Amid calls for her resignation from the Capitol to the campus, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi is seeking to rebuild public confidence. She seems genuinely contrite, but it’s a big ask.
Already notorious as the chancellor on whose watch students were pepper-sprayed at a peaceful sit-in in 2011, Katehi has spent months in one embarrassing firestorm after another.
First she joined, and then resigned from, the board of a for-profit college that was under federal investigation. Then university records showed she had also held a paid board seat on a company that publishes textbooks.
Then documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee under the California Public Records Act showed the university had hired image consultants to bury references to the pepper-spray incident and the university’s – and Katehi’s – connection to it.
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Since then, other questions have come up: her tenure on an unpaid advisory board to a Saudi university accused of paying scholars to cite it in research. UC Davis’ employment of Katehi’s daughter-in-law, son and husband. The influence at the university of major donors. The lengthy delay in complying with Public Records Act requests for documents on those and other issues.
On Thursday, between meetings with lawmakers and other leaders, Katehi visited The Bee editorial board. Her message? “Trust me.”
“I will do everything in my power to minimize mistakes,” she said.
Katehi said she is creating an internal team to vet her board commitments and other community involvement, and a “transparency board” to improve her communications. She also promised to engage the campus more openly on issues such as the budget, and to talk more to the community about the future of the university.
We don’t blame Katehi for wanting to fix this. She has big plans for the university.
In her six and a half year tenure as chancellor, UC Davis has become an academic contender and a force in the region. Forbes magazine recently called it the nation’s best school for promoting women in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Civic and business leaders laud Katehi’s vision.
We like her vision, too. It has been thrilling to watch UC Davis bloom, led by that rarest of breeds, a female chancellor. The university’s planned World Food Center could kick Sacramento’s resurgence into warp speed if it ends up downtown, and her excitement at the school’s potential as a regional source of startups, venture capital and innovation is contagious.
But it could all come to naught if her missteps accumulate to the point that the public no longer trusts her. And Katehi – who prides herself on being a risk-taker – has a terrible Achilles heel with risky decisions that have come back to bite her.
It was a risk to join the DeVry University board; for-profit colleges have for years fought allegations that they overcharge poor students for dubious credentials. She now sees it as a mistake to have accepted the $70,000-a-year position before it had been fully vetted by her superiors at the UC. We think the mistake was considering it at all.
Similarly, it’s risky to claim, as she does, that the search engine optimization firms were hired after the pepper-spray incident only to improve the social media competency of her staff and boost a more comprehensive picture of UC Davis.
The contract, which she riskily blames solely on subordinates, calls for “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident ... for the university and the Chancellor.” She insists she had zero interest in cleaning up her own reputation, and nothing to do with the scope-of-work language. Unfortunately, the university’s foot-dragging on public records does little to buttress her account.
A lot is riding on this redemption tour, and not just at UC Davis. The University of California has its own reputation to consider, with billions of dollars to lose if lawmakers, faculty and donors become disillusioned.
We have resisted the calls for Katehi’s resignation; there’s more to a chancellor’s job than public relations. But that doesn’t mean transparency isn’t crucial.
Katehi says she, more than anyone, wants the full story to be made public. Whatever the holdup, now is the time to prove that and release the records. Call it the first day of the rest of Katehi’s credibility.