UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi sought a meeting in January 2013 with an online reputation firm that promised to help eradicate negative online posts in search engines about the university and Katehi, newly released documents state.
The documents appear to bolster an allegation by UC President Janet Napolitano in a Wednesday letter that Katehi made “material misstatements” to her and the media minimizing her involvement with two firms hired to clean up the reputation of the school and chancellor. Napolitano’s office released the documents late Wednesday to The Sacramento Bee in response to a Public Records Act request filed six weeks ago.
Napolitano suspended Katehi on Wednesday for an initial 90-day period with pay, pending an investigation into her role in the reputation management contracts, as well as allegations of nepotism and misuse of student fees.
Katehi has denied wrongdoing, and her lawyer, Melinda Guzman, has vowed to fight the suspension, accusing Napolitano of “scapegoating and a rush to judgment driven purely by political optics.”
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Katehi faced new challenges Thursday as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a member of the UC Board of Regents, said she should resign, and several state lawmakers renewed calls for her to quit. The Board of Regents is expected to have a closed-session personnel discussion about Katehi at its meeting in May.
Napolitano’s removal of Katehi has stunned some in the Sacramento region, where the chancellor was known as a prodigious fundraiser who had the solid backing of business leaders.
“It’s clear that she didn’t have political antennae,” said crisis communications expert Doug Elmets. “She allowed herself to become consumed with the perception that others had about her, whether it was faculty, students, the business community or others.”
Katehi remained out of sight for a third day Thursday. She was not in her office Tuesday or Wednesday, and there was no sign of activity Thursday at the chancellor’s university-provided residence adjacent to the campus.
Provost Ralph Hexter, who will serve as acting chancellor during the Katehi investigation, met with reporters outside the campus administration building, Mrak Hall, Thursday afternoon and vowed to “be forthcoming and to make myself available to students, to the press, whenever it’s possible.”
Hexter called Katehi a “fantastic leader” and said he would not wade into the debate over whether she should resign.
In her letter to Katehi, Napolitano said she wanted a “fair, independent and transparent” probe of the issues that have dogged Katehi. The letter offers few details on the allegation regarding misuse of student fees, other than to say a whistleblower complaint was filed “that certain student fee revenues were misused by the campus specifically by being directed to unapproved instructional purposes,” something Napolitano said would be a “serious violation” of UC policy.
The documents released to The Bee on Wednesday shed no new light on that matter. They do illustrate the efforts the university undertook to monitor its reputation nationwide, including analysis of Twitter accounts of journalists and lawmakers.
The online reputation management companies were paid at least $175,000 to bury and counterbalance negative online references about the university and Katehi following a November 2011 incident in which campus police pepper-sprayed students during a peaceful demonstration.
Katehi initially said in an April 18 statement posted on the university’s website that the contract language proposed by the companies was “unrealistic and ridiculous.” Last week, in an interview with Bee reporters and editors, she denied having asked a member of her staff to clean up her reputation online and said she had not seen the language in contracts signed with the reputation management firms, which she called “inappropriate.”
The newly released documents show Katehi sought a meeting with one of the firms in January 2013, and that the university was briefed regularly by the other company about negative postings up to the present. Katehi’s office sent an email on Jan. 15, 2013, to David Nevins seeking a meeting with him “to discuss communication initiatives at UC Davis,” documents show.
The records do not show whether Katehi met with Nevins.
Two weeks later, Nevins’ company, Nevins & Associates of Baltimore, signed an agreement with UC Davis for payment of up to $99,000 “to expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor,” documents state.
Another firm, Idmloco of Sacramento, was hired to reshape UC Davis’ communications strategy and provided regular reports to Katehi’s top aides on how she was being treated in online posts. The monitoring focused in recent weeks on the controversy that erupted over Katehi’s acceptance of a board seat with DeVry Education Group and her subsequent decision to step down from that post.
“As you might expect, predominately negative sentiment on this, but relatively contained to just a few hundred shares in social media,” Idmloco co-founder Bryan Merica wrote in a March 1 email to Katehi’s chief of staff, Karl Engelbach.
“We’ll keep an eye on this tomorrow to see where it goes.”
Katehi’s aides have said the chancellor was not aware when she accepted the seat that DeVry had been sued by the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly misleading students about their job prospects after graduation.
DeVry announced the appointment, which came with a $70,000 annual payment and stock worth approximately $100,000, in a Feb. 22 news release. Almost immediately, UC Davis officials found themselves on the defensive.
“I’m trying to keep a lid on the DeVry issue,” Sandra Fried, a UC legislative affairs director, wrote in an email to UC Davis officials on Feb. 24. “I think the issue really is DeVry rather than the income. DeVry is considered a very bad actor in the private postsecondary world (which is saying a lot).”
Katehi, who had not received permission from Napolitano to accept the board seat, resigned from it and apologized, but controversy mounted.
Idmloco began to provide “listening reports” to Katehi aides monitoring how the story was being received online, including a March 4 report that the company was “starting to register some hits outside of California, the largest of which are from the Chicago area and DC.”
“I don’t need to see a listening report to know this is a s---storm …” Katehi spokesman Gary Delsohn wrote in an email reply.
As the DeVry controversy mounted, Katehi faced additional scrutiny over her past acceptance of a board seat with John Wiley & Sons, a textbook publisher. Idmloco began issuing reports on that.
“Negative conversation around Chancellor Katehi resurged following the release of the Sac Bee article focusing on her position on the advisory board of John Wiles(sic) & Sons,” the firm wrote in a March 7 email.
The coverage “continues to keep Chancellor Katehi in the headlines,” the email noted, adding that “overall sentiment for the March 1-3 time period is 92% negative.”
The reports also followed online postings that mentioned “pepper spray,” which represented a past crisis the university was trying to get beyond.
News accounts regarding the DeVry and Wiley & Sons board seats sparked criticism from lawmakers, including Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who called on Katehi to resign and held an oversight hearing on outside compensation for university leaders.
Idmloco kept tabs on McCarty’s social media activity.
“Though he is politically influential, he has a relatively small following on Twitter, and his posts on the Chancellor receive low engagement, with the exception of his press release on legislative hearings, which earned 22 retweets and 8 favorites,” the company reported.
“Needless to say, I’m astounded, especially at a time when UC is rationing higher education access for Californians,” McCarty said Thursday. “I found it incredibly ridiculous that they are spending public money to track me as an individual. Why? Because I have the audacity to call out the wrongdoing of UC executives.”
Idmloco also was monitoring online posts from journalists such as Dan Bacher, editor of “Fish Sniffer” magazine, and Deborah Anderluh, the Sacramento Bee’s investigations editor, who tweeted a link to a Bee story on the controversy.
“While her Twitter audience is small, her post on this topic shows … an example of journalist’s growing focus on questions of process in Higher Education, rather than Chancellor Katehi’s actions in isolation,” the firm reported.
Idmloco also monitored online reports after students seeking Katehi’s resignation occupied the lobby outside her office, and it offered advice against having the police oust them.
“At this time, removal will only fuel the current negative conversation and drive focus back to the Occupy protester removal in 2011,” the company wrote. “Though the sit-in has caused a spike in media volume, it will die down if the university does not cause incident.”
During the sit-in, which lasted five weeks, Idmloco monitored “the negative stories about Chancellor Katehi” and noted they had spread to the East Coast.
The firm also noted that a Fox 40 reporter “reached out to a student on Twitter to interview about the movement,” and provided a copy of the tweet.
The documents spell out the efforts UC Davis made to raise its national profile, and how Idmloco interviews with Katehi and 59 other university officials revealed a campus that had “no strategy” for communicating its message.
“UC Davis is a world class institution but audiences do not perceive it that way,” the company noted, adding that “many cited a culture of modesty at UC Davis.”
“We are just as good if not better than Berkeley and it’s time for the university to say that,” one unnamed official told Idmloco.
The university’s current strategic communications budget is $5.4 million.
Napolitano had attempted to give Katehi a face-saving exit, according to members of the Board of Regents who declined to be identified, but Katehi refused when Napolitano asked her to resign on Monday. They said they were informed of the investigation on a conference call Wednesday evening, shortly before it was announced publicly.
The regents may ultimately be asked to remove Katehi as chancellor, though she would retain her joint faculty appointments in electrical and computer engineering and gender, sexuality and women’s studies at UC Davis. The board will hold a closed-session discussion about Katehi at their next meeting, which takes place May 11-12 in Sacramento.
Newsom said he personally liked Katehi, but that mounting issues had begun to outweigh her good work at UC Davis.
“She’s done really exceptional things,” Newsom said. “So it’s not easy for me to say that it’s time to move on.”