University of California President Janet Napolitano said Wednesday she is devoting $5 million to provide special counseling and financial aid for students living in the U.S. illegally, a move aimed at disarming critics who worried she would be hostile to the small but vocal student population.
The former Homeland Security Secretary announced the initiative in her first public address since she became head of the 10-campus university system a month ago — an evening appearance in San Francisco organized by the Commonwealth Club. She also pledged $10 million for recruiting and training graduate students and research fellows.
"Let me be clear. UC welcomes all students who qualify academically, whether they are documented or undocumented," she said in prepared remarks released by her office before the speech. "Consider this a down payment — one more piece of evidence of our commitment to all Californians."
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Napolitano said the money would be used "to support these students with resources like trained advisers, student service centers and financial aid," but did not immediately offer details about its source or possible conditions on its use.
University officials estimate that out of a total student population of 239,000, the system enrolls about 900 students who were brought into the country illegally as children, a group of immigrants known as "Dreamers" because of the stalled U.S. Dream Act that would give certain youth a path to permanent residency.
As part of a bill signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, California this year started allowing students who are not legal U.S. residents and are therefore ineligible for most types of federal financial aid to apply for state grants and scholarships.
Since her surprise appointment as the university's 20th president in July, Napolitano has devoted energy to alleviating the concerns of campus activists who worried she would be hostile to such immigrants because of her background in Washington and as a former governor of Arizona.
She met with student groups representing so-called dreamers on the day she was confirmed and during her first day on the job.
In her prepared remarks, Napolitano also addressed faculty skeptics who have questioned her qualifications to lead the University of California given her lack of experience in academia.
"I believe my selection was, in good measure, a result of my experience running large, complex institutions, such as the third-largest department of the federal government and the state government of Arizona," she said. "I made clear from the start that my learning curve at UC would be a steep one. But I have faced steep learning curves before."
Napolitano said that, going forward, she sees her job as ensuring that the university continues to fulfill its mission of both educating students and serving as an incubator for important research, and that the extra $10 million she is investing in graduate students is a way to do that.
"Graduate students and post-docs are the essential links between teaching for California and researching for the world," she said. "They are our future faculty members. They are our future innovators. They are our future Nobel laureates."
Napolitano said she would present more "big ideas" to the university's governing board when she attends its first meeting as the system's president next month.