For weeks, media including the Vanguard has complained that UC Davis is slow-playing requests for public information. A week after the Sacramento Bee ran its story about the university’s stall on Public Records Act requests, the first bombshell has hit.
The Bee yesterday reported, “UC Davis contracted with consultants for at least $175,000 to scrub the Internet of negative online postings following the November 2011 pepper-spraying of students and to improve the reputations of both the university and Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, newly released documents show.”
The revelations come as protesters once again are calling for the chancellor to resign or be fired. And it is not just protesters, at least five legislators have publicly called for the chancellor to resign following public disclosures about the chancellor taking paid side gigs with for-profit educational institutions, as well as a textbook company.
But amid the debate over the propriety of the chancellor’s consulting and board positions, the revelations by the Sacramento Bee may be far more damaging, as they show the use of public money in a PR campaign.
The Bee reports, “The payments were made as the university was trying to boost its image online and were among several contracts issued following the pepper-spray incident.”
Perhaps the university can defend such efforts as they were hoping to improve “the results computer users obtained when searching for information about the university or Katehi, results that one consultant labeled ‘venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the chancellor.’”
But the figures published by the Bee show “the strategic communications budget increased from $2.93 million in 2009 to $5.47 million in 2015.”
“We have worked to ensure that the reputation of the university, which the chancellor leads, is fairly portrayed,” said UC Davis spokeswoman Dana Topousis, as reported by the Bee. “We wanted to promote and advance the important teaching, research and public service done by our students, faculty and staff, which is the core mission of our university.”
The Bee reports, “The documents reflect an aggressive effort to counteract an avalanche of negative publicity that arose after the Nov. 18, 2011, pepper-spraying of student protesters by campus police. Fallout from that incident continued for more than a year, as investigations and lawsuits played out and spawned criticism of UC Davis and demands that Katehi resign.”
The Bee released some of those documents showing that, in January 2013, UC Davis signed a contract with Nevins & Associates for six months that paid $15,000 a month. One document reads, “Nevins & Associates is prepared to create and execute an online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention the University of California, Davis, and Chancellor Katehi have received related to the events that transpired in November 2011.”
Among other things it says, “Online evidence and the venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the Chancellor are being filtered through the 24-hour news cycle but it is at a tepid pace. Our campaign will expedite this process through strategic placement of online content and an increased adoption of Google platforms that will serve to specifically target viral content found on YouTube and in search results on Google.”
Among the stated objectives is included, “Launch an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results for UC Davis and the Chancellor through strategic modifications to existing and future content and generating original content as needed,” as well as eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor.”
“It is troubling that the administration chose to spend scarce public dollars and to nearly double its PR budget when tuition soared, course offerings were slashed and California resident students were being shut out,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty. “These findings just raise more questions about university priorities.”
The key question is how these revelations impact the ongoing dispute.
While a small number of protesters continue to hold down Mrak Hall, the protesters on the one-month anniversary of their sit-in noted, “We have received support from multiple California legislators and 39 statements of solidarity from Davis faculty, students, workers, labor unions, and community groups.”
They also noted that “the recent legislative hearing evaluating the integrity of Katehi’s actions and their implications for administrative policy across the UC and CSU systems, underscored our assertion that there is no realistic justification for Katehi’s conduct. Administrators at UC Davis have proven themselves incapable of appropriately responding to this situation, and have failed to hold themselves accountable to the students, workers, and faculty they are supposed to serve.”
On Monday a group of 60 faculty members stated, “As faculty of the University of California, Davis, we write to express our support of and appreciation for the actions being taken by the UC Davis students who are currently occupying the 5th floor of Mrak Hall. These students are taking a firm stand in defending their belief that the administration should be held accountable to the public and that university affairs should be more transparent than they currently are. The students’ actions represent a revitalization of active democracy and a commitment to the proud tradition of understanding the University of California as a public good.”
They added, “We believe that our students are right on the mark in insisting on questioning the ties between the private sector and the public good and in emphasizing how these ties have been hurting them; we have been hurt by these ties as well, and in ways that directly impact our teaching and students.”
Dana Topousis on Tuesday declined further comment, instead referring the Vanguard back to Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter’s letter from last week, where he supported the right of the students to protest, but expressed concerns with the tactics of the protest which he said “presents a number of further challenges.”
He stated, “A significant number of correspondents have challenged our restrained response to a significant ongoing disruption and violations of campus regulations and policies. To them and to all let me say that we do not condone and have never condoned such disruptions or violations. We have, quite deliberately, so far elected not to initiate disciplinary proceedings in the hope that the students will yet choose to enter into dialogue with the chancellor, an option she has repeatedly offered.”
However, while the chancellor has repeatedly apologized for her role in the controversy, the broader issues seem only to have been scratched at on the surface.
From our standpoint, things seem notably different from 2011 in the aftermath of the pepper spraying. As much as the Vanguard and other media organizations were critical of the university and diligent in following up on leads – the university was very cooperative. There were clearly things that the university was not willing to release, but they assigned Barry Schiller as a spokesperson who was easy and excellent to work with and the staff was very timely in their response to numerous records requests.
That does not appear to be happening now. As explosive as the situation was in 2011 and early 2012, the university seems far more guarded now.
—David M. Greenwald reporting