Let’s step back from UC Davis turmoil

UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi speaks with The Sacramento Bee editorial board in April.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi speaks with The Sacramento Bee editorial board in April. rbenton@sacbee.com

The University of California, Davis, isn’t, by nature, prone to drama. In fact, before the arrival of Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, the rap was that it too often hid its light under a big bushel while its geniuses invented things like the future of tomatoes and wine.

So it’s sad to see the campus rocked by Katehi’s latest troubles. Provost Ralph Hexter, who will be running things while Katehi’s superiors conduct a 90-day conflict-of-interest investigation, will have his work cut out for him in the remaining month of the academic quarter. Besides calming the faculty and settling the students, he and his bosses need to reassure Sacramento as well.

That’s because this turmoil isn’t confined to UC Davis. It also has roiled state lawmakers, clouded grand plans for California’s capital city and created an opening for critics of the University of California system, which already has challenges enough.

The campus may, in fact, be the easy part. Students will be on break for most of the investigation. A determination should be made well before fall, though the selection of a new chancellor, if it comes to that, could easily take until 2017.

Elsewhere, Katehi’s sidelining has regrettably created some destabilization. In Sacramento, where she vowed to help revitalize downtown with a “world food center,” a possible satellite campus, graduate programs and other exciting UC Davis connections, civic and business leaders see opportunity unraveling.

With Katehi sidelined or gone, they fear, UC Davis could revert to its old identity as an entity unto itself at the other end of the causeway, and Sacramento could miss a crucial shot at hoped-for economic diversification.

“She obviously has made serious mistakes and serious misjudgments,” mayoral candidate and former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told The Sacramento Bee editorial board on Wednesday. “On the other hand, if she leaves, it hurts Sacramento and hurts the growing momentum we’re just beginning to develop with UC Davis.”

It’s an understandable concern. Among other things, on her watch, the nursing school at UC Davis Medical Center has launched a game-changing, $50 million expansion, breathing fresh hope into Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood.

But other projects have had far less traction. The satellite campus idea is fairly new, and the proposed food center, intended to capitalize on the university’s agricultural leadership, so far remains just that – a proposal. In fact, by some accounts, its progress might have been quicker had Katehi had more of a knack for university protocol.

So despite Sacramento’s worries, it’s also possible that, if Katehi is ultimately replaced, the next chancellor might be just as regionally engaged as she has been, and better able to deliver. To that end, a little reassurance from the UC would go a long way.

At some point, the UC Board of Regents and UC President Janet Napolitano should let community leaders know that they, too, get UC Davis’ importance as an entrepreneurial, regional catalyst, and will think of that as they determine what to do with Katehi’s seat.

Of course, they may have their hands full elsewhere in Sacramento. Already, a variety of Capitol interests, including organized labor and legislative critics of Napolitano, have seized on the Katehi turmoil as potential leverage.

Within hours of her leave, for instance, the university’s largest union called for a “top to bottom, systemwide review” of all executives at the University of California.

“The growing scandal involving Chancellor Katehi calls for much more than her immediate termination,” declared Local 3299 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Actually, it doesn’t. But it does create an opportunity for political mischief, and AFSCME has, for some time, been trying to pressure the UC into hiring legions of outsourced contract workers as in-house, full-time – and much more expensive – employees.

State lawmakers must keep this tendency in mind in coming months as they weigh policy on higher education, and keep their eye on the big picture. This one-off personnel case can’t come between the state of California and its most renowned public university.

The ugly fight over Katehi’s fate will surely just add to the confusion. Through her lawyer, she has denied any wrongdoing and accused Napolitano of scapegoating her to force her out and protect the president’s own image.

It’s rather a dubious accusation, given the extent to which Katehi’s pickle is self-inflicted. Napolitano didn’t tell her to join the board of a for-profit university being sued for alleged fraud by the Federal Trade Commission, or hire image consultants after being personally humiliated by the UC Davis pepper-spray scandal, and then insist it was solely for the benefit of the campus.

But we do believe that Katehi’s resignation would be in everyone’s best interest. To the extent Napolitano and the UC can make that easy for her, and restore equilibrium to the campus, they should do what it takes to make that happen. She’s too compromised to lead at this point, even if the investigation reveals no wrongdoing beyond her past misjudgments.

Besides, drama is expensive. As the investigation unfolds, Katehi will continue to collect her $424,360 annual UC paycheck, a perk she would donate to the students, if she cares as much about UC Davis as she claims. With some deep breaths, a reality check and a little perspective, we might all remember that this is not the part of California that’s famous for drama queens.