Linda Katehi’s time as UC Davis chancellor is effectively over. There is no repairing or rescuing what should have been a celebrated tenure of leadership but wasn’t.
Katehi, an engineer, enhanced the profile of a once sleepy campus by raising hundreds of millions of dollars for research and by graduating more California kids than any UC school since 2010. But she was undone by repeated lapses in judgment, an absence of political acumen and, ultimately, the wrath of her boss, UC President Janet Napolitano.
All that remains of Katehi’s tenure is for the UC to hammer out the terms her exit package.
For the sake of the UCD community, it should have happened by now. Weeks of negative headlines might have finally abated had Napolitano eased Katehi out the door with a soft landing in an academic post.
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It seemed to be moving in that direction until Napolitano took an aggressive posture last week. Instead of a soft landing, the 62-year-old Katehi endured a figurative beat down from the former governor of Arizona and secretary of homeland security.
Napolitano made public a two-page letter spelling out how she was going to suspend Katehi for 90 days in order to have an independent investigator examine her conduct. She suggested that Katehi lied to her. She tossed Katehi’s family under the bus by suggesting in writing that the employment of Katehi’s son and daughter-in-law may have run afoul of UC conflict of interest and nepotism rules. Napolitano even threw in allegations that Katehi misused student funds.
Sources told The Sacramento Bee that Napolitano wanted Katehi to resign last week. When Katehi hesitated, and then fired off an email to UC Davis leaders stating that she was committed to being the Davis chancellor, the president brought the hammer down. It left no doubt who is in charge of the UC system.
Napolitano’s decision to suspend Katehi for 90 days leaves the UC Davis community in a state of limbo and with a leadership vacuum. The school now has a lame duck chancellor in Katehi and a lame duck interim chancellor in Ralph Hexter, the provost pressed into service while Katehi is suspended.
When and where will it end?
Katehi can’t quit now. She would leave under a cloud that would permanently damage her academic career. Is that the right outcome here?
Would it be right for the UC Davis community to be in a state of instability for another 90 days until Napolitano’s investigation was complete?
UCD is a jewel. It is home to the best agriculture and veterinary schools in America, along with a world-class hospital system and a law school that produced Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the current chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
It is a hub of innovation that Katehi had pledged to transform into a jobs generator as valuable to Sacramento as Stanford and UC Berkeley are to the Bay Area.
What’s so terribly sad is that this exciting vision has been undermined by a series of public relations calamities that might have been avoided. Katehi didn’t personally shoot pepper spray into the faces of students in 2011, police officers working for her did in a ham-handed effort to disperse campus protestors.
Katehi is far from the only university president to accept well-paid positions on corporate boards. Katehi is not the only leader to hire communications specialists to manage the narrative of her institution. Katehi isn’t the only university president to hire members of her family.
Where she always faltered was how to effectively communicate when questions or criticism arose. By the time she and her staff responded to the 2011 pepper-spray incident, it had exploded into a national and international story. Instead of directly addressing questions over why her administration spent $175,000 to manage its online image, Katehi froze again. Napolitano clearly doesn’t like the answers she ultimately gave, and the UC president publicly questioned how truthful they were.
It’s one thing when the media, politicians and students are asking tough questions. It’s another thing when your boss doubts your answers.
Why not clearly and emphatically justify the very justifiable need for an institution like UC Davis to manage its public image? That will be the enduring question that will follow Katehi out the door.
On Friday, Adela de la Torre, vice chancellor of student affairs at UCD, refuted questions of whether the employment status of Katehi’s son and daughter-in-law violated conflict-of-interest policies within the UC system.
In her letter to Katehi, Napolitano said: “It appears not only that the academic program in which your son (Erik Tseregounis) holds a paid research position was moved into the same department in which your daughter in law (Emily Prieto) is employed, but also that the program was placed under her direct supervision.
De la Torre countered that Prieto, “Never supervised her husband.”
De la Torre said Tseregounis directly reported to Banafsheh Sadeghi and Linda Whent at the Center for Transnational Health. Prieto reports to de la Torre.
“The real tragedy here is that people think (the accusations) have been validated when they haven’t,” de la Torre said.
There are many lamentable layers to the Katehi story, but Napolitano has the power to keep it from getting worse. She can end the perpetual drama at UCD and move an entire campus community out of limbo by easing Katehi out the door peacefully.
Katehi doesn’t need to be the UC Davis chancellor anymore, but she doesn’t need to have her career destroyed, either.
Finally, Napolitano can hire a successor who can carry on Katehi’s vision of UC Davis as world class institution energizing the Sacramento region with jobs and innovation. Oh, and some political acumen for the next chancellor would be helpful.