SANTA CRUZ -- New University of California President Janet Napolitano on Friday said the system is doing "everything it can" to keep tuition costs from skyrocketing beyond the reach of ordinary Californians.
Named as the UC system's 20th president and on the job since Sept. 30, the Washington, D.C. veteran's hiring was a rare reach outside the halls of academia. The former Arizona governor and Homeland Security chief's selection was seen as an effort to strengthen UC's hand in Sacramento and in the nation's Capitol.
But predecessor Mark Yudof's later years were racked with controversy over rising tuition costs amid a state budget crisis, and Napolitano suggested Friday that the cost of taxpayer-funded universities should stay within family budgets.
"There have been increases, no doubt," Napolitano said. "It's a public university, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure it remains affordable."
Napolitano is on a UC system-wide tour of campuses, stopping over in Santa Cruz during Founders Celebration, when UCSC announced a $300 million fundraising campaign, the first and largest in the school's history.
She has met with several groups along the way, including a group of student leaders who peppered her with issues ranging from undocumented students to rising tuition and fees.
"Mainly she wanted to know what was our main obstacles at the university and what she could do to help," said Shaz Umer, chair of the Student Union Assembly, adding that Napolitano did more listening than talking.
Umer said Napolitano wanted to "mitigate" rising costs, and hoped she would return to campus.
"I hope she does come back and engage more of the student community at UC Santa Cruz," Umer said.
In the UC version of a welcome mat, Napolitano's tour has already been hit with protests, including a small one in Santa Cruz on Friday. At UC Irvine earlier this week, protesters also raised the issue of college costs.
UC tuition has tripled during the past decade, and before Gov. Jerry Brown signed a 5 percent increase into law this year, state funding was cut by a third during the previous five years.
In 2012, California students left four-year schools with an average of $18,879 in debt, according to the Project on Student Debt. The figure was slightly higher at UCSC.
The choice of Napolitano also has been controversial on campuses for Obama administration job of overseeing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has deported tens of thousands through the controversial Secure Communities program.
But after leaving office, Napolitano endorsed a state bill that aims to blunt some of the impacts of the program here in California. Known as the Trust Act, she offered her support directly to Gov. Jerry Brown prior to his signing it into law.
But in Washington, years of efforts to repair a federal immigration system many regard as broken have gone nowhere. After a two-week government shutdown, it doesn't appear Congress is going to tackle the issue anytime soon.
Napolitano said she hoped it would.
"The Senate bill is bipartisan and represents some compromises on all sides, but the framework is very consistent with what we've been advocating for the last 4½ years," Napolitano said. "I think it's an example where the House needs to take up something important and get it done."
While Napolitano frequented San Francisco as a young law clerk, she has few ties to Northern California. Friday, she was impressed by what she saw.
"Look at this," Napolitano said, gesturing in the living room of University House, situated on an ocher hillside overlooking the sparkling Monterey Bay. "It's a beautiful location and wonderful school. Just a great impression."
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