Janet Napolitano explains her involvement in audit of UC: 'We could have handled this better'

University of California President Janet Napolitano on May 2, 2017 told a legislative committee that her office should not have taken actions that made it appear it was interfering in an audit. Video courtesy of the California Channel.
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University of California President Janet Napolitano on May 2, 2017 told a legislative committee that her office should not have taken actions that made it appear it was interfering in an audit. Video courtesy of the California Channel.
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Shawn Hubler

Deputy editorial page editor, columnist and editorial writer

Shawn Hubler

Watching the Capitol go Benghazi on Napolitano

By Shawn Hubler

shubler@sacbee.com

May 03, 2017 06:34 PM

A few days ago Forbes magazine released its list of the best value colleges in the country. Four were University of California campuses. For the second year in a row, UC Berkeley was No. 1.

Some might look at rankings like that and think UC must be a pretty well-run institution.

Or, if it’s Tuesday in Sacramento, some might audit the university eight times in four years, hold a press conference demanding subpoenas, compare UC leaders to crooks in the city of Bell, apply terms like “penalty of perjury” and “criminal misappropriation of funds” to initiatives underwriting carbon neutrality and protection of undocumented students, and subject UC President Janet Napolitano – who for the past several months has been undergoing treatment for cancer – to a 4 1/2 -hour, Benghazi-like show trial.

Oh, and then accept Napolitano’s apology for her office’s mishandling of part of the last audit and move on.

What’s with the crazy bad blood between state lawmakers and Napolitano? And, more to the point, when will the decent people involved get some perspective and make it stop?

It has been nearly three years since Napolitano, the former Arizona governor and head of U.S. Homeland Security, put California on the spot with a threat to raise tuition if the Legislature didn’t give UC more money. Gov. Jerry Brown, a national figure, too, had to remind her who actually was the governor of this state – probably in Latin.

But the play worked. The two fellow Democrats cut a respectful deal and they, the state and the university all came out looking like winners. Since then, the university has done well and so have Californians.

The Legislature has anted up and tuition, so far, has remained flat, though the Board of Regents has approved a modest bump for next year, if needed.

What’s with the crazy bad blood between state lawmakers and UC President Janet Napolitano? And when will the decent people involved get some perspective and make it stop?

So, Kumbaya, right? Not so fast.

For two budget seasons in a row now, Napolitano and the UC have had to dodge random Capitol fragging, from bills to weaken the regents to demands that the UC become less international and more California-centric. Tuesday’s grilling, over an incendiary state audit of spending in Napolitano’s office, was just the latest, and ugliest, potshot.

Led by Assemblymen Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who run the subcommittee and committee that oversee the UC budget in the Assembly, the joint hearing was ostensibly about suspected administrative bloat in Napolitano’s office, which accounts for about 2 percent of the UC’s $30 billion-plus budget.

Among other things, the state auditor concluded Napolitano was sitting on $175 million in essentially discretionary money when the regents were voting to raise tuition, a claim the UC president vehemently disputed. Also, some of Napolitano’s staffers had apparently communicated with campus managers during an audit survey, which they weren’t supposed to do, and for which Napolitano – when they finally let her speak, more than two hours in – apologized.

But mostly, Tuesday was a continuation of the last gratuitously scathing Napolitano audit, which was used last year to successfully pressure UC into making room for more in-state students. There’s no secret suitcase with $175 million; most of the money the auditor found is committed to well-publicized university projects.

But making a big deal of it will give lawmakers negotiating leverage in this budget season. And it did create an opportunity for little-known Assembly members to speechify as if laws had been broken, which they clearly had not.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, compared Napolitano’s budgeting to the city of Bell’s public corruption scandal. Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, complained that “to say that this is a black eye on the UC is an understatement.”

Assemblyman Dante Acosta, R-Santa Clarita, talked nuttily about “mushroom clouds” of smoke around a firestorm of criminal suspicion. His fellow Republicans, sensing a rare opportunity in an institution in which the Democratic majority usually gets all the attention, held a press conference and vowed to subpoena UC financial records.

McCarty, clearly pleased to be scoring points in a game of political football, insisted the hearing wasn’t about “scoring points” and “political football.” And on and on.

UC is a massive bureaucracy, and I don’t mean to imply oversight isn’t important. Accounting in Napolitano’s office sounds messier than our oldest’s old dorm room at Cal.

And State Auditor Elaine Howle is a well-regarded public servant who can’t have had much fun tangling with an executive whose political career started as a lawyer for Anita Hill.

But watching the spectacle unfold – the 59-year-old UC president visibly pale and slumping in exhaustion, her own fellow Democrats browbeating her like the House Select Committee going at Hillary Clinton – it was hard not to wonder how the relationship managed to deteriorate to this point.

Napolitano may be pugnacious or defensive or too quick to deploy big-league political tactics against small-ball opponents. And certainly it takes two to tangle; any regent who hired her for her diplomatic moves must surely be disappointed.

But nothing in her long career or her UC performance indicates that she’s dishonest or incompetent. If anything, she’s been almost too forceful in her insistence that the state think big and do right by its higher education system.

I, for one, hope it’s not too late for her and her critics to dial down the hostility, give some benefit of the doubt and remember the bigger picture. Like the UC system itself, a UC president of her stature is something to value and it would be too bad if California failed to appreciate that.

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler