SANTA CLARA -- If Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is appointed UC president on Thursday, Californians will be getting more than just a big-name politician who has wrangled unwieldy bureaucracies and responded to natural disasters, supporters say.

Those who have known Napolitano since her undergraduate days at Santa Clara University note that she has been far more involved in university affairs than her résumé suggests. They say the state will gain a forward-thinking leader who can help the prized system find its way in a new economic reality.

Her record as governor of Arizona reveals a concern to expand higher education and make it more accessible, even when money was scarce.

"I think people are going to be surprised," said Eric Hanson, a political-science professor at Santa Clara University who stayed in touch with Napolitano since teaching her in the late 1970s.

University of California officials announced Friday that they tapped Napolitano, 55, to replace Mark Yudof, who announced in January he would step down after five years. Apart from a statement acknowledging she was a "nontraditional candidate," the secretary won't comment until after UC regents vote on her appointment Thursday, university officials said.

Already, some UC faculty members and students have voiced their skepticism about the choice -- or what they called the secretive process behind it. A Monday editorial in UCLA's Daily Bruin has demanded UC explain "how they picked an individual with no experience in California politics and no familiarity with its public universities."


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Others wonder if Napolitano will support the university's public mission and worry its leaders will want to capitalize on her ties to the defense industry.

"The real concern isn't so much what she doesn't know. It's what she does know," said Bob Meister, president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations and a professor at UC Santa Cruz.

Napolitano's association with the deportation of illegal immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been another source of controversy. A group of students and alumni announced Wednesday they would demonstrate against the nomination on Thursday.

But the people who have known and followed Napolitano over the years said they have seen her commitment to higher education. She has visited her alma mater dozens of times since her classmates elected her Santa Clara's first female valedictorian in 1979, often advising political-science professors informally on what today's students need to know about government and international affairs, Hanson said.

"Her emphasis on knowing the international context for American policy has been very, very strong," he said.

Even as an undergraduate, she was a leader who stressed the importance of education, said classmate Elise Thurau, now legislative director for state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Calabasas.

"She may not have worked in the academic world before, but she is one of those people that whatever you put into her hands, she'll do with all her might," Thurau said.

And just as Napolitano is poised to leap from the federal government to academia, she has argued for a better flow of talent and knowledge between the two worlds. In speeches at UC Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other top universities, the secretary has urged students -- particularly in science and technology fields -- to consider a stint in public service.

"We need technologists who understand policymaking," Napolitano told UC Berkeley students in 2011. "We need technologically savvy people to come work with us. This is an area where we have our greatest challenge and need. We're dealing with multiple risks at the same time."

In the same year, she told MIT students: "We need a model where there is more scientific knowledge deployed across government, and more knowledge of government and public policy in our science and engineering communities. ... It should not be unusual for a top scientist to take a leave from academia or the private sector and spend a couple of years in government working on solving important technological problems."

As the twice-elected governor of Arizona, Napolitano also voiced strong opinions about the need to make the state's universities accessible to its diverse population. She called for a doubling of bachelor's degrees issued by 2020, a fixed, four-year tuition rate -- an idea that has been floated for the University of California -- and tuition waivers for students with good grades, even as her state faced a budget deficit.

In 2008, she championed a $1 billion university construction and renovation, though some Arizona lawmakers were skeptical of borrowing the money.

"This is the kind of thing that differentiates a great state from a mediocre state," Napolitano told the Legislature. "A great state takes on a challenge, does it in the right way."

Napolitano also increased the higher-education budget in 2006 to expand the capacity of the state's university systems, shore up financial aid, and give raises to faculty members to slow the "brain drain," the student newspaper at the University of Arizona reported.

A prominent UC faculty member who was consulted in the search process said Napolitano stood out because of her experiences in government administration. She "has demonstrated an outstanding ability to deal with complex organizations under demanding circumstances," said Robert Powell, chairman of UC's systemwide faculty senate.

As Napolitano's star rose, her classmates at Santa Clara have followed her speeches and news coverage from afar, occasionally seeing her when she visited campus. Some former college campus newspaper colleagues said she seems much the same person as she was back then: bright, thoughtful and curious, yet down-to-earth and thoroughly likable.

One classmate -- who said he realized as a college student that Napolitano was "probably the smartest person I will ever know" -- said he had once hoped she would be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But, he said, this role leading California's famed university system seemed right.

"In many ways this new appointment fits her better," said Paul Totah, who edited the campus newspaper. "She is a fixer."

Staff writer Doug Oakley and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.