A few years ago UC Davis seemed to be a power on the rise. Chancellor Linda Katehi seemed to have gotten over her missteps that led to the pepper spray incident in November 2011. She was pushing a very aspirational position for UC Davis to become a leader of the 21st century, through strong academic programs, ambitious expansions like the World Food Center, and a strong fundraising program.
This year, through a series of missteps, the wheels fell off quite literally. Just as it seemed in February that the chancellor had learned from her missteps, embracing an angry group of protesters following some racial incidents on campus, the chancellor was racked by a series of revelations from the Sacramento Bee, starting with the DeVry board and continuing through the pepper spray scrubbing that ultimately cost Ms. Katehi her job.
UC President Janet Napolitano originally stood by the chancellor through the first wave of scandals, but when it became clear that the chancellor was less than honest about her role in the pepper spray scrubbing contracts, the president first attempted to get her to resign, and when Katehi refused, Napolitano ordered an investigation which eventually forced the chancellor’s resignation.
The research faculty, many of whom benefited greatly from the aspirational side of Linda Katehi, steadfastly backed the chancellor to the day she resigned. They argued, as some did in April, “Chancellor Katehi’s resignation would be a setback to UCD and would do nothing to produce a new policy on service on outside boards.”
To back their point they cited gains by Latino students, her success in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, and improvements in other areas as well. In April they wrote, “People are urging the firing of a chancellor who has made the greatest strides in diversifying the campus in UCD history.”
On the other hand, last week the Graduate Student Association put out a press release with a resolution that expressed concern about “the asymmetrical balance of power inherent to the selection and appointment of chancellors.” They noted that, of the “five faculty members who serve on the advisory search committee, only three are currently employed at UC Davis” and only one is “from the social sciences and humanities.”
My view of Linda Katehi has always been somewhat mixed. Under her, the campus has had some real successes and moved forward in a number of areas. Some have argued to me, with some justification, that the chancellor has taken credit for things that were in progress before she arrived and her fundraising prowess is somewhat overstated.
While she has been aspirational, she has also missed some opportunities to really shape and re-shape the campus culture.
Her handling of the pepper spray incident was unfortunate, and she misread the situation, with the occupation of the Quad leading to the forced removal of students. She also failed to heed the warning from police that clearing the Quad during the day was problematic – this created a huge event that could have been better handled with a more discreet operation or, better yet, by simply allowing the encampments to remain up.
I was disappointed in the attempts by the university to denigrate the protesters in Mrak Hall last February and March. Their decision to simply allow the students to stay up there was the right one, and time and fatigue ultimately led to non-violent and non-confrontational withdrawal by the student protesters.
The students have legitimate concerns with the direction of the university. The lack of state money has forced the university to rely more on private funding sources. The lack of state money has also led to the university taking on more out of state and overseas students, which has led to more community-university tensions.
Growing populations of students moving into a city which has strict growth control policies has led to one of the biggest political fights of the year. The LRDP (Long Range Development Plan) process has been tense and confrontational.
Here too, the university has had a series of missteps. It started with their failure to adhere to promises about housing more student population, then continued with delays and cost problems with the development of West Village, and more recently was an initial stance that would trigger even more land use battles.
The university backed down under pressure from citizens and the Davis City Council, when their initial position was their inability to meet student growth with sufficient on-campus housing to meet the needs of those new students.
That led to their promising to take on 90 percent of new student growth – a vast improvement over the previous plan, but still insufficient, given current vacancies in Davis and an accompanying growth in faculty and staff.
To meet that need, however, they floated the ill-conceived idea that they would build housing on the Russell fields. This too was met with the activation of citizens that have not been participatory in land use disputes previously – the pushback forced a scaled down Russell fields housing proposal.
In the end, they will likely remove that as well. But the university is clearly spinning its wheels on housing, as they have for several decades. Remember, it was Linda Katehi who got spooked at the specter of protests over the tearing down of housing at Solano and Orchard Parks, which led to the slow down of those proposals, coupled with UC Davis pulling out of the Solano Gateway portion of the Nishi-Gateway project.
What UC Davis needs is better leadership. The change at the top has left a very reputable development team at UC Davis without overall leadership to guide them.
This is all related, and what they need is someone with the vision of former Chancellor Linda Katehi combined with a better sense for the needs of the larger community.
We need someone who can continue to push UC Davis forward toward greatness. Someone who can work with local powers to develop a workable plan for economic development and the transfer of research from the campus into spinoffs that can help the city of Davis and the region advance in its economic development.
At the same time, the university needs someone who can work better with the students – who are fearful that college is becoming unaffordable on the one hand, and on the other hand is aligning with private interests that will simply exacerbate this trend.
Finally, UC Davis needs a chancellor and leadership team that sees the city of Davis as a partner that they need to work with for the benefit of the university, the students and the community.
It is a tall task, but, to move forward, that is what the community and the university need.
—David M. Greenwald reporting