For some people, Linda Katehi was never going to escape the shadow of the November 18, 2011, pepper spray incident. For them, the chancellor needed to go the day that those protesters were sprayed by Lt. John Pike. It is hard to know how big a group that actually is, but that forms a baseline for the events that began in late February of this year, culminating in the April 27 letter from President Janet Napolitano.
The process that President Napolitano put in place with the investigation concluded this week with a report that was much more mixed and nuanced than most people want to believe. That has led not just commenters, but major publications, to conclude that there are two vastly different portrayals of the report.
The LA Times writes: “Two starkly different portrayals of Linda Katehi emerged Tuesday after she resigned her post just moments ahead of the release of a report on an independent investigation into her tenure as UC Davis chancellor.”
Melinda Guzman characterized it as “Linda Katehi and her family have been exonerated from baseless accusations of nepotism, conflicts of interest, financial management and personal gain, just as we predicted and as the UC Davis Academic Senate found within days of this leave.”
On the other hand, President Napolitano used words like deeply flawed administrator, exercising poor judgment and violating multiple university policies, who misled her superiors, the public and the media.
The remarkable part of this story is that both characterizations are correct in a very real way. I think it’s important that the public understand how that can be the case and why in the end the two views shall never meet.
It is natural that Melinda Guzman would push the positive aspect of this report. In our interview on Tuesday, she pushed the idea that the nepotism charge was more about miscommunication than wrongdoing and I think that is an accurate view.
The report notes, “If Chancellor Katehi intended to convey to President Napolitano that there were no issues with respect to her involvement in her son’s and daughter-in-law’s employment, then her statements were accurate.”
The optics of the arrangement are not good. UC probably could benefit from tightening the policy down, but in the end, while President Napolitano took the chancellor’s words differently than intended, “it does not appear that Chancellor Katehi attempted to intentionally mislead President Napolitano during their call on April 19.”
As Ms. Guzman explained, the chancellor followed protocol and did what she was supposed to do to wall off her involvement regarding possible nepotism.
The student fee issues, Ms. Guzman said, were resolved in 2014, and it appears that she is correct there as the investigation concludes, “The investigation team identified no policy violations or management concerns related to the use of SASI [Student Activities and Services Initiative] revenues.”
While Ms. Guzman attempted to separate the three initial charges from three additional charges, I think it is important to understand that the report itself notes that, even in cases where violations occurred, such as the reimbursement of travel costs, “Chancellor Katehi did not personally profit from this arrangement,” and then in the second case, “It does not appear that Chancellor Katehi personally profited, or that UC Davis suffered a financial loss, as a result of these policy violations.”
This is critical to understanding that Chancellor Katehi, while her judgment and communications skills can be questioned, is not profiting off her wrongdoing. This is not criminal corruption. This is at most sloppiness and some mistakes.
Also, the report finds there is “no evidence that Chancellor Katehi retaliated or threatened retaliation against employees for their cooperation with this investigation or with UCOP.”
Had the report stopped here, it would have been an unequivocal win for Chancellor Katehi. The great irony is what likely did her in and there is really no defending is the pepper spray incident and the attempt to cover it up or remove it from the internet.
Back in March, when it became known about the DeVry Board, and, by the way, she is not as clean on the DeVry issue as she could have been, as well as the board of Wiley & Associates, I made the observation that somehow became controversial at the time that the current situation was not enough to cost her the job of chancellor. Another shoe would have to fall for her to lose her job.
Some interpreted my comment as a prediction, but it was really an observation that, at that point, the president had stuck by her and something new would have to happen. As it turned out, that something was social media scrubbing contracts.
As it turns out, it is not the deed itself but rather the attempt to, as the report puts it, “minimize” her role in the contracts, that really got her.
The findings here are that the chancellor “advised President Napolitano that she had nothing to do with the contracts. and that they were all handled by the UC Davis communications. During these conversations. Chancellor Katehi conveyed the clear impression that she knew nothing of tire contracts and that she was not involved in them.”
She told similar things to the Sacramento Bee editorial board.
The report finds, “The Chancellor’s statements were misleading, at best, or untruthful, at worst.”
Linda Katehi’s team believed that the Sacramento Bee had a vendetta of sorts against the chancellor. The Vanguard agreed with that belief to some extent, because a lot of the later stories emerging from the Bee were over-the-top in their criticism. But my belief is that the turning point was probably her meeting with the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board.
It wasn’t just the Bee. Bob Dunning came to cover Ralph Hexter’s first press conference in late April and it was clear from his remarks that her statements on the social media contracts, which were contradicted by other documents, given to the Enterprise Editorial Board, such as it is, were a sore point there as well.
While Ms. Guzman does her best to soften this point, it seems clear that the efforts by the chancellor to minimize her role in the social media contracts to Janet Napolitano and the media are what ultimately led the president to ask her to resign on April 25 and, when she declined, led to this investigation and ultimately the resignation of the chancellor.
The DeVry issue that started this off was bad judgment. The report admonishes her for her lack of due diligence in researching DeVry and also the fact that she was already on the board when she notified and attempted to get clearance from the president to participate. That was bad judgment, but the social media contracts were what ended up being fatal to the chancellor.
It is ironic that, in the end, one way or another the 2011 pepper spray incident was her undoing.
As the LA Times put it, “The report painted a picture of a chancellor so obsessed with her public image that she insisted on hiring public relations firms to improve it even after a 2012 UC study found the pepper-spray incident was not harming the campus’ reputation.”
Had she simply come clean when these reports emerged, she might have survived.
“Chancellor Katehi has engaged in a pattern of misrepresentations, … has repeatedly exercised poor judgment when confronted with challenges, has consistently disregarded the impact of her actions on the campus and the university as a whole and has failed to mitigate troubling management practices,” said UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein. “This behavior is not fit for a UC chancellor or anyone in a leadership position.”
For Linda Katehi and Melinda Guzman, the lesson here is poor communications.
“Everyone will consider whether their communications could have been clearer with regards to all of these issues,” Melinda Guzman told the Vanguard. “She can reflect now on her communications with the president and hopefully the president can do the same. So there will be lessons learned for everyone.”
When asked if she believes Chancellor Katehi was railroaded in this process, she responded that, in her own view, “things should have been handled differently on April 27.”
“Had the President simply wanted to remove her, she should have had a candid conversation with her, given her a reasonable opportunity to transition out as past chancellors have been given,” she responded. “That’s not what happened here. In fact, I think it’s outrageous what we saw on April 27.”
Supporters of Linda Katehi who see the positive in the huge amounts of research and fundraising, in the elevation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs and the profile of the university as a whole, will undoubtedly agree with Ms. Guzman’s sentiments.
Those who see Linda Katehi in a different light will see, as Ms. Klein does, a chancellor obsessed with her own public image to a flaw, and ultimately a chancellor that exercised poor judgment when confronted with these challenges – for them, that poor judgment will have been her undoing.
The report also exposes flaws with the University of California system itself. UC policies allow for the potential of serving on other boards. They allow for the hiring of family members of the chancellor. There are policies that UC can and should clean up.
Linda Katehi is not the only chancellor to have resigned this year, and UC needs to hire a strong leader who can continue the good work that Linda Katehi has done, while hopefully learning from her missteps.
—David M. Greenwald reporting