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UC President Janet Napolitano addressed UC Irvine administration, staff and students for the first time since her visit in November. In an effort to avoid protest demonstrations similar to the rally during her November visit, the event was closed off to the general public and featured a significant police presence.

Phuc Pham | New University
Phuc Pham | New University

President Napolitano came to UC Irvine to conduct UC Irvine’s annual Peltason Lecture in Crystal Cove Auditorium on Tue. March 6 at 3 p.m. Napolitano acknowledged that the contributions of Jack Peltason, UC Irvine’s first dean of the then-College of Arts, Letters and Science; the second vice chancellor of Academic Affairs; the second chancellor of UC Irvine; and finally president of the University of California system in 1992.

“I had the opportunity this morning to meet with Jack and Suzie Peltason in their home and to bestow on Jack the President’s Medal, the highest honor that the University of California awards,” Napolitano said.

“The only time I’ve ever actually seen the President’s Medal is that the actual President’s Medal hangs in the conference room at our offices in Oakland. Jack is the only person I know who received it and I think there can’t be a more worthy recipient.”

Peltason served as dean from 1963 till 1964 before campus opened and recruited faculty to start off the school year. Later in 1964 he became vice chancellor of academic affairs and according to the Anteater Chronicles, “he played a leading role in guiding the creation of the university’s original academic plan.” After becoming the Chancellor of Illinois University and Chief Spokesperson of the American Council of Education, Peltason returned to UC Irvine in 1984 to become its second Chancellor, replacing UC Irvine’s founding Chancellor Daniel Aldrich.

When Peltason identified himself in the audience he was rewarded with an ovation from the other members of the audience who included current and former UC Irvine staff and alumni.

After praising the efforts of Peltason, Napolitano went on to acknowledge the accomplishments of the University of California system and its standing as a world class university. In her talk which she titled “The Miracle in our Midst,” Napolitano said:

“Sometimes I think people in California take what is here for granted and what we have here is a miracle. I come from another state where we have public universities. I come as someone who shared the National Governor’s Association and I saw different public university systems in different states across the country and I will tell you right now that no state has anything close to what we have here in California, not even close. They might have one campus that tries to, but they don’t have 10 campuses and they don’t have the University of California.”

Among her roles before becoming President of the University of California System, Napolitano served as governor of Arizona from 2003 until 2009 when she was appointed Secretary of Homeland Security under the Obama Administration. She became President of the University of California system in 2013 after the retirement of former President, Mark Yudof.

After recounting the history of the University of California system, Napolitano revealed how bold the original idea for the University of California system was at the time of its creation. In what she described as a “dream of miners,” the University of California system originated as a public land grant university to educate the children of California’s first settlers.

“Really we can start with the Gold Rush, the big bang and the world rushed in and in short order the lust for quick riches quickly matured into the desire to build a new and stronger state,” she said.

As Napolitano recounted the early administrators had to deal with debt on a regular basis, including the story of Henry Durant, the first president of the College of California, the precursor of the University of California Berkeley. Durant had to disguise himself and send students dressed in his clothes in order to avoid creditors and bills that would be worth less than $1,000 today. Napolitano acknowledged the University of California still faces financial troubles, but not of that nature. Today the University of California has a projected budget of $24 billion, though a large portion comes from the state government which has been facing rising deficits over the years.

Despite the seriousness of the State’s current financial trouble Napolitano attempted to lighten the mood with a bit of sarcasm, “in fact struggling financially is something we have become very good at,” she said. But she later stated that she was ready for the upcoming political battle over budgeting for higher education to keep the “California dream” alive.

“I think it is a privilege and responsibility to keep that dream [of higher education] alive. We are going to have to fight to make that it does and to make clear to all Californians that UC represents a public good to all society, not just to those that study and work on our campuses.”

However she acknowledged that the University of California system’s challenges will not be restricted to lobbying enough support in Sacramento and from alumni. She believes the UC System must be prepared to defend and justify its status to the public at large, “The idea of public universities is coming under attack from multiple sources and I think we have for too long assumed that people of course recognized how great we are and of course they are going to give us everything we want and of course we can run around bragging that we are the number one research university in the world, which we are.”

Despite the financial issues that she raised Napolitano also focused on diversity within the UC System and specifically on the efforts of the campuses to admit more first generation students, “Forty-Five percent of freshmen this year are first-generation students, which means when they graduate… they will be the first in their families to receive a college degree,” she stated referring to how every UC campus was working together to increase opportunities for those who are traditionally disadvantaged.

After her speech she opened the floor to questions among which included her opinions on Obamacare, politics, immigration policy and UC matters. During the session Napolitano laid out her plan and her fears regarding the future of public education in California and why that means the University cannot stick to the status quo.

“I think we need to look at other ways to enlarge the pie, ways that we can bring more revenue into the university, whether it be public-private partnerships done in the right way, we are not going to privatize the university, there are greater partnerships that we can look into.”

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