UC Davis chancellor Katehi apologizes, plans to remain as leader

UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi apologized Thursday for mistakes she and her staff made during her seven-year tenure and committed to setting up oversight committees to avoid future missteps.

“There will be mistakes. There will be controversy. There will be critiques,” she said. “I have to tell you, I’m a human being. You know I have made mistakes and probably I will make more. And what I can promise you is not that I will not make another mistake, I will promise you that I will try not to.”

Katehi, 62, met Thursday with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board and reporters after a series of Bee articles described her paid positions on corporate boards and UC Davis’ hiring of consultants to cleanse the school’s online reputation after the 2011 pepper spraying of students.

Katehi said she has no plans to leave despite calls from eight state lawmakers to resign. She said she wants to remain at least several more years to continue expanding the university and turn UC Davis into a bigger economic catalyst for the Sacramento region.

She said the school spent $175,000 on search-engine optimization firms starting in 2013 in an “effort to learn about social media and try to make our work more visible to our students and parents and others who are interested in UC Davis.”

A proposal from one of the firms, Nevins & Associates, said it was “prepared to create and execute an online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention the University of California, Davis, and Chancellor Katehi have received related to the events that transpired in November 2011,” according to documents obtained by The Bee.

Online reputation management is a growing field in which companies offer to improve search-engine results by churning out positive news stories, press releases and announcements to minimize previous negative results. But the Nevins contract contained specific objectives that included “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor.”

Katehi said the mistake was allowing a contract with “inappropriate language to exist. I take responsibility for that,” she said. “We never, ever intended to delete – you cannot first of all do that – but we never intended to erase history. UC Davis and the pepper spray is a historic event that will remain with us, but it should not define the institution. The institution should be defined with all of the wonderful things it has done in the last 60 years.”

She said the work was never meant to improve her reputation after the internationally publicized incident.

“If I wanted to fix my own reputation, I would have done it privately,” she said.

Katehi has faced scrutiny from lawmakers ever since The Bee reported last month that she had accepted a paid seat on the board of DeVry Education Group as the for-profit company faced federal allegations of exaggerated job-placement claims. Katehi resigned from that seat and apologized, forgoing the $170,000 in annual stock and salary that board members receive.

The Bee subsequently reported that she received $420,000 in three years for serving on the board of textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons. She previously defended her tenure on that board, but pledged $200,000 in Wiley stock toward a scholarship fund after students said that position posed a conflict of interest as they grapple with high textbook costs.

She said Thursday that her one personal mistake was accepting the DeVry seat without permission from UC President Janet Napolitano.

“The personal mistake I made was to accept the DeVry position before the full process had come to closure,” she said. “I have talked about it extensively. I made the mistake.”

Katehi said the university hired Blue Moon Consulting Group for crisis management after more than two dozen students began occupying her outer offices March 11 in a protest against her paid board seats. The student protest ended April 15, but the firm is still in the university’s employment working on another crisis that the chancellor said she could not reveal.

“You have students in front of your office, you know it’s a crisis,” she said. “Of course outside of all of this the university needs help in all of these areas.”

The crisis-management firm has worked for the university’s legal counsel periodically over the last two or three years, she said. The firm, based in San Francisco, declined comment, citing the confidentiality of its clients.

Katehi said the outside firms have been hired because no one on UC Davis’ communications staff has crisis-management experience.

The chancellor said she has created a team that will vet all invitations to sit on outside boards “to make sure at least we are as careful as I promise my time for anything.”

She also plans to form a panel of students, faculty and staff members as an oversight board to vet UC Davis’ communications campaigns, according to UCD spokeswoman Dana Topousis.

The chancellor said the university made a number of missteps during her tenure, including the 2011 pepper spraying of peaceful student protesters.

“During the pepper spray, the mistake that we’ve made was to try in a way that obviously was totally inappropriate to address an issue of protest at the time,” she said. “We learned a lot about this mistake and we will never repeat it again.”

She held up the recent peaceful end of a five-week occupation of her office lobby as an example of how the university administration had learned to handle demonstrations. She said the university will not prosecute any of the protesters.

In the past six weeks, eight state lawmakers joined student protesters and 20 faculty members in asking for Katehi’s resignation. Despite that, the chancellor said she has had overwhelming support from the community, faculty and students.

“This time more than any other time I have come to realize how much support I have on the campus,” Katehi said. “This time more than any other time, which makes me very thankful for every individual who has come forward without me asking them.”

The visit to The Bee is among a string of overtures that Katehi has made this week. The chancellor also posted the first of what she has said will be a series of videos on YouTube reaching out to the community. She said she also has met with the state legislative black caucus and women’s caucus.

“And I then think the most important and critical thing for me is to continue my engagement with the campus about issues of budget and other things that are important to our students and also initiate a very open engagement with the community, not in defense of what we’ve done or in defense of me, but primarily to engage the community and talk forward about where the university is going to go,” she said.

The chancellor said she has no plans to step down. She said she could retire in about about five years and start an international program to support women in the science fields.

“I have a lot of things I would like to do as a person,” she said.

Meanwhile, she wants to see the university move forward and to increase its presence in Sacramento. She said she wants UC Davis to be as big a catalyst for the Sacramento region as Stanford University and UC Berkeley were for the Bay Area.

“This is very important for the institution,” she said. “I believe it’s very important for the region. I think the university has the power to move the region forward, not just in economic development but in terms of new programs and bringing in new students. UC Davis, specifically, in the next 10 years well probably grow by 10,000 students.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

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