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New UC president gets mixed reviews on first official visit to UCLA

Protesters object to Janet Napolitano's political record on immigration, but student leaders praise her willingness to listen.

October 11, 2013|By Larry Gordon
  • New UC President Janet Napolitano, center, walks past a group of protesters Friday on her way into a lunch with student leaders during her first official visit to UCLA.
New UC President Janet Napolitano, center, walks past a group of protesters… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

UC President Janet Napolitano got a mixed reception Friday during her first official visit to UCLA, facing protesters who objected to her actions as the onetime U.S. secretary of Homeland Security but also meeting with student leaders who praised her willingness to listen.

Napolitano came to the Westwood campus for private meetings with students, faculty and administrators and to attend some seminars. Since assuming the presidency two weeks ago, she has been touring the 10-campus University of California system and learning more about its troubled finances, its massive facilities and the programs that enroll 230,000 students.

"I'm here to listen and learn," Napolitano said after lunching with about 20 UCLA student leaders. In brief comments to reporters, she said she would try to respond in coming months to students' concerns about such issues as financial aid and ensuring ethnic diversity on campuses. She said she saw her job as being "a public advocate for higher education and to keep this system as really the lodestar for what public education ought to be."

Nicole Robinson, president of the UCLA Graduate Student Assn., said Napolitano "seemed engaging and genuine, which was refreshing." And as a result of meeting with students so early in her presidency, Napolitano earned some good will, according to Robinson, who is in a doctoral program in Italian literature.

But, she said, students will follow up to ensure the new president acts on their issues, such as increasing support for the humanities.

John Joanino, president of the undergraduate student government, said it was clear that Napolitano — who also previously served as Arizona governor — wants to improve UC but faces "a steep learning curve."

"She does not come from an academic background. She comes from a politician background," the senior sociology major said. He added that he hoped she can start to ease some students' suspicions about her Homeland Security post.

But about 40 students demonstrated against Napolitano on Friday, saying deportations of people who entered the United States illegally had increased during her time as head of the federal agency. They also contended that Napolitano is not qualified to head a prestigious university system.

The protesters first marched in a circle near the Bruin statue at the center of campus, then moved to outside the dining hall where Napolitano hosted the lunch. The UC president rushed past the protesters without comment.

"We do not think she is the right choice to be UC president. We believe our institution stands for the complete opposite of what she stands for. She stands for militarization, privatization and increasing the national security state and culture of suspicion," said Antonio Elizondo, a senior international development major. He said he was brought into the United States from Mexico illegally at age 14 and still fears deportation — even though he is temporarily not at risk because of the Obama administration's deferred-action program, which allows those who arrived illegally as children to stay in the U.S. at least for two years.

In the past, Napolitano has said she was in favor of immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for some who entered the country illegally. She also urged Gov. Jerry Brown to sign, as he recently did, legislation that makes it more difficult to deport immigrants arrested for minor crimes.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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