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WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano plans to resign from the Obama administration to become the president of the University of California system.
“I will be nominated as the next president of the University of California to play a role in educating our nation’s next generation of leaders,” Napolitano said in a statement today. “I know the Department of Homeland Security will continue to perform its important duties with the honor and focus that the American public expects.”
Napolitano, 55, has led the Homeland Security Department since the start of President Barack Obama’s first term. She was the governor of Arizona before joining the administration.
Napolitano’s departure comes after more than four years as the country’s top homeland security official — a role that has put her in the middle of the debates about national security and immigration policy.
Napolitano has been lobbying lawmakers to approve a comprehensive restructuring of U.S. immigration laws. She’s leaving the administration as backers of the changes are trying to overcome opposition from some House Republicans to a measure passed by the Senate on a bipartisan vote.
Obama praised Napolitano’s work to protect the United States against terrorist attacks, responding to natural disasters, and on the nation’s immigration system. “The American people are safer and more secure thanks to Janet’s leadership,” he said in a statement released by the White House.
No replacement has been named.
Napolitano, whose departure was reported earlier by the Los Angeles Times, plans to leave in early September, according to two administration officials briefed on the matter.
“Secretary Napolitano is a distinguished and dedicated public servant who has earned trust at the highest, most critical levels of our country’s government,” University of California Regent Sherry Lansing said today in a statement. “She has proven herself to be a dynamic, hard-working and transformative leader.”
Napolitano was recommended by a unanimous vote of the 10- member search committee, according to the statement. The full board of regents will act on the nomination on July 18.
As president of the 10-campus University of California system, Napolitano would oversee 234,000 students, about 208,000 faculty and staff, more than 1.6 million alumni and an annual budget of more than $24 billion.
Napolitano would become the 20th president of the University of California and the first woman to hold the job at the top of the 145-year-old system, according to the special regent’s nominating committee. She would replace Mark G. Yudof, who is stepping down August 31 after five years as president.
Lansing, the chairwoman of a 10-member special search committee, said Napolitano was selected on a unanimous vote from “a large field of candidates.”
Napolitano became the country’s third Homeland Security the day after Obama was sworn in for his first term in office in 2009, leaving in the middle of her second term as the Arizona governor.
The agency has a broad mandate with components that include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration. The Homeland Security post put Napolitano at the point position on issues from natural disasters and foiled terrorism plots to a prostitution scandal in the Secret Service and whether small knives would be allowed on planes.
The position, particularly its impact on immigration and national security, also made Napolitano a target for congressional Republicans. Over the course of her time as secretary, she has sparred with with lawmakers over border security and the decision not to deport younger undocumented immigrants. She also faced off with lawmakers over the scope and origin of the terror threats facing the country.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Napolitano’s tenure was “defined by a consistent disrespect for the rule of law,” referring to an administration directive on suspending deportation of young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. That has been a “significant obstacle” to winning support for immigration legislation, Sessions said in a statement today.
Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Napolitano’s departure “is a substantial addition to the growing list of unfilled key leadership positions within the Department, and the administration should move swiftly to fill the gaping holes in its management.”
Prior to winning election as governor of Arizona, Napolitano served as the state’s attorney general. She also served as a U.S. attorney in Arizona. Napolitano graduated from Santa Clara University and received her law degree from the University of Virginia.