From the start I believed that the known incidents would not be sufficient to force the University of California to act against Chancellor Katehi. I always said that, if she goes down, it will be a over a secondary incident that we don’t know about. That was partly true, but in the end, Ms. Katehi probably went down for failing to learn the lessons of Watergate – it is not the scandal but the cover up of the scandal that will get you.
Indeed, it was not the pepper spray incident that got her, it was attempting to whitewash it from history on the internet and probably, more importantly, attempting to lie about what she was trying to do, coupled with some good old fashioned nepotism, that brought her down.
Almost from the start of this lengthy and drawn-out crisis, the Vanguard learned of Chancellor Katehi’s relatives in positions of employment. But knowing this and figuring out what was illegal or improper was a very difficult task. UC Davis is not nearly as open and transparent as a public institution ought to be.
It comes as some solace that the chancellor had apparently pulled the wool over the eyes of President Janet Napolitano as well, who stated in her letter, “You have verbally assured me that all matters relating to the employment of your husband, son and daughter-in-law have been consistent with policies and procedures, but documents and other information appear contrary to that assurance.”
There are several different problems that President Napolitano highlights in her letter. First, it appears that there is nothing necessarily improper about simply hiring people like her husband, son and daughter-in-law. However, the promotion of her daughter-in-law and her pay increase of $50,000 over a period of two-and-a-half years raises flags. But the fact that she reports directly to someone who reports directly to the chancellor is a huge problem. Add to that, “During that same period, you put forward a pay increase of over 20 percent and a title change for your daughter-in-law’s supervisor.”
Then there is her son, whose entire academic program “was moved into the same department in which your daughter-in-law is employed, but also that the program was placed under her direct supervision.” She adds, “It does not appear that appropriate steps were taken to address, document or obtain approval for the fact that your son now reported to your daughter-in-law, who, in turn, was supervised by one of your direct reports.”
Pepper Spray Scrubbing
While this is all troubling, I think the biggest problem was the Pepper Spray Scrubbing Program.
When the Sacramento Bee brought to light the huge contract to remove references to the pepper spray incident, UC Davis responded using their official communications channels that this mischaracterized the facts.
In fact, it was now the man who is acting chancellor, Ralph Hexter, who attempted to defend the university first here, stating “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.”
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.”
But the contract was clear: “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.”
In her letter, Linda Katehi said, “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.”
All of this was apparently kosher. But when Linda Katehi told newspapers including the Davis Enterprise that she had not even seen the contract, that is where the shoe fell off the foot.
Documents emerged, after she threw her contracts department under the proverbial bus, that proved she was lying. Yes, we have to use the “l-word” here because, as Ms. Napolitano put it, “Despite public statements to members of the media, as well as to me, that you were not aware of or involved with these particular contracts, documents prepared in response to a Public Records Act request indicate multiple interactions with one of the vendors and efforts to set up meetings with the other.”
Again, it is not the act, but the effort to clumsily cover up the act that catches her in both of these incidents.
Much was made of the increased communications budget. As we pointed out last week, it was questionable that UC Davis was getting its money’s worth here. The Sacramento Bee released the reports from the communications department where they were attempting to track social media activity.
In an editorial where the Enterprise belatedly concludes it is time for Chancellor Katehi to go, they point out that, after every incident, “dating back to the 2011 pepper-spraying scandal, Katehi repeatedly has said she ‘takes responsibility’ for whatever’s gone wrong. But never has she taken a concrete action that would demonstrate responsibility. Instead, we’ve been handed a nonstop stream of obfuscation, scapegoating and deflection.”
The Enterprise argues, “Another common theme, especially in regards to the post-pepper-spray attempt to manipulate UCD’s online presence, is that the university needs to do a ‘better job’ of communicating. That also misses the point; UCD ‘communicates’ just fine, especially when there’s good news to share.”
They add, “And when there’s bad news, the staff often does its job well, too; it’s just that at that point the job is to shift blame away from the top. It’s not a lack of competence; rather, the entire UCD ‘communications’ apparatus appears designed to hide the truth from its own students, from the Legislature and from California taxpayers.”
While the Enterprise makes some good points and astute observations, I don’t completely agree. The University certainly made a lot of concrete changes following the pepper spray incident. They removed the leadership at the police department which had long been problematic in escalating rather than deescalating tension at student protests. They changed engagement policies. They put in place police oversight.
The problem here is that they couldn’t make the one change they really needed to – changing the bad judgment by Linda Katehi and those around her who enabled that bad judgement to go unchecked. It is actually far worse than people think, because at least some of the better administrators who stood up to her were removed and replaced by apologists.
But I can’t say the communications department worked just fine. It seems to me and to many others, the more UC Davis has spent on communications, the worse they have gotten.
UC Davis doesn’t communicate “just fine” – the tale of the pepper spray scrub from beginning to end attests to that. When the defense is not to believe our own eyes about the contract, that is a failure to communicate. The chancellor is gone in part because the house of cards that a professional communications department allowed to be put forward could not withstand scrutiny or pass the smell test.
It is understandable that Ralph Hexter as provost and number two man would be asked to step up as acting chancellor. But his hands are not exactly clean in all of this. As we noted above, he was the first to obfuscate and defend the pepper spray scrubbing incident – where his defense was proven wrong.
He was also the attack dog against the protesters in Mrak Hall.
In fact, he was a defender of Linda Katehi until the end.
At the press conference he stated, “I’m very sorry that our chancellor has had to step down. I think Linda Katehi is a fantastic leader.” When he was asked if he disagreed with the president’s decision, he quickly backtracked and stated in a very defensive tone, “I didn’t say that.” He said, “I don’t have the materials that she does. I understand why she feels that this is the decision that she has to make.”
On the other hand, he offered that the chancellor expects this investigation to clear her name. He called Chancellor Katehi “a tremendous leader” and stated “she’s the reason why I came to Davis.” He said, “She has lifted up the university, it’s a great university. One of her great skills was to send the message both internally and abroad that we have so much to be proud of.”
More and more as I think about this, I am troubled by his comments. Yes, it is understandable that he would have some loyalty to the chancellor, but he came across as an apologist for her actions.
During the student protests, it was Ralph Hexter who was critical of their presence, noting that their presence “presents a number of challenges.” He accused them of confronting staff members, posting videos of these interactions and stated that “some staff have experienced outright intimidation.”
On Thursday, he stated, “I never thought of them as representing all of the students. I know that there was a tremendous number of supporters who by nature are more silent.”
Perhaps. But Mr. Hexter seems reluctant to acknowledge that, while the number of protesters were small, a number of people, who disagreed with their tactics, agreed with the core message. The protesters drew support from numerous faculty members, labor groups, and the student organization, ASUCD.
When our student reporter went out to survey students, she had difficulty finding anyone who had a positive view of the chancellor.
“What I do know is that the occupation itself caused a tremendous amount of stress to the chancellor but above all to the staff who work here. So I’m very grateful that we managed to have them leave of their own accord. That was a good solution,” Hexter said.
They didn’t manage to have the students leave on their own accord, they lucked into it. Some have told me that the students leaving gave President Napolitano the space to maneuver. I tend to disagree on both fronts.
The students left because they had made their point and they too found the protest to be stressful on their lives. I think the president had enough facts that she was going to have to act regardless of the protest at Mrak. She had the evidence and delivered it in a careful and methodical way on Wednesday. There was no doubt left.
In retrospect, at the press conference I should have asked acting Chancellor Hexter more about his role of attack dog and apologist for the chancellor during the protests. He was not a neutral party and he comes away from this with his hands unclean.
The legacy of Linda Katehi is somewhat muddled anyway. There are those who will note that she inherited the Agriculture School and Veterinary Medicine School
James D. MacDonald, a professor emeritus in the department of plant pathology at UC Davis, for example, wrote in early March that it was Dean Neal Van Alfen who rebuilt the agriculture program.
“It was Dean Van Alfen who worked with the chairs of the departments of agronomy, vegetable crops, pomology and environmental horticulture to facilitate their merger into the largest, most talented and powerful department of plant sciences in the world,” he wrote.
Professor MacDonald noted that, “as thanks for Dean Van Alfen’s leadership accomplishments, Chancellor Katehi decided to launch a search to replace him two years before the scheduled end of his term, a move that compelled him to resign. Thus, I find it quite ironic to see her claim the high ranking of the college as an accomplishment of her own.”
He said that when Dean Van Alfen was forced to resign, “I lost complete confidence in her judgment and her administration, so I, too, resigned.” He continued, “I feel that the recent events demonstrate that her professional judgment remains a continuing concern.”
This story we happen to have published, but in the last few days, I have heard off the record from very credible sources that Ms. Katehi was not the one responsible for the rise of UC Davis and, moreover, she is not the great fundraiser that many laud her to be.
In the end, what stuns me is the state of denial here. Ms. Katehi has hired an attorney who has argued that Katehi is being railroaded – that, of course, is likely a ploy for more severance. But the Academic Senate here – or at least the vocal strands – has been an apologist as well, with the lengthy letter signed by 350 people on Wednesday.
Since the president’s letter, many of these voices have grown silent.
Despite all of this, UC Davis is not nearly as stained as some believe. We have seen university presidents and chancellors have to resign for various reasons across the country. The key is making a good hire and continuing to move in the positive direction that the university as a whole has taken.
Finally, I think that the student protesters have legitimate concerns that go beyond just the chancellor and that need to be taken seriously. It is easy to dismiss young people who, at times, can allow their passion to overwhelm their ability to handle stressful situations, but that should not be used to discredit their concerns which are legitimate – and have been proven even more so by what has unfolded in the last week and few months.
—David M. Greenwald reporting