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