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Department of Homeland Security secretary and University of California president elect Janet Napolitano (C) speaks during a news conference following the University of California Board of Regents meeting on July 18, 2013 in San Francisco, California. The University of California's Board of Regents voted today to confirm Janet Napolitano to be the next president of the UC system. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Janet Napolitano has spent five years protecting Americans from all manner of grave threats from the outside world. Now the homeland security secretary will turn her efforts more inward as she tries to safeguard the future of an institution that, perhaps more than any other, has made California great.

Napolitano wasn't necessarily an obvious pick for the Board of Regents as the 20th president of the University of California, but the choice is inspired. She brings skills that are precisely what the 10-campus system needs now.

The University of California has a storied history of providing a world-class education accessible to all high-achieving California students while fueling the state's economy with top-notch graduates and research centers. But declining state support is jeopardizing all that. In 2011-12, for the first time, students contributed more toward their education than taxpayers.

The president has a wide-ranging job, but preserving access and the ability to drive California's economy -- even with less funding -- has to be Napolitano's chief responsibility.

Some object that she isn't an academic, but that says more about the insularity of her critics than about her qualifications.

Of course she's qualified to run UC. It's precisely her experience outside the university and her high national profile that make her so promising.

Napolitano will command attention. She will be a much more effective public face for the system than her predecessor, Mark Udoff, as she seeks support from state and national leaders, taxpayers and donors.

As an outsider of impressive achievement, she has substantial credibility. She understands the larger world. She has no vested interest in preserving the academic status quo.

She has managed large, complex organizations and, as governor of Arizona, fought for public education.

She is well known in the Bay Area, where she was valedictorian at Santa Clara University. And she knows that the financing model for U.S. higher education is broken: College graduates are now more than $1 trillion in debt, an unsustainable bubble. Napolitano can lead the national discussion about how to solve that problem and put UC in the vanguard.

Napolitano says she will begin her term at the end of September by listening. But she's already heard the fears of some immigrant students and their allies: Her Homeland Security Department dramatically increased deportations, a policy that has torn families apart.

She says she supports the Dream Act and honors the welcoming spirit of UC policies. But she can't wait until September to begin the work of winning over a skeptical student body.

There is no time like the present to begin that endeavor.