In summary

The former Arizona governor and Homeland Security secretary fought for immigrant students and more state investment in the university system — and for her health, after a recurrence of breast cancer in 2017. But political battles and a scathing 2017 state audit marred her tenure as well.

University of California President Janet Napolitano announced her resignation Wednesday after six years in which she oversaw significant growth in university enrollment but faced criticism over her office’s financial management.

Her decision, effective in August of 2020, leaves a leadership vacuum at the nation’s most prestigious public university system.

A former US Homeland Security secretary and governor of Arizona, Napolitano became the first woman to lead the university in 2013. 

“My years with the University of California have shown me the monumental value of public education.”

During her tenure, UC has increased its ranks of first-generation and community college transfer students. Napolitano supported efforts to address food and housing insecurity on campuses and add services for undocumented students, often at the urging of student activists.

She also faced down the Trump administration over its efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and make it harder for colleges to pursue sexual assault cases. And she spearheaded the university’s effort to address climate change, including a commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2025 and the decision, announced just Tuesday, to divest from fossil fuels.

At the same time, she was battling a recurrence of breast cancer, spending time in the hospital in 2017.

Napolitano also sparred with state lawmakers and former Gov. Jerry Brown over the state’s investment in higher education. In 2017, her tenure was marred by a state audit that found her office had kept $175 million in separate accounts not disclosed to the university’s regents, and paid excessive salaries and perks to executive staff. Auditors found Napolitano’s staff interfered with the audit itself by attempting to vet campuses’ responses to survey questions.

Legislators blasted Napolitano for the interference, and Brown withheld $50 million from UC’s budget until the university addressed the auditor’s recommendations for more financial transparency. Napolitano apologized and kept her job.

But at the UC regents meeting in Los Angeles Wednesday, she said, “I think the university will benefit from some fresh blood.”

“My years with the University of California have shown me the monumental value of public education,” she said, pledging a strong finish in her last year. In a letter to the UC community, she added that she plans afterward to teach at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy where she is a tenured faculty member.

“I relish the idea of educating the next generation of public service leaders and am excited for this next chapter,” she wrote. The Board of Regents is expected to begin a national search soon for her successor, guided by a committee that will include representatives of students, faculty and alumni.

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Felicia Mello edits CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher education from the ground up. Her reporting on affordability, equity...