10/21/2013 08:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What Justin Bieber Can Teach the New UC President

Here's a quiz. Name the job of each person:

• Lane Kiffin
• Justin Bieber
• Gavin Newsom
• Janet Napolitano
• Kim Kardashian
• George Takei

All these people work in California. But if I actually gave this quiz to Californians, I'm betting that 80 percent would know the jobs of two of them -- the Biebs and North's mother; that 40 percent would know Kiffin is my college's former football coach and Takei played Mr. Sulu on Star Trek; and that 30 percent could identify the lieutenant governor. But less than 20 percent, I'm betting, could name the new president of the University of California. That's a problem for those of us who care about the future of public higher education in the state.

University presidents play different roles, and institutions and higher-education systems have different needs at different times. Take Charles Reed, who headed California State University for 14 years. He chiefly viewed his job as that of an inside pol working with state legislators and the governor. He didn't much care about the faculty or communicating an overall vision for his 18 colleges.

Former USC President Steve Sample, by contrast, saw himself as the spokesperson for the university. He was in constant communication with the board of trustees, faculty, students, alumni and especially donors. Because he was particularly concerned about fund-raising, he did not often speak out on the great issues of the day in a manner that, say, Father Theodore Hesburgh did when he was president of the University of Notre Dame.

Clark Kerr, a previous UC president, was a negotiator with the governor and state legislature and helped bring about the state's 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education. But the political environment during the 1960s -- the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, the Vietnam War -- forced him also to communicate to the larger public. Kerr wasn't especially liked in Sacramento, but he proved to be an effective spokesperson about the meaning and purpose of a public university.

If Napolitano is to succeed as UC's president, she can't solely play an insider's game of seeking more money from the state legislature, fighting with faculty about pension reform or touting the latest gift from a billionaire. She will need to develop an outside game as well.

To do that effectively, Napolitano will have to delegate some authority to her chancellors, provosts and academic senates to make some academic decisions. It will not be good use of her time to usurp roles that others can and should play.

More central to developing an outside game is becoming the public voice of UC. Napolitano needs to articulate the university's purpose and mission in the 21st century and rally statewide support for it. In the age of social media, that means not only writing op-eds and giving speeches but also using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other digital tools to communicate her message to the public.

I have not seen a public university president ever communicate in such multiple ways. Bieber has millions of fans following his every tweet. Five million "like" Takei on Facebook.

But social media is not only for performers. Diane Ravitch is a public intellectual because she has something important to say on public issues and because she uses social media to keep in contact with her legions of followers.

What would be one indicator of Napolitano's success if she communicated in the ways I'm suggesting? In five years, she should certainly be better known than the man whose last starring role was more than a generation ago on the Enterprise.