The Public Eye

UC Davis cuts PR post that drew criticism for its $260,000 salary

Two years after hiring a communications chief for $260,000 a year, UC Davis has quietly eliminated her position.

By paying Luanne Lawrence a higher salary than any other communications official in the University of California system, UC Davis revived longstanding complaints about executive pay, in particular because of student unrest about tuition hikes and other budget issues.

Lawrence was told by the school on June 30 that her position of associate chancellor for strategic communications was being terminated, according to a settlement agreement obtained by The Sacramento Bee through a California Public Records Act request. The agreement was reached after Lawrence made claims about the termination and refused to take an alternative position of director of marketing and branding.

The agreement does not explain the school’s decision to eliminate her position. Dana Topousis, who became acting head of the school’s Office of Strategic Communications after Lawrence left, said the decision is confidential because it is a personnel matter.

The settlement allowed Lawrence to keep a $30,500 moving allowance she was expected to partially forfeit if she left the school within four years of employment. However, the settlement did not include any payment to Lawrence, according to her attorney, Karen Goodman.

Lawrence left UC Davis last month, although she started work this month on a $150,000, one-year contract to provide marketing services for the school, records show.

Lawrence did not respond to requests to comment on the university’s decision to terminate her position.

“She certainly didn’t agree with the decision,” Goodman said. “She thought she had done a good job for the university.”

UC Davis hired Lawrence in February 2013 after paying a firm $110,000 to conduct a national search. She left a similar position at the University of South Carolina and had previously held communications jobs at Oregon State University, the University of Maine and several other schools.

UC Davis wanted to improve its image after a video of campus police using pepper spray on students went viral in 2011 and attracted national media attention. The school also sought to grow enrollment, increase research funding and maintain its high academic ranking.

As head of the school’s Office of Strategic Communications, Lawrence oversaw four departments: marketing; creative communications; web and interactive communications; and news and media relations. When hired, she had a budget of $3 million and 27 employees.

The Bee’s publication of her salary five months after her hire led to critical editorials in several newspapers.

Richard Evans, a UC Davis horticulture researcher, agreed to meet with Lawrence after he was quoted in the first story criticizing the school’s decision to pay her $260,000.

Lawrence wanted to know more about his views on the frayed relationship among faculty, students and the administration, Evans said. In 2012, current and former faculty members held a no-confidence vote on Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi’s leadership, although only about a third cast a vote of no confidence. Katehi was Lawrence’s supervisor.

“She was somewhat critical toward the administration and its tendency toward being closed off,” Evans said of Lawrence. “Since then, Katehi has made a little more effort to go out and meet people.”

In a short email to The Bee, Lawrence said she decided to leave the school and start her own communications company in Sacramento because of a car accident that had critically injured her parents and eventually led to her father’s death. She said she needed to spend more time on the East Coast than the university job allowed.

On a website for her consulting company, she has a blog in which she writes about not working directly for a university for the first time in her career. She indicates that she had a growing frustration with her work, although she does not offer specifics about the circumstances.

In one post, she says she used to wonder why her sister started each Monday by posting “ugh” on Facebook. Then she realized she had fallen into the same rut: “My life had become mechanical. My joy left my profession.”

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