UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi has two public personas – one she is working hard to live down and the other she is working hard to build up.
The public remembers the embattled leader whose job was in peril after her campus cops assaulted protesting students with pepper spray and the whole debacle went viral.
Insiders, business leaders and university partners know her as a big brain; a rainmaker with a plan to turn Davis’ wealth of ideas into a wealth of innovation that could enrich the region.
The second persona was almost destroyed by the first in those dark days of late 2011 and early 2012, when the liberal campus was excoriated from all sides for confronting student dissent with ham-handed police tactics.
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The first persona is driving the second today as Katehi pushes her university to re-imagine itself as she has re-imagined herself: From a scholar hiding in an ivory tower, a bystander in the real world, to an active participant engaged in the community. She doesn’t want UCD to be known as a campus of scholars anymore – that implies arrogance.
She wants a campus of learners, branching out beyond university borders.
“I was naive,” she says now. “It’s very easy to isolate yourself, but there is nothing more important than truly being connected with people.”
Weeks away from her 61st birthday and nearing her fifth anniversary of leading UCD, Katehi is months away from molding what could be her legacy:
The World Food Center is proposed as a campus where food science, policy and innovation could be headquartered in downtown Sacramento – possibly in the old railyard. It could make the Sacramento region the American hub for food safety, health and wellness, as well as being a jobs creator akin to the UC Davis Medical Center.
It could be a satellite campus for UC Davis that would attract what downtown Sacramento needs most: Young, ambitious people drawn by educational and job opportunities – and the relative affordability of the Sacramento region compared to the Bay Area, Los Angeles or San Diego.
“If you look at the state of California and look into the future, the population of the state is going to grow. Of the regions that can accept the growth, I can’t see another one with better potential than Sacramento,” Katehi said last week.
“By the end of May or June, we could have a vision for the location (of the World Center) and a business plan that details how we are going to finance it.”
Katehi said one site could work well if it made financial sense. “Of all the locations, the one in the railyards (in Sacramento) has the best attributes,” she said.
Katehi isn’t talking about moving pieces of the current campus in Davis to Sacramento. This would be a whole new campus with dorms in an urban setting. Sacramento developers are excited by the idea, and some envision public markets that would complement the new nerve center for food and agriculture.
This has been a somewhat nebulous concept up until this point, but very soon it won’t be. Already, Mars – the candy-making giant – has committed $40 million to fund innovation that could lead to new, locally generated discoveries in sustainable food, agriculture and health.
Already, the U.S. Department of Agriculture chose UC Davis to be the American headquarters for a research center on food safety with China.
Very soon, the city of Sacramento expects a local owner – developer Larry Kelley – to finally close escrow on the downtown railyard. Kelley says he wants the site to be a hub of jobs and investment.
You think the downtown arena has been a big deal in Sacramento? This could be much bigger. Business leaders know it. Katehi knows it. Soon, the public could know it, too.
If Katehi can pull it off, it would be a remarkable second act to her turbulent early years at Davis. At campus rallies after the pepper spray incident, Katehi stood alone as students openly mocked her. I heard Capitol insiders wonder if she was going to make it.
In this political town, someone with muscle might have called for her resignation. People thought about it, but it never happened. Instead, Katehi faced the music, took the blows. Heads rolled beneath her. She survived, in part because University of California leaders supported her – but also because she did change.
When Katehi first arrived in Sacramento in 2010, I attended a small reception in her honor and found her very guarded and distant – a classic ivory tower type.
As rage spread over the pepper spray incident, she remained holed up in her office. The most powerful image of that incident was when Katehi finally emerged and walked among students whose silent protest was a powerful indictment of the whole affair.
But something truly fascinating has happened since. Katehi engaged. During subsequent protests over plans to hike UC tuition, amid a power struggle between Gov. Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano, Katehi has planted herself out front on her own campus.
“A good organization should never be surprised by any crisis. I have to say that we have had to develop that,” she said.
Katehi also developed an idea of remaking the faculty at UCD through an initiative to hire 650 new professors in the next five to seven years.
Before she is done, Katehi could make UCD far more diverse and open than it is now. “We want to get away from the notion of a community of scholars,” she said. “That implies that everything is known. We want to be a community of learners.” Katehi said.
What has she learned?
“It requires tremendous strength when you face criticism. That’s when you achieve a connection – when you engage in a conversation without being defensive.”
The entire region might benefit greatly from that hard-earned lesson.
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.