The allegations are stunning: nepotism, self-dealing and dishonesty. And yet UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi defied even the president of the University of California, rather than gracefully leave.
On Wednesday, UC President Janet Napolitano was forced to place Katehi on administrative leave, paying her for 90 days, but also making clear the gravity of the allegations against her.
An accomplished scholar, Katehi has been dogged for most of her 6½-year UC Davis tenure by mistakes caused, regrettably and in large measure, by hubris.
There was the pepper spraying of peaceful student protesters in 2011. There were the contracts with search-engine-optimization experts for “eradication” of negative Google references to the incident in connection to her and UC Davis.
There were the concerns that her husband, son and daughter-in-law are all on the UC Davis payroll. There were her questionable decisions to accept paid seats on the corporate boards of a textbook company and a for-profit college under federal investigation.
Even when forced to apologize for her errors, Katehi insisted that most of the missteps were only indirectly her doing. Just last week, speaking to The Sacramento Bee editorial board – on the record, on camera – she took personal responsibility only for joining the DeVry University board before Napolitano had signed off on the commitment.
Other than that, she said, she was guilty only of allowing errant underlings to fail her, or had nothing to hide.
But it has been clear for a while that something was amiss with Katehi’s bid for redemption. Documentation requested by The Bee under the Public Records Act was delayed, making it impossible to verify her story.
On Wednesday night, Napolitano made clear why, outlining discrepancies “of a serious and troubling nature.” Napolitano challenged the pay and promotions received by Katehi’s daughter-in-law at UC Davis, irregularities with her son’s employment, and “material misstatements” by her about her involvement in social media contracts signed to cleanse the post-pepper-spray reputation of Katehi and the university.
Napolitano’s letter to Katehi and her lawyer makes it clear that emails and other documentation contradict Katehi’s story. Given the situation and the stakes for UC Davis, it is stunning that Katehi has not stepped down.
Civic leaders put their good names on the line, going to bat for her. Many faculty members have given her the benefit of the doubt for months, in deference to her scholarship and her leadership among women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Yet as recently as Wednesday morning, with a choice to truly lead by creating a smooth transition for a successor, Katehi chose instead to email UC Davis’ academic senate, saying she was “100 percent committed” to “continuing to lead the campus to greater levels of success and excellence in the future.”
Now, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter, though an able and experienced leader with a résumé that includes the presidency of Hampshire College, will have to take on the job amid an ugly and potentially painful investigation. And for what? One academic’s career?
Katehi has said repeatedly that her first and only concern has been UC Davis. If that is really so, she should quietly return to that first love of academics, teaching, and truly allow UC Davis to be her priority.
The University of California is one of this state’s great gems. No one player in its system can be permitted to threaten its reputation. Napolitano is right to insist that someone else run the campus. It shouldn’t have come to this, of course. But perhaps, as they say in the humanities department, character is destiny.