When the #pepperspray won’t go away

For nearly a century and a half, the University of California’s motto has been, “Let there be light.” It’s a reminder that in academia, truth is both the ideal and daily currency.

Too bad UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi didn’t glance at the university seal before reacting to the furor over the pepper-spraying of student protesters in 2011. She might have just opted for swallowing her pride and enduring the bad publicity until the air cleared.

Instead, in yet another example of her mismanagement of that now internationally famous fiasco, it turns out she used at least $175,000 in public money to hire private consultants to try to downplay online references to it – along with, perhaps, the identity of the chancellor on whose watch it happened.

No wonder the university has taken its sweet time in responding to the public records act requests about the incident filed last month by Bee reporters Diana Lambert and Sam Stanton. After the withering criticism of Katehi’s more recent decisions to accept paid stints on the boards of a textbook purveyor and a for-profit college under federal investigation, it can’t be pleasant to hand over the documents and come clean.

We take no pleasure in being among those critics, although numerous Bee requests for documents are still outstanding. Someone’s mistakes are never the whole story; from research to fundraising, Katehi also has raised the stature of UC Davis in many ways.

And “online reputation management,” as it is known, is hardly unusual among executives, corporations and public figures. In an era in which social media trolls and viral memes can unfairly destroy careers and institutions in an instant, a whole industry has developed around burying “bad” Google references under pages and pages of “good” news.

But Katehi is a public employee. And UC Davis is a public institution devoted to the free and open exchange of knowledge. The pepper-spray incident wasn’t some defamatory falsehood being peddled by a disgruntled employee or malicious plaintiff. It actually happened. Trying to obfuscate that runs not only counter to the university’s mission, but – as the 158,000-and-counting Google references to “UC Davis pepper spray” showed on Thursday – it’s an exercise in futility.

Katehi should comply with the remaining public records requests now and be transparent should they yield more criticism. As her humanities department could tell her, the public will remember a cover-up long after they’ve forgiven the “crime” beneath it. Also, the truth shall set you free.

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