Napolitano’s resignation and the regents voted to rebuke her. Napolitano denied there were any secret reserves but said UC would accept many of the auditor’s suggestions about transparency and spending controls.

Napolitano said she plans to take time off after stepping down next year. She will then teach at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy beginning in the fall of 2021. She said Wednesday on a teleconference with reporters that she has no future plans to run for public office but did not rule it out.

Victor Narro, a project director of the UCLA Labor Center and an expert on immigrant rights, said Napolitano has done more to support undocumented and immigrant students than any other UC president since Narro joined the Labor Center in 2002. Napolitano is the fourth UC president in that span.

Narro pointed to Napolitano helping to create the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center, which provides free legal assistance to students at each UC campus, and noted that UC was the first university to sue the Trump administration over its decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

“She’s also stabilized tuition, which is a tremendous help to undocumented and DACA students because they have limited resources,” he added. “So she’s been there in many different ways.”

UC Student Association President Varsha Sarveshwar said in a statement Wednesday that Napolitano has led the UC system “with perseverance and resoluteness.” But she added that the last six years have also been a “tumultuous time for the university community,” saying that student activists drew attention to issues such as housing and food insecurity, sexual harassment and violence and the hardships faced by black and Latino students.

“We are hopeful that the next president of the University of California will partner with students and other stakeholders to meet these challenges. President Napolitano was the first president to regularly meet with students — and in that spirit, we encourage the Regents’ Special Committee to work with us in the coming months to select a bold, visionary president who will join us to fight for the best that public higher education can be,” Sarveshwar said.

UC plans to soon appoint a committee of faculty, students and alumni to search for Napolitano’s replacement.

“I look forward to working closely with President Napolitano throughout the rest of this academic year before she embarks on her next chapter,” UC Board of Regents Chairman John Pérez said in a statement. “The Board of Regents and I will provide the UC community and the state of California a transparent and thoughtful process to find the next president of the University of California.”

Pérez added on the teleconference Wednesday that he wants the next UC president to be someone “who is going to continue leading the university to maintain its role as the top public research university in the world.”

“And one that serves the public mission that the people of California have come to expect, one that builds on the board’s commitment to expanding access and affordability and make sure that we continue to look like a university that can not only lead the state of California, but lead the world,” he said.

Staff writer Larry Gordon contributed to this report.

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