The Sacramento Bee offers an editorial today that argues, “UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi is seeking to rebuild public confidence. She seems genuinely contrite, but it’s a big ask.”
The editorial board writes that the chancellor visited their board on Thursday with a message of “trust me.” “I will do everything in my power to minimize mistakes,” she said.
They write, “Katehi said she is creating an internal team to vet her board commitments and other community involvement, and a ‘transparency board’ to improve her communications. She also promised to engage the campus more openly on issues such as the budget, and to talk more to the community about the future of the university.”
“We don’t blame Katehi for wanting to fix this. She has big plans for the university,” they write. “In her six and a half year tenure as chancellor, UC Davis has become an academic contender and a force in the region.”
For the last few months we have been stuck in a binary world where one side wants the chancellor to resign – in part for her mistakes, in part probably for things that are likely outside of her control, but about which she didn’t seem to take enough heed.
On the other hand are those who point to her achievements – and there are many – and argue we should overlook her shortcomings.
Lost in these two perspectives is a real acknowledgement of her strengths by those who are critical of the chancellor and, at the same time, the lack of acknowledgment of the severity of her missteps by those who seek to defend her.
The Bee editorial board parses this disconnect well, noting that Forbes Magazine called UC Davis “the nation’s best school for promoting women in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” They laud her vision, but state that “it could all come to naught if her missteps accumulate to the point that the public no longer trusts her. And Katehi – who prides herself on being a risk-taker – has a terrible Achilles heel with risky decisions that have come back to bite her.”
The idea that someone making over $400,000 would not recognize how bad the optics were of joining the DeVry University board FOR PAY is mindboggling. UC Davis’ explanation and defense of the communications contract strains credibility.
As Sac Bee columnist Marcos Breton put it recently in his column, “For all her accolades, corporate support, academic credentials and fundraising prowess, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi has faced more than one crisis due to consistent failures to communicate.”
Mr. Breton nailed it by pointing out, “She can fire up Sacramento business leaders with the goal of making UC Davis as valuable to Sacramento’s economy as Stanford and UC Berkeley are to Silicon Valley.” But, at the same time that “Katehi’s job requires humility and common sense over intellectual prowess, her world spins out of control.”
Moreover, she was swimming in quicksand: “The more UC Davis has spent on its communications budget – from $2.93 million in 2009 to $5.47 million in 2015 – the more muddled its message has become.”
Mr. Breton continues, “Katehi has fostered a diverse campus where women have gained acceptance in ways other campuses have not. She’s pushed UC Davis to be one of the finest universities in the U.S. She should be soaring, and yet?”
Marcos Breton’s column really cuts through the spin here. As he points out, she survived “because of her upside as a rainmaker with broad community and institutional support,” and yet she never could seem to get past the pepper spray incident even though pretty much everyone else had.
He writes, “The irony is that UC Davis has good reasons to manage its online image considering how much fundraising Katehi’s administration does every year. But UC Davis image makers seem incapable of communicating justifiable strategies in anything beyond robotic-sounding statements.”
At the end of the day, I have been criticized for focusing on the negative with regards to the chancellor. But really, how could the Vanguard not point out the tangled mess left here, starting with some indiscretions but ending with the inability to manage a basic message – despite spending more than five million a year on messaging?
We supported the student protesters because we believed they were right – not in the message of “Fire Katehi” or the demand that she resign – but in their frustration at the system that is focused on the money-making potential of the university while at the same time making the cost of education out of the reach of many middle income families who have to mortgage their future.
That frustration is real and it can be ignored only at their own peril. Those who point out that the protesters at Mrak who left last week after more than a month represent a small percentage of students forget that their concerns were amplified by students, faculty, staff, labor, and student government leaders.
And yet, at the end of the day, I like many still believe not only in the potential for greatness at UC Davis but that Chancellor Katehi’s vision is a strong one.
As Mr. Breton points out, “UC Davis has great stories to tell. QS World University Rankings lists UC Davis as the top veterinary and agricultural schools in the world. UC Davis’ endowment reached $1 billion in 2015. UC Davis has the most California graduates of any UC school since 2010. In the previous academic year, nearly half of recent faculty hiring has been women, and nearly 25 percent are people of color. And UC Davis has the most women undergraduate science and technology majors in the UC system.”
In addition, “Sacramento business leaders see Katehi as someone who ‘gets it,’ and who wants campus innovation to jump over the Yolo Causeway and invigorate Sacramento’s government-dependent economy.”
While Mr. Breton focuses heavily on Sacramento, I happen to believe that Ms. Katehi can be the answer for the economic development needs in Davis as well.
As he puts it, “All of this is an amazing story to tell, but what we have at UC Davis is a failure to communicate.”
For us, then, it appears that Chancellor Katehi will get one more chance to make things right. We can only hope that she and the university truly learn from their mistakes and start to do things better.
If they don’t, the media has no other choice than to expose this stuff for what it is.
—David M. Greenwald reporting