In times of crisis, it is important to put things into perspective. I am troubled by a comment in the Davis Enterprise, where they conclude, “A faculty position is scant punishment considering the damage she’s done to UC Davis’ reputation over the years.”
While certainly the issue of the pepper spray incident is a black eye to the university on a national front, the latest imbroglio did not help and the resignation again generated national attention, I wonder if UC Davis’ reputation is really damaged. Here I think the defenders of Linda Katehi have a good point – whether it’s the huge fundraising cachet that the university has, the top programs like Veterinary Medicine or Ag, the emerging World Food Center, the UC Davis Medical Center, or the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs – in a way, the UC Davis brand has never been better.
All the other stuff? Well, that’s happening everywhere.
Last fall, the University of Missouri chancellor and president resigned in wake of protests on campus over the handling of racial incidents on campus.
We had the Penn State scandal and longtime cover up of the Jerry Sandusky crimes.
This summer, Ken Starr, yes that Ken Starr, resigned as Baylor University’s chancellor after the university was rocked by a report that found the university mishandled allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
Then there is the odd story that has emerged out of UC Berkeley that their embattled chancellor Nicholas Dirks has spent $9000 to construct an “escape hatch” in order to flee student protests near his office. Mr. Dirks has faced strong criticism from faculty and students over his handling of sexual harassment cases, which forced the resignation of the UC Berkeley provost.
“The chancellor should welcome student protests not fear them,” said Michael Burawoy, co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association. “The installation of an escape hatch from his office reflects a fortress mentality, in line with the $700,000 fence he had built around his campus residence, also supposedly to ward off protesters.”
All of this suggests that the Linda Katehi saga at UC Davis is not likely to tarnish UC Davis as much as some want to believe.
Here’s the thing – Linda Katehi made a lot of mistakes. She certainly used bad judgment in taking the DeVry board position as well as Wiley & Company. She did violate university policies.
On the other hand, the report really cleared her of the most serious allegations. She did not attempt to intimidate or retaliate against those who spoke out against her. She did not profit personally or cost the university money through her misreporting of travel funds. She properly walled off her hiring of relatives. And she did not misuse student funds.
Instead, I think it is more fair to see that her tenure ended under a barrage of self-inflicted paper cuts that, strung together, formed a fabric that the UC President could not stomach.
As we noted earlier this week – it is another case where the crime might have been survivable had she merely been forthright about what occurred.
So, I think the Enterprise editorial this week got this partly right: “AS IS OFTEN the case, it was the cover-up, rather than the original sin, that sank Katehi. Despite denials to the public and privately to Napolitano that she had anything to do with the $175,000 Nevins deal, it turned out she was intimately involved. In retrospect, it was Katehi’s dishonesty with Napolitano that made her position untenable.”
I also agree with this point: “Napolitano hasn’t handled this well at all. She could have achieved this result in April, considering that the chancellorship is an at-will position. The high-profile investigation, with the attendant mudslinging by Katehi’s critics and supporters, only made sense if she was going to be fired outright for cause. In essence, Napolitano wasted three months and kept the campus and our community twisting in the wind.”
At the same time, I think that the Enterprise overplays the hand when it talks about “the damage she’s done to UC Davis’ reputation over the years.” As stated earlier, I think she has a much more mixed record than that. Her defenders will point to the fundraising, the prestige of the university and improved position of UC Davis.
But I think her defenders also have turned a blind eye to some of her failings. From the start, she has suffered from poor communication skills – whether it was communicating with her advisers prior to the pepper spraying or attempting to remove web-based references to the incident.
As the report lays out, Linda Katehi attempted to minimize her role in the Nevins deal. She told her boss, President Napolitano, that she was unaware of the details. She told the same thing to the Sacramento Bee and the Davis Enterprise.
I remember when Ralph Hexter gave his press conference discussing the matter with Davis Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning. He told me about what she told them at their editorial board meeting, but quickly documents came to the fore that showed the level of her involvement.
I am troubled by the efforts of some of her defenders to minimize this. There is no getting around this finding. There is no conspiracy. There is no fabrication here. No one on her team has disputed it.
So, at the end of the day, Linda Katehi most likely lost her job because of the pepper spray incident, the attempts to de-emphasize its effects on the university brand – even as the evidence was coming forward that it really hadn’t hurt the university’s reputation – and finally her efforts to minimize her involvement in the social media contracts.
Given the world we live in, we are talking about small, not high crimes, and misdemeanors. The chancellor made mistakes for sure, but they were not the kind of high corruption that is all too prevalent in today’s society.
This doesn’t minimize this incident, but rather places it in the proper perspective.
—David M. Greenwald reporting