Commentary: Is UC Davis Really Getting Its Money’s Worth on Communications?

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Chancellor Katehi
Chancellor Katehi

Reaction was mixed to Chancellor Linda Katehi’s latest attempt to get this crisis behind her and move on with business as usual.  While there were good parts to her mea culpa letter that was released late Monday and published in most publications on Tuesday, there are huge logical leaps here.

Her letter led with the good – discussing the accomplishments of the university, which are noteworthy and commendable. Under her watch, UC Davis has two of the top programs in the country, while no other UC has more than one.

But right now that is all being overshadowed by what she calls “a series of highly publicized missteps.”  She writes, “Some were my own doing. All occurred under my watch. For that, I sincerely apologize.”

Should she have gone further?  Should she have taken full responsibility?  Should she have promised to make sure that this never happens again?

I get those who want to say that she has apologized, move on.  The problem is that she won’t let us move on, and what do people expect the media to do?  Just ignore this stuff?

While Davis Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning and I rarely see eye-to-eye, I think he makes several important points in his column on Tuesday that are right on.

He notes that “our friends at UC Davis have just violated the cardinal rule of crisis management firms: namely, that when really bad news hits, make it a one-day story.”

This has been allowed to continue for nearly two months – in part it is because of the poor response by the administration, and in part it is because of the slow drip of new revelations.  As I first said, a month or so ago, the immediate scandal will not cause the chancellor to lose her job, but a secondary revelation might.

The second problem is that the official explanation of the pepper spray scrubbing simply makes no sense.

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter tries his hand first. He states, “These stories mischaracterize the facts. The campus hired outside consultants, using no public or student funds, to optimize search engine results in order to highlight the achievements of our students, faculty and staff.”

He continued, “Even if such a thing as eliminating stories and images from the Internet were possible, ‘pepper spray’ will always be part of UC Davis’ history. Every day we are trying to make sure we incorporate the hard lessons we learned. Our sensitivity to and acknowledgement of the importance of free speech and protest is evidenced by the approach the campus took to the sit-in on the fifth floor at Mrak.”

UC Davis claims, “The external vendors referenced in The Sacramento Bee article on April 14 were brought in primarily to improve our capacity and expertise in digital communications. We recognize that it is not even possible to remove content from the Internet, and that was not our intention.”

The problem is that doesn’t fit the facts.

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.”

Linda Katehi herself next tries her hand: “I assure you: none of our communications efforts were intended — or attempted — to erase online content or rewrite history.”

As to the contracts?  “In hindsight, we should have been more careful in reviewing some of the more unrealistic and ridiculous scope-of-work claims in the written proposals of our outside vendors. What might be accepted industry hyperbole in the private public relations world falls far beneath the high standards of a public institution of higher learning.”

Not buying this explanation, Mr. Dunning points out, “In other words, although the contract was unrealistic and full of ridiculous claims, we signed it anyway and paid big money for the promised unrealistic and ridiculous services of this company.”

Bob Dunning also takes issue with the provost’s assertion that “no public funds” were used in the handling of this crisis.  By that, the provost undoubtedly meant it was not coming from tuition or state money but rather private donors.

Still, as Bob Dunning questions, “Is he hinting that the university has some sort of private slush fund that it can use indiscriminately for whatever purposes it wishes? If not, why is the campus not telling us where, in fact, these funds came from?” He states, “Unfortunately, I have bad news for the provost. Once the university deposits those funds — that were raised, incidentally, by taxpayer-supported ‘development’ officers — they become ‘public’ money.”

While I get the point made by the provost here, the handling of this all looks sloppy, especially when they are paying $5 million a year to take advice from professionals who are supposed to be able to help them get out of this mess rather than dig deeper.

As the old adage goes: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

In this case, the chancellor doubled down on a line of defense that does not mesh with the words of the contract. In trying to explain away those words, it questions the competency of those reviewing the public contract in the first place.

Now she adds, “To answer concerns from the greater Sacramento-Davis community, I will make myself available at a series of public forums and media events to answer any and all questions people have about these issues or our future.”

To what end?  Is there really something she is going to say about these matters that will put this to rest, or will she simply be prolonging the agony?

Late on Tuesday, Assemblymember Bill Dodd put out a statement, “UC Davis is a tremendous asset to our region and state, providing world class research and educational opportunities. Like so many, I am troubled by these recent controversies and frustrated that they’ve taken focus away from the University’s mission and its many accomplishments. We have seen inadequate judgment and flawed policies that need to be addressed by the UC system.”

“The Chancellor needs to reflect on whether she is able to restore the confidence and focus needed to credibly lead the university into the future,” he adds. “The Chancellor has issued a statement pledging to take steps towards that end. President Napolitano, the UC Board of Regents and the campus community need to evaluate whether those steps prove adequate and effective.”

While I still question whether the chancellor should lose her job over any of this, I think the answer is that none of these steps to date have proven adequate or effective, and that the best thing the chancellor can do is get back to work in advancing the mission of the university.

Nothing she can say can change anything now.  She has to show through actions she can stay on task and avoid embarrassing pitfalls.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 thoughts on “Commentary: Is UC Davis Really Getting Its Money’s Worth on Communications?”

  1. Tia Will

    What might be accepted industry hyperbole in the private public relations world falls far beneath the high standards of a public institution of higher learning.” Chancellor Katehi

    I think that this statement by Chancellor Katehi may hold within in it one key to the problem. I believe that she may well be sincere in her latest attempt to excuse her actions. The philosophic world in which she naturally lives sees this kind of hyperbole as an acceptable standard and, until it is called out by an outside source, she does not see it as “falling beneath the high standards of a public institution of higher learning.” Obviously, she, and anyone else who signed off on this thought it was just fine.

    Here in for me lies the central problem. She apparently, through her chosen associations with the Wiley, DeVry, and KAU and her employment of this private PR firm, does not differentiate between making as much money as you can whether or not it helps the students and cover your tracks if you make a mistake as thoroughly as you can private attitude from what should be the highest ethical standards promoted and demonstrated by the top administrators of a public university. Her latest statements have indicated more clearly to me than ever that she simply does not see any difference.

    I have had the experience of having to inform a number of very bright, eager, sincere young aspiring gynecologists that for one reason or another ( usually inability to develop technical skills) that gynecology was just not the right field for them. I have written letters of recommendation for them for positions in more appropriate ( less technical ) fields. This is always a difficult conversation, but nearly all have gone on to find their best niche within medicine.

    I do not know Chancellor Katehi but at this point in time, if she were a friend, I would be telling her,  ” Linda, you have had some great successes here, however, the way you perceive and the way that you function in the world is simply not the best fit for a public university. I really believe that you will continue to do great work and will be much happier within a setting in which people share your view of the world. I think it is time for you to consider looking for your next challenge in the private sector.

    1. SODA

      Tia

      You have been consistent and persistent in your reasoning on your recommendation for the Chancellor’s future plans. Interestingly, as each shoe has dropped (how many feet?),  you repeat the same mantra….and it becomes more resonant.

  2. ryankelly

    What is the old adage…people are promoted to their level of incompetence?

    Katehi is a good scientist, but not a good politician or, now we know, a good enough administrator.  UCD needs to look at administrator bloat in all departments.  Successful fundraising matters little if it isn’t used wisely.

    1. The Pugilist

      She doesn’t have to be a good administrator as long as she has someone in her upper brasses who is.  She’s good at what she does, but when she goes beyond that, she stumbles.

  3. Don Shor

    This was sent to me by a reader:

    David,  I happened to use a google search in order to compare the rankings of the University of Illinois, Urbana with those of UC Davis.  I think the results exhibit the mismatch of the UCD communication style to the values I expect from a public school.  Davis is flashy but less informative and more inconvenient.  I expect this in private business but think it is counter productive for a public university.  It seems less trust worthy which I’m sure is not the intent.

    The links follow with an explanation and copy of the University of Illinois simple text:

     

    https://www.ucdavis.edu/about/rankings/

     

    first page shows lots of color, several attractive icons but little real information.  Real information follows if I scroll down.

     

    https://www.google.com/search?q=University+of+Illinois%2C+Urbana+rankings&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&channel=sb

      The following easy to read , useful information is shown at the search list, without needing to enter the university site.

    Rankings & Ratings

    Rank

    Source

    Category

    #29

    Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)

    Academic Ranking of World Universities

    #68

    Forbes

    America’s Top Colleges

    #27

    Washington Monthly

    National Universities Rankings

    #67

    Lumosity

    Smartest Colleges

  4. noname

    How does Katehi still have a job? How many “missteps” does she get? Now she’s spending more time and resources on an in-person and video PR mea culpa tour. It’s past time for a change.

    1. The Pugilist

      Because the perception of the UC President, Upper Admin, and Hard Sciences is that she raises a lot of money for the university.  Unless that changes, I don’t expert her to lose her job.

  5. Alan Miller

    While Davis Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning and I rarely see eye-to-eye, I think he makes several important points in his column on Tuesday that are right on.

    If there is a single reason Katehi should be allowed to keep her job, it is for performing a miracle (see above sentence).

  6. Frankly

    Here is my take.

    Most people really don’t get what it is like in the UCD executive pool.  They also don’t get the modern business model for the industry of higher learning.  Lastly, they don’t get human nature.

    Katehi is largely a product of the UCD business model and the corresponding executive pool and its culture… one that has been top-heavy with some of the most political and egotistical suits you could ever meet.  They both promulgate and thrive in this business model of building ego shrines that make the university more impressive.

    This isn’t all bad because one of the ego shrines is being a highly respected and highly ranked world-class research university.

    Also, all the UCD suits would tend to not want to see any pepper spray incidents tarnish their reputation (although, and as Paris Hilton learned… no publicity is bad publicity… UCD certainly did get some more name recognition from the local scandal that went national)… and so you would expect that along with the bad news that they spent a couple hundred grand to try and polish that tarnish… you also know they were working hard to make sure something like it would not happen again.

    So pursuing ego is not 100% bad.

    The bad part is that fund-raising for ego shrines has dominated the power of the C-suite at UCD for decades.  It dominates the business model, and so other things like academic-instruction quality and customer service take a back seat.

    That was not Katehi’s doing… it started long before her stint as Chancellor.

    But who is really to blame for it?

    Some of us need to look in the mirror at our own mini ego shrines… our kids.

    We want our children to attend those prestigious colleges.  Although it is changing some due to growing financial necessity, we generally did not even look into the quality of instruction, service quality and value in our ego pursuit to tell our peers that our little darling was attending one of those top-shelf UC universities and not, gasp, one of the CSU schools or worse… a community college.

    Katehi is just responding to what we are all demanding to feed our egos.

    The lynch party is a bit ironic in that respect.

  7. VG

    “Katehi is largely a product of the UCD business model and the corresponding executive pool and its culture… one that has been top-heavy with some of the most political and egotistical suits you could ever meet.  They both promulgate and thrive in this business model of building ego shrines that make the university more impressive.”   ……Frankly.

    Very well said …. I have also been thinking what will happen when lynch mob succeeds? How is her replacement going to look like? I bet far worse: UCD is likely to get a “Teflon Chancellor” some highly political animal, that knows very well how to act, pretend, lie, cover up while enshrining the existing dictatorship at Mrak Hall – Vanderhoof like creature … Just the mere thought of that one makes me puke…

    Thus, in a big picture, this makes me kind of like Linda. At least she is letting Davis students, community, every one that feels like, cast a stone at her. There is some democracy in the fact that we can voice our discontent. This was not possible under Vanderhoof, and writer is correct, this is perhaps as much as 25 years of oppression and accumulation of discontent that has erupted at Linda.

    Why is the lynch mob so irrational and not willing to see that if they are to make legal arguments in the court of law against Linda, they would loose on each and every count. This is the fact.

    Thus, does this hysteria of hate have to do with the fact that she is foreign born, speaks with a heavy accent, that she is a woman (though she is not some “political correctness patsy” – even her haters admit she is competent researcher capable of bringing research funds to Davis), or some other irrational component of imperfect human race.

    She obviously does not get it, she is not a “political animal” as her Mrak Hall predecessor or her surrounding is. She is rather  an amateur politician, not an expert crook, lair, pretender, low moral and no integrity person “what it is …in the UCD executive pool.” (Frankly). Her video is a pathetic attempt to be liked, to ask for forgiveness for all the accusations that she does not deserve. She is not defending herself as she should. That will obviously fail as the lynch mob is getting impatient to put her on the gallows. There is no sympathy for her. 

    “UCD certainly did get some more name recognition from the local scandal that went national” (Frankly) Even hitting the Russian news: http://sputniknews.com/us/20160415/1038037079/uc-davis-pepper-spray.html

    This is the best part. Here is conversation that I hated the most before November, 2011:

    Q: What do you do for living?

    A: I am a professor.

    Q: Where do you teach?

    A: At UC.

    Q: Which campus? Which campus? (eagerly)

    A: Davis.

    Q: Where is that?!  (sometimes “what is that!?”)

    After November … I answer proudly:

    A: You know this “pepper spraying”?

    Q: Oh, yeah, yeah, that place …. that is cool! Did you get sprayed?

    A: No, I was not.

    This also distract the questioner from following this line of questions (that I hate too)

    Q: So how many hours do you teach?

    A: 3.

    Q: So you work only 3 hours!?

    Let’s put it this way: If Katehi is to run for the president of the US of A. I would vote for her over Hillary or Trump.

     

     

    1. Tia Will

      VG

      “At least she is letting Davis students, community, every one that feels like, cast a stone at her.”

      And how exactly do you think that she would be able to stop the negative publicity at this point ? Does a person being stoned “let” their tormentors cast their stones or are they simply incapable of stopping them ?

      does this hysteria of hate have to do with the fact that she is foreign born, speaks with a heavy accent, that she is a woman”

      No, no, and no. I have no ‘hysteria of hate’. I was married to a foreign born individual so, no xenophobia in play here. I am a woman and do not have one iota of self loathing related to my gender.

      I have spoken very plainly and consistently about my reasons for feeling that she should resign. I do not know whether her successor would be better, the same, or worse. What I do know is that she has repeatedly demonstrated poor judgement not equal to the leadership position she was given. That for me is cause for resignation. I have empathy for her, just as I do for anyone who is professionally misplaced.

      1. VG

        “Does a person being stoned “let” their tormentors cast their stones or are they simply incapable of stopping them ?”

        She should have just simply thrown out student protesters out of her offices right at the end of the first day they entered it, instead of having pizza delivery for a month. This would have been bad publicity  for a day and would have ended quickly. She was acting meek and this encouraged cowards to attack her further. Strategic mistake.

        Please, please … none of my writing had any of your positions in mind. I quite enjoy reading your take on it – you have been very moderate and I like your writings. We may have some differences, but who knows “who is right and who is wrong” … I do not know. …

        I can only state for certain that if the choice is: Hilary, Trump or Linda – I take Linda. Even over Berny Sanders 🙂 , see: http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/04/18/imperial-socialism/

         

        1. Tia Will

          VG

           We may have some differences, but who knows “who is right and who is wrong” … I do not know. …”

          Likewise. For me, this is the main point of participation on the Vanguard. I thoroughly enjoy reading and considering the ideas of those who view the world differently.

          She was acting meek and this encouraged cowards to attack her further. “

          For me there is a difference between acting “meek” and acting judiciously. And who are the “cowards” of whom you speak ?  Surely you do not believe that the students who risk academic and/or legal sanction are being “cowards”. Are you referring to the state legislators who called for her resignation ?  These are public acts by elected officials who have to live with the outcomes of their positions, so I suspect you would not call this “cowardice”. Some of the posters on the Vanguard are anonymous, so perhaps they are your referents ?

  8. Tia Will

    Frankly

    we generally did not even look into the quality of instruction, service quality and value in our ego pursuit to tell our peers that our little darling was attending one of those top-shelf UC universities and not, gasp, one of the CSU schools or worse… a community college.”

    I think that you are painting with far too broad a brush. There are many of us who realized for what ever reason that one of the “elite schools” was not for our “little darling” and that a community college was a better place to start out until enough maturation took place to move on. I also do not believe that many people do not look at the quality of instruction or other factors of suitability for their children. I do admit to disappointment that when my son had done the appropriate maturation and developed the necessary skills and achieved the qualifying grades, that there was not a spot for him at UCD. However I am certainly not disappointed with his acceptance to Cal State which happens to have a strong program in kinesiology where he has been accepted.

    Katehi is just responding to what we are all demanding to feed our egos.’

    With this, I totally disagree. The position of Chancellor is a leadership position. If you are correct, and she is “just responding” then by definition, she is not doing her job as a leader of a public university. And, if she is not doing her job, then the calls for her resignation are certainly not a “lynch party”.

    1. South of Davis

      Tia wrote:

      > I do admit to disappointment that when my son had done

      > the appropriate maturation and developed the necessary

      > skills and achieved the qualifying grades, that there was

      > not a spot for him at UCD.

      Too bad you didn’t sign your son up for the TAG program and he would have been “guaranteed” a spot at UCD.

      http://tag.ucdavis.edu/students/

      1. Tia Will

        South of Davis

        I may misunderstand this program, but I believe it involves choosing a program in advance. My son was no where near the capability to make this kind of decision at the time he started at community college, or even until this year for that matter. Some just mature more slowly than others. My resentment is not for my own son, who I believe secured an appropriate spot for himself, but for others who doubtless had the same outcome for their applications.

    1. VG

      “The Chancellor has again gotten us press on Huffington Post and it isn’t for our world class stature.”

      Stop apologizing! Show leadership! Fire Ralph! Get yourself a pit bull dog and a litigation attorney!

      If anyone is to make a legal case in the court of law against Linda, based on what is presented in press so far, they would loose on each and every count. This is the fact no one is even attempting to disprove. It is all based on “what I think“, “what I feel“, “what I would like” – this is hogwash!

      Stand your ground!

  9. Tia Will

    VG

    If anyone is to make a legal case in the court of law against Linda, based on what is presented in press so far, they would loose on each and every count”

    And it is also true that not all unethical or imprudent actions are illegal. When assessing whether or not a resident should continue in gynecology or consider a non surgical specialty, I do not wait until they  have killed someone or caused them serious harm before I recommend that they seek a transfer.

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