In hiring Janet Napolitano to run the sprawling University of California, state officials are counting on the Homeland Security chief's political savvy and fund-raising prowess to restore a system racked by years of budget cuts and turmoil.
Napolitano, a two-term Arizona governor plucked by President Barack Obama in 2009 to be Secretary of Homeland Security, said on Friday she would leave that post to run the university's 10-campus system, pending final approval by the board of regents expected next week.
Chosen from among more than 300 candidates in part because of her political skills, the 55-year-old Democrat will take the helm as the university is struggling to recover from economic crises that have eaten away at the state budget on and off for nearly two decades.
Cuts of nearly $1 billion over the last five years have led to tuition increases and class shortages, and have strained relations with faculty and staff through the imposition of furlough days and hiring freezes.
"Her job is to restore the glory of the system," said Jack Stripling, who covers college leadership for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
To do that, Napolitano will have to persuade the politicians who control the state budget that a high-end university is an asset worth paying for - while showing faculty, staff and the 234,000 students that she is on their side.
"The thinking is, you bring in someone with political savvy to solve what is essentially a political problem," Stripling said.
In making their choice of a new president, university leaders picked someone with experience managing a large, highly political organization, said UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein. The university budget, including its hospitals and medical centers, is more than $24 billion.
"It's a dynamic position, and she is somebody who has experience managing big complex organizations," Klein said.
Napolitano's tenure will begin as the campuses - along with the state - recover from prolonged economic downturn. But even though the legislature and Governor Jerry Brown have restored some funds, budgets remain tight.
As a result, Napolitano will need to find creative ways to raise money and trim spending, even as she preserves the quality of teaching and research for which the system is known.
"Secretary Napolitano has the strength of character and an outsider's mind that will well serve the students and faculty," Brown said in a statement. "It will be exciting to work with her."
But Robert Powell, a chemical engineering professor at UC Davis who heads the system-wide academic senate, said Napolitano will also need to spend time getting to know the university by meeting with students and professors and touring campuses.
"She needs to get out to the campuses - meet with faculty, meet with staff, look and see what these places are like and how students live here," Powell said.
A lawyer by training, Napolitano is an unusual choice because she has not worked in academia. Her predecessor, Mark Yudof, is also a lawyer but was chancellor of the University of Texas and president of the University of Minnesota before taking the reins in the most populous U.S. state.
As Homeland Security chief, she drew the ire of some Republicans, who said she painted an overly rosy picture of the Administration's border security efforts.
Napolitano will be the 20th president of the University of California, and the first woman. She acknowledged that she was not a typical candidate and said she would meet with faculty, students, politicians and others to learn about the system.
"Whether preparing to govern a state or to lead an agency as critical and complex as Homeland Security, I have found the best way to start is simply to listen," Napolitano said.