SAN FRANCISCO -- New UC President Janet Napolitano marked her first regents meeting Wednesday with a vow to make the university more affordable and calling for an undergraduate tuition freeze in 2014-15.
And that was only the first bullet point of an ambitious policy agenda after six weeks on the job.
Napolitano also said the university must find a way to move researchers' inventions from the lab to the market more quickly; make it simpler for community college students to transfer to UC; expand enrollment; cut administrative costs; and become a better steward of the environment, using no more energy than it produces by 2025.
But student costs were high on her list.
"Tuition cuts right to the heart of access and affordability, two of the university's guiding stars," she said at the meeting in San Francisco. "It's time for this university to collaboratively come up with a better way."
She is considering, for example, setting tuition for each group of entering freshmen, ensuring they won't have to struggle with unexpected hikes on the way to their degrees.
UC tuition and fees alone add up to $12,192 a year for California residents, in addition to books, food and living expenses. Students with family incomes below $80,000 pay no systemwide tuition or fees -- a fact that should be much better advertised, Napolitano said.
Between 2008 and 2011, mandatory fees rose by 71 percent, but voters' approval of the Proposition 30 tax initiative last year and pressure from Gov. Jerry Brown have stabilized the cost of a UC education.
Napolitano said the tuition freeze and other actions are the right things to do.
"If we get tuition right, if we get access for transfers right, if we invest in our research and change the game on energy consumption, then UC will demonstrate to the nation, and beyond, the fundamental and unique value of a world-class public research university."
The tuition question is a key one that soon must be resolved, one academic expert said.
At stake is whether UC will reverse a trend toward a relatively high tuition and high financial aid model, said John Aubrey Douglass of UC's Public Policy and Higher Education Center for Studies in Higher Education.
Napolitano, he said, seemed to be focusing on the areas in which a UC president can have a positive effect.
The first woman to lead the 10-campus system, Napolitano was appointed in July to replace Mark Yudof. While Yudof spent most of his tenure in disaster management, coping with deep reductions in state funding, Napolitano was tapped to help the university to expand and evolve -- and to bring in the money needed to do it.
"I have to say that I'm fairly impressed with the speed at which she's coming at it," said Kareem Aref, president of the University of California Student Association, who has met with Napolitano three times and found her very personable. "She's definitely making waves."
Napolitano's focus on smoothing out notoriously cumbersome community college transfers pleased California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris and Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who both issued statements applauding it.
"In this first presentation to the regents, President Napolitano demonstrated leadership that parallels California's commitment to ensuring that every Californian has a place in our higher education system," Skinner said.
Faculty leaders also were impressed by the new president's sense of urgency. Napolitano laid out her priorities faster and more publicly than some of her predecessors, said Bill Jacob, chairman of the UC Academic Senate.
"I think this is clearly what the regents wanted when they hired her," Jacob said.
Now that the goals have been set, he added, "We're going to do everything we can to help her."
A former Homeland Security secretary and two-term Arizona governor, Napolitano has acknowledged she was an "unconventional candidate" because she does not come from academia. She is certainly an unpopular choice among some immigration activists, angered that UC would choose a leader who had enforced the nation's immigration laws.
Napolitano has met with groups of students concerned about her law enforcement history and last month she announced she would direct $5 million to programs that help UC students who entered the country illegally.
Still, some activists protested Tuesday and again called for her removal on Wednesday, saying they wouldn't rest until she is out of office.
Student Regent Cinthia Flores said many students' fears about the new president could soon dissipate -- "if her actions these last couple of weeks are an indication of what she has planned for the future." The regents will discuss the budget on Thursday.
Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.