Marcos Bretón

The one person whose reputation was enhanced by UC Davis scandal

Attorney Melinda Guzman faced off with UC President Janet Napolitano and secured a lucrative settlement for her client, Linda P.B. Katehi, who just stepped down as chancellor of UC Davis.
Attorney Melinda Guzman faced off with UC President Janet Napolitano and secured a lucrative settlement for her client, Linda P.B. Katehi, who just stepped down as chancellor of UC Davis. jvillegas@sacbee.com

The story behind the story is the only redeeming part of an otherwise dismal tale of waste and politics in higher education.

Before we tell that better story, you already know that Linda Katehi lost her job as chancellor of UC Davis last week after an investigation found she had violated university policies. But she was still able to keep her golden parachute worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

You already know that University of California President Janet Napolitano got her wish in securing Katehi’s resignation as chancellor, but only after roiling the Davis campus with a sure-to-be-costly investigation of Katehi that began with breathless allegations and ended in terms that might have been reached without a public fight.

You already know that this whole affair is emblematic of an arrogant and bloated UC system where academic big shots fight over money and perks while students cope with skyrocketing debts to go with their diplomas.

What could possibly be worthwhile in any of this?

What if I told you that the one person whose reputation was enhanced in this whole mess is the daughter of a railroad mechanic who had no formal education – an immigrant who raised all four of his girls to be graduates from where? Yes, UC Davis.

Decades before she was recruited to represent Katehi against allegations of nepotism and mismanagement alleged by Napolitano’s office, Melinda Guzman used to study in the Davis library as an undergraduate majoring in political science.

That was before Guzman, now 53, would break off and form her own law firm after years of corporate success. It was before she became a trustee for the California State University system, a member of the board of governors for California Community Colleges and commissioner for the California Postsecondary Commission. It was before she became an expert in employment law and before she got a late-night call in April from a friend phoning on behalf of an unnamed prominent person who needed help. The person in need was Katehi, who was in deep trouble with Napolitano.

How ironic was this? The person riding to the rescue of the embattled UCD chancellor once had been a Davis student with almost no point of reference for academic success, given that she and her sisters were the first ones in their family to attend an American university.

Back when Guzman was an undergrad, sitting by herself in the library with only her thoughts and ambitions, her dad would send a family relative – a custodian at UC Davis – to walk by and wave to her so she would feel less lonely.

“His name was Luis Sanchez, my sister’s godfather, and he would bring a clean waste can for me to use every day,” Guzman said recently, beaming at the memory.

Guzman and her three sisters had chosen UCD not so much for its academic excellence but because of its proximity to Fairfield and the family home where they grew up as the daughters of Amado and Anita Guzman. Amado had come to America from Mexico after the death of his own father. He arrived here alone, with no English skills and just one person to lean on, a relative in Merced.

But Amado could fix things, and he took a job working on trains for Southern Pacific, a position he held for 42 years, and one that paid for the educations of his four girls – the ones he vowed would not have to work the kinds of jobs he had worked.

“He wouldn’t let us work in the fields or in the packing sheds during the summer,” said Guzman, who has lived and practiced law in Sacramento since 1988, the year she graduated from UC Davis School of Law.

When she started her legal career nearly 30 years ago, it would have been easy to underestimate Guzman based on her ethnicity, her diminutive size, her gender. But in her mind, any slight became fuel to propel her forward. She likely would have made a terrific public defender.

“That’s where most new Latino lawyers were going,” she said. “I wanted to work in the private sector, to aspire to do things that others weren’t doing.”

So she did, working in corporate law and representing Chevron, venture capital firms and large companies in various disputes with employees. She was good at it. She was successful. Meanwhile, her sisters became an engineer, a financial analyst and a schoolteacher. Amado Guzman brimmed with pride, but was too modest to ever walk into any of the law firms where Melinda worked.

“He was afraid he would embarrass me,” she said, her face betraying a hint of melancholy. Her dad died in 2005 and she honors him often on her Facebook page. Amado missed it in 2014 when Guzman was given the Ohtli Award — the highest civilian honor bestowed on people of who have improved the lives of Mexicans living abroad.

Guzman received the award for her efforts in spearheading a nonprofit that promotes good relations with Mexico. She didn’t need to take that call from Katehi’s friend. Her reputation already was secure. But she took on an unsympathetic client in Katehi and an adversary in Napolitano, the former secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama, because she had built a career on facing challenges.

It was a tough assignment, for sure. For me and for other media observers, Katehi had become a distraction at UCD. She never had recovered from the 2011 incident in which UCD cops pepper-sprayed protesting students. Later, she seemingly became obsessed with scrubbing the internet of negative stories that mentioned her, hiring private firms and paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve her online image and the university’s.

“Why can’t you get me off the Google?” she reportedly asked a former aide, who told investigators that “Chancellor Katehi’s paramount concern seemed to be her own reputation, not the school’s reputation.”

Napolitano placed Katehi on paid leave in late April and launched an investigation into allegations that Katehi had misrepresented her involvement in hiring the internet-scrubbing firms. The probe also looked into questions of nepotism and the misuse of student funds. It was headed by former U.S. attorneys Melinda Haag and McGregor Scott.

It will be fascinating to see how much money the UC system paid Haag and Scott, both elite lawyers, to investigate Katehi.

Whether an investigation was needed always will be in dispute between the parties. However, once it was launched, Guzman’s cool veneer gave way to an aggressive tone that has marked the career of a lawyer who has fought for everything she has in life.

Clearly, Katehi had to step aside as UCD chancellor because she was a divisive presence on campus and a distraction. But Guzman said that Katehi’s academic career would have been over if Katehi hadn’t fought back.

“If she had resigned while the charges were pending, she never would have been able to raise money again,” Guzman said. “She would have lost her stature as a respected scientist.”

Guzman, the former CSU board member, had seen many relationships dissolve between top administrators and their universities. The norm was a soft landing and an easing out the door without rancor or headlines. That didn’t happen here. So Guzman moved forward with one goal – make sure that Katehi’s contract was honored. Katehi had full tenure rights. She couldn’t just be fired without due process. UC regents needed to be involved.

In April, Guzman spoke with me about what she wanted for Katehi. The settlement reached last week was very close to her initial goals: Katehi is being allowed to remain at the school as full-time faculty member. She will continue to get her chancellor-level salary of $424,360, plus retirement and health benefits, for one year. She will not have to teach classes during her transition year.

Her tenure is safe, and the most serious charges against her of nepotism and financial mismanagement were determined to be unfounded. However, the investigation did find she violated university policies for filing travel expenses and serving on corporate boards.

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The cushy landing for a high-priced university administrator is not an issue that inspires warm feelings, particularly among reform-minded people sick of waste in higher education. One also wonders what UC regents will say, if anything, about the cost of Napolitano’s investigation of Katehi. But amid the unsavory elements, one fact is hard to dispute – Guzman represented her client well.

Somewhere, Amado Guzman is smiling.

On the day Linda Katehi announced her resignation, some students had strong opinions about her decision. Katehi faced many allegations leading up to her resignation on Tuesday, August 9.

Following the 2011 pepper spraying of students, the campus hired consultants to improve the online reputations of UC Davis and Chancellor Linda Katehi.

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, mbreton@sacbee.com, @MarcosBreton    

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