(USA TODAY) - Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who has handled hot button issues ranging from immigration to counter-terrorism, said Friday she is resigning to run the University of California college system.
"I thank President Obama for the chance to serve our nation during this important chapter in our history," Napolitano said in a statement. "And I know the Department of Homeland Security will continue to perform its important duties with the honor and focus that the American public expects."
Obama praised Napolitano's performance during four-and-a-half years at the Department of Homeland Security, noting that its responsibilities range from the Joplin tornado to Hurricane Sandy, as well as efforts to thwart terrorism.
"Since day one, Janet has led my administration's effort to secure our borders, deploying a historic number of resources, while also taking steps to make our immigration system fairer and more consistent with our values," Obama said. "And the American people are safer and more secure thanks to Janet's leadership in protecting our homeland against terrorist attacks."
Her resignation caught many in Washington by surprise -- Napolitano has often been mentioned as a potential successor to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Some Republicans criticized Napolitano over immigration policies, citing a de-emphasis on prosecutions against suspects believed to be in the United States illegally. Napolitano also backed a plan to end deportations against young people who lacked legal status.
Napolitano and supporters said limited law enforcement resources should focus on threats to public safety and national security.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Napolitano's tenure has been marked "by a consistent disrespect for the rule of law," and that "the most significant obstacle to immigration reform remains President Obama's selective enforcement of the law."
Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona, is only the third person to lead the Department of Homeland Security, created a decade ago in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. She held the job throughout Obama's first term.
DHS employees "serve on the front lines of our nation's efforts to protect our communities and families from harm," Napolitano said, and working with them "has been the highlight of my professional career."
She said her department "has improved the safety of travelers; implemented smart steps that make our immigration system more fair and focused while deploying record resources to protect our nation's borders; worked with states to build resiliency and make our nation's emergency and disaster response capabilities more robust; and partnered with the private sector to improve our cybersecurity."
The Los Angeles Times reported that regents at the University of California who run a 10-campus college system see Napolitano as someone who has run large public agencies and has demonstrated an interest in improving higher education.
"While some may consider her to be an unconventional choice, Secretary Napolitano is without a doubt the right person at the right time to lead this incredible university," Sherry Lansing, the regent and former film industry executive who headed the search committee, said in a statement being released Friday, the Times reported.
Added Lansing: "She will bring fresh eyes and a new sensibility - not only to UC, but to all of California. She will stand as a vigorous advocate for faculty, students and staff at a time when great changes in our state, and across the globe, are presenting as many opportunities as challenges."
In her statement, Napolitano said that in her new job she wants "to play a role in educating our nation's next generation of leaders."