UC President Janet Napolitano has appointed Seth Grossman, former Deputy General Counsel at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to be her Chief of Staff — a decision that has sparked concern from several student officials.
The new selection, which was never formally publicized by the UC Office of the President, is now drawing criticism from student officials such as Associated Students President Jonathon Abboud, who say Grossman lacks experience in higher education and holds ties to the DHS. As the former Secretary of Homeland Security, Napolitano has received similar criticisms and held previous business relations with Grossman. The UC Office of the President could not be reached for comment.
However, students are also expressing outrage since others in Napolitano’s office hold considerable experience in education, such as Chief Policy Advisor Nina Robinson, who holds 15 years of prior experience working at UC Berkeley in admissions, institutional research, campus planning and as executive director of public affairs.
Abboud, upon learning of the appointment, immediately alerted other students and contacted the UC Council of Presidents — which includes the A.S. presidents of other UC campuses. He first heard about Grossman’s appointment through a faculty member, before finding Grossman’s name listed as the Chief of Staff on the UC Office of the President Contact page.
With the UC Office of the President failing to publicize the selection through a formal statement, Abboud said UC students were not properly informed of the new selection.
“It would make sense for her to make a statement that she’s hired a Chief of Staff because that’s sometimes the main point person to communicate to from the outside,” Abboud said. “I thought it would just be courteous, especially as a new president, to just put out a message saying, ‘I’m going to hire a new Chief of Staff.’”
But the situation points to a general lack of transparency in the appointment process, according to Abboud, who said students “need to be aware of the president’s actions, especially for a position that runs the president’s communication with the student body.”
Grossman’s appointment sets an unfortunate precedent for bringing in more people from the federal government, rather than people who have experience in higher education, according to Abboud.
“He could be a great Chief of Staff — I have no idea,” Abboud said. “But it’s a worrying trend that looks like it might evolve … It’s just the fact that she came from Homeland Security and now people are getting hired from Homeland Security.”
According to Abboud, the tensions that arise with Napolitano not having working experience in higher education could potentially be alleviated if she brought in more staff members with that kind of experience. Instead, Abboud said, Grossman’s appointment makes it so the UC system has “two people at the top who don’t.”
Earlier in the school year, the Associated Students Senate was presented with a resolution that, if passed, would express “no confidence” in Napolitano’s ability to adequately perform the duties of UC President. The resolution included a list of demands concerning the needs of undocumented students, since many undocumented students have expressed distress with Napolitano’s background in Homeland Security. The department oversaw a record-breaking number of deportations under Napolitano. Although the resolution did not pass at UCSB, other UC campuses have passed similar resolutions.
Third-year sociology and Asian American studies double major Beatrice Contreras, an Off-Campus Senator for Associated Students, authored the “no confidence” resolution at UCSB. In regards to Grossman’s recent appointment, Contreras echoed Abboud’s concerns regarding Grossman’s lack of experience in higher education.
“It’s frustrating … to have people continuously coming in who don’t have experience with our university and education and a background that would be useful for us,” Contreras said. “If you’re going to be putting someone in the role of managing a public university, you should put someone who has experience with education in.”
In response to concerns circling throughout the resolutions, Napolitano has, since the start of her presidency, decided to allocate five million dollars toward the needs of undocumented students. However, Contreras said that the monetary allocation and the few demands that Napolitano has met do not make up for the new appointment of Grossman.
“Regardless of whether or not she’s met them, this is a big deal,” Contreras said.
Contreras said the appointment hints that education may not be Napolitano’s “top priority.” While the A.S. senator admits she can understand the appeal of appointing a former colleague, such an appointment is still unacceptable.
“When you work in an office for a long time, you build relationships with people and you see the kind of work that they can do … I feel like it’s a loyalty thing,” Contreras said. “But at the same time, that doesn’t make it okay because most of the concerns that we’ve had regarding her appointment are about her background in the Department of Homeland Security.”
According to Abboud, some of the Associated Students or student government presidents from other UC campuses do not agree that Grossman’s recent appointment choice is a significant issue unless it continues.
“They said it’s her Chief of Staff — she should pick the person that she thinks could be the best chief of staff for her,” Abboud said. “But they did share … that if it did become a trend, that’s a concern.”
As someone who has advocated Napolitano’s appointment as president,
Abboud said he was especially disappointed by Grossman’s selection.
“As someone who tried to have a good, hopeful opinion of her, and I still try to have it, it’s worrisome to me that she isn’t … understanding the concerns,” Abboud said. “If she was really on it, she would be doing more to improve her standing with a lot of people, but she’s doing things that are decreasing her standing with the people who tried to give her a chance.”
A version of this article appeared on page 3 of December 5, 2013’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.