By some important measures, 2012 was a good year for UC Davis.
Despite negative publicity from the pepper spraying of students the previous year, the school was experiencing one of its most successful fundraising campaigns in history and was ranked in a major study as one of the top schools in the state.
That didn’t stop campus leaders from deciding they needed to spend at least $175,000 on contracts to improve the reputation of the school and of Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi following the November 2011 incident in which students were pepper sprayed by campus police during a peaceful demonstration.
Online outrage and mockery stemming from the incident apparently served as a driving force to improve UC Davis’ and Katehi’s online reputations, despite evidence that it didn’t measurably hurt the university’s ability to raise money or attract students looking for a quality education.
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The hiring of two firms to manage the online reputations also was one of three factors – along with allegations of nepotism and misuse of student funds – that led UC President Janet Napolitano to suspend Katehi on April 27 pending the outcome of an investigation.
UC Davis spokeswoman Dana Topousis said Monday she couldn’t comment on the report because she isn’t sure whether it is part of the investigation.
Katehi’s attorney, Melinda Guzman, did not respond to requests for comment.
Steven Maviglio, a Sacramento political consultant who said he is helping Guzman handle media queries at the request of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, said in an email that Katehi could not answer questions about the matter because she “is under a gag order from the Presidents office.”
Napolitano’s office, which has hired former U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag to lead an investigation that is expected to wrap up by Aug. 1, declined to comment on whether Katehi is under such an order.
Katehi’s suspension followed a five-week student sit-in outside her office fueled by revelations that she had accepted seats on lucrative corporate boards and that officials hired two firms to manage hers and the school’s online reputations.
Katehi, 62, has denied wrongdoing and has said she was not directly involved in the two contracts issued to manage online results. She also said she never asked anyone on her staff to clean up her image online.
Napolitano has accused Katehi of “material misstatements” to her and the media about the hiring of the firms.
Internal university emails and documents show UC Davis was in contact in the fall of 2012 with Nevins & Associates, a Baltimore firm that promised to “clean up the negative attention the University of California, Davis, and Chancellor Katehi have received.”
“We are in the process of building a proposal that addresses the concerns you expressed about the web presence of UC Davis,” company president David Nevins wrote to Katehi chief of staff Karl Engelbach in an Oct. 16, 2012, email. “It will be available in the next day or two.”
That email came in the same period that a study prepared for the UC system found UC Davis ranked fifth among major schools when California voters were asked: “When you think of excellent colleges and universities in California, which ones come to mind?”
The next year, the university ranked sixth, according to 52 pages of documents released to The Sacramento Bee through a state Public Records Act request filed in April.
The findings in the 2012 study were presented to Katehi, her top administrators and deans in a meeting that fall, according to a source who was present but not authorized to speak publicly.
Despite the positive results – and the fact that UC Davis experienced its second-best fundraising effort in history for the fiscal year that ended in June 2012 – officials hired Nevins and Associates in January 2013 and paid the firm $15,000 a month under a six-month contract.
The firm promised to use Google platforms as part of “an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results for UC Davis and the Chancellor.”
A second firm, Sacramento-based ID Media Partners, was hired in June 2014 to “design and execute a comprehensive search engine results management strategy” under an $82,500 contract.
The firm does business under the name IDMLOCO and said in documents released by the university that its “primary goal” was to “achieve a reasonable balance of positive natural search results on common terms concerning UC Davis and Chancellor Katehi.”
IDMLOCO later began providing other services, including issuing “listening reports” to UC Davis officials that briefed them about online postings about the university and the chancellor that were deemed negative.
The firm’s reports included information on media stories, comments from lawmakers and tweets from individuals who had been critical of the chancellor.
The pepper spraying created a worldwide backlash against the university and Katehi after videos of the incident went viral.
The negative publicity continued for a year as investigations, court settlements with students who had been sprayed and personnel actions continued.
None of the publicity, however, appears to have had an impact on enrollment or fundraising.
Enrollment has grown steadily each year for more than a decade. In 2011 – the year of the pepper-spray incident – enrollment stood at 28,475 students. In 2012-13, enrollment grew by more than 600 to 29,109. In 2013-14, 29,978 students enrolled at the school, and in 2014-15 enrollment grew to 31,224.
Fundraising also continued at a brisk pace after the pepper-spray incident. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, the university received $132.4 million in gifts, pledges and grants, according to a report by Shaun Keister, vice chancellor of development and alumni relations.
In November 2013, almost exactly two years after the pepper spraying, UC Davis announced its seven-year goal of raising more than $1 billion had been met a year ahead of schedule. Between 2006 and 2015, the university reported that it raised more than $100 million each year.
The university’s efforts to minimize references to the pepper-spray incident appear to have backfired since they were revealed by The Sacramento Bee in April. At the time, a Google search for “UC Davis pepper spray” generated 100,000 results. On Monday, that number was 550,000.
Since then, UC Davis officials have acknowledged that the wording in the contracts was unrealistic.
“Even if such a thing as eliminating stories and images from the Internet were possible, ‘pepper spray’ will always be part of UC Davis’ history,” Provost Ralph Hexter wrote in a statement issued April 15.
Hexter since has been elevated to acting chancellor while the Katehi probe continues.