The Public Eye

Three-day drama led to UC Davis chancellor’s suspension

UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi was in the midst of another redemption effort just one week ago.

The 62-year-old lifelong academic and engineer had survived a mainly respectful legislative oversight hearing. She posted a video on YouTube entitled “Lessons Learned” and promised to do better in the future. She apologized for her missteps – accepting lucrative corporate board seats and the university hiring online management firms to clean up her reputation online

She spoke with The Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, Davis Enterprise, and was preparing for an upcoming public forum on campus where she would take questions about anything – anything – from students and faculty.

Then the call came in: UC President Janet Napolitano wanted to see her Monday in her Oakland offices.

When she arrived, the message was blunt: resign by day’s end or be fired, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Katehi asked for more time, and was given a reprieve until 10 a.m. Tuesday, sources said.

She hired Sacramento attorney Melinda Guzman and set up a Thursday appointment with UC officials to negotiate a graceful exit from her six-year leadership of the campus, university officials confirmed.

Before that meeting took place, however, word of Napolitano’s demand for her resignation leaked out, propelled in part by lawmakers who had been briefed and faculty members supportive of Katehi who heard the rumblings and tried to fend off her ouster.

Katehi scrapped a radio interview and canceled the campus forum. By Wednesday morning, media outlets began reporting Katehi’s future was in doubt.

At 11:44 a.m. that day, she sent an email to deans and top managers that quickly spread campus-wide.

“This email is to let you know that I am 100 percent committed to serving as Chancellor of UC Davis,” she wrote.

Within hours, Katehi was suspended and told she would face an independent probe into allegations that she lied to Napolitano, engaged in nepotism and misused public funds.

Napolitano sent the two-page suspension letter to the media Wednesday night and provided hundreds of pages of documents The Sacramento Bee had been seeking for six weeks though California Public Records Act requests.

In the letter, Napolitano said UC would investigate the employment of her daughter-in-law, including raises that boosted her pay by more than $50,000 over two and a half years. She also expressed concern about whether Katehi made “material misstatements” about her role in UC Davis spending $175,000 on an attempt to scrub online search results of negative stories about the school – and Katehi herself – resulting from the 2011 pepper spraying of students.

“The concerns of the president were succinctly expressed in the letter and were relayed to the chancellor,” UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said Friday. “It was concerning that one of her direct reports misstated the facts. That was concerning.”

The decision to suspend Katehi pleased students who had been seeking her resignation, but leaders in Sacramento’s business community say they are concerned that UC Davis may lose a leader who directed a great deal of attention and resources to the Sacramento area.

Without passing judgment on the issues Napolitano cited for the suspension, some business and civic leaders say the loss of Katehi would be a blow.

“Her proposal of a campus in downtown Sacramento is ground-breaking,” said Roger Niello, part owner of the auto dealership that bears his name, former state legislator and former president of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

Niello said he has not spoken with Katehi since she was suspended, but emphasized how valuable an asset she has been for the campus and the area.

“I’ve always believed that our universities are two of our most valuable economic assets, especially UC Davis under Linda Katehi’s leadership,” Niello said.

Sacramento developer Mark Friedman echoed Niello’s view, saying he was concerned that if Katehi is forced out the next chancellor may be “more cautious, more inwardly focused” rather than reaching out to Sacramento.

“It would be a shame to lose her,” Friedman said. “She’s been a real advocate for having the university reach across the causeway and make Sacramento better.”

Friedman said he saw Katehi last weekend and, although he did not want to reveal anything about their conversations, she “didn’t seem to me like somebody who was planning to step down.”

Control of the campus has been turned over to Provost Ralph Hexter, who is now acting chancellor pending the outcome of the investigation, and Katehi has remained out of sight on paid leave.

Her lawyer remains defiant, insisting that her client is a victim of “scapegoating” by Napolitano, and observers wonder how the rest of this standoff will play out.

“Certainly Chancellor Katehi, as a public official, should be afforded due process and all other required protections as these allegations are investigated,” George Mason University professor James Finkelstein, an expert on corporate board participation by university executives, wrote in an email after the chancellor was suspended.

“The University of California must not only protect the institution and citizens of California, but must also make certain that the Chancellor's rights are in no way compromised. That said, there is no public good to be served by Chancellor Katehi putting her personal interests above those she serves – even if at the end of the process she is completely vindicated. It would seem to be in the interests of all involved that she take the initiative to step down as Chancellor rather than be forced to do so as the result of the on-going investigation.”

Some state leaders have called on Katehi to end the stalemate and resign, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a member of the state Board of Regents that will discuss her future at its next meeting in May.

The latest Katehi controversy began in early March, when The Bee first reported that she had accepted a seat on the board of DeVry University, a for-profit school facing scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission.

Katehi apologized and resigned from that seat, giving up the $170,000 in annual stock and salary she would have received as a board member. She told The Bee last week that she made a “personal mistake” by accepting the post before she had approval from Napolitano, something Napolitano said she never would have agreed to.

Katehi also faced criticism after The Bee reported she sat on the board of textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons over a three-year period, receiving $420,000. She subsequently pledged to donate $200,000 in Wiley stock toward student scholarships.

Those revelations sparked a protest and subsequent takeover of the lobby outside her fifth-floor office by angry students demanding she resign in March. The disclosures also prompted a legislative oversight hearing into what outside positions UC and CSU leaders should accept.

Katehi came under withering, widespread criticism after The Bee disclosed that UC Davis spent at least $175,000 to improve its image – and hers – by hiring consultants to minimize online references to the 2011 pepper spray incident.

That incident came during a demonstration against rising fees and tuition that ended with campus police spraying student protesters sitting peacefully on the quad, an act that was captured on video and spread worldwide on the web.

The recent disclosure that UC Davis spent money trying to cleanse its online image increased search results for “UC Davis pepper spray” from about 100,000 before the story broke to about 325,000 on Friday, according to Google.

Katehi apologized last week for the hiring of the consultants, saying she never read the contract language that promised to “eradicate” such online stories and that she simply wanted to improve UC Davis’ digital communication abilities.

All told, the latest string of controversies led eight state lawmakers and the University of California Student Association to ask her to step down.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, one of those calling for her to quit, said Friday he and other lawmakers plan to send a letter to Napolitano and the UC regents asking how the Katehi controversy was allowed to occur. They will consider asking the state auditor to look statewide to see if other UCs are employing online reputation management companies or allowing officials to sit on paid corporate boards.

Katehi was seen as a polarizing force since arriving at the campus in 2009 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she had been provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. Before she began her job in Davis, she weathered controversy over reports that prospective students at the Illinois school may have been given preferential treatment because of influential parents or acquaintances. Katehi denied knowledge of such a practice.

She was lauded as a prodigious fundraiser, helping UC Davis to announce last fall that its total endowment had reached $1 billion, a mark that fewer than 100 universities nationwide have reached. She spoke of UC Davis contributing to the region – including Sacramento – much in the way that Stanford and UC Berkeley influenced economic progress in the Bay Area.

Katehi has faced criticism from some faculty who believed she favored science and engineering over the humanities. Continued turnover in the university’s communications department, which saw its budget increase increase from $2.93 million in 2009 to $5.47 million in 2015, also raised questions.

Now, Katehi faces the biggest challenge of her professional life, and her attorney says Katehi welcomes the investigation Napolitano ordered.

“Since the day she was hired, the Chancellor has given her unwavering devotion to fulfilling the fundamental public mission of UC Davis and doing everything the UC President and Board of Regents have asked her to,” Guzman said in a prepared statement issued after Katehi’s removal. “By any measure – and according to numerous voices throughout the Davis and Sacramento communities – her leadership has helped put the university on a path to globally recognized excellence and historic diversity.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

Related stories from Sacramento Bee