Some things a UC rule change cannot fix

Still recovering from the bad press over the UC Davis chancellor’s brief stint on the board of a for-profit college, University of California regents are looking to tighten rules on board commitments and outside pay. It makes sense.

More than six years have passed since the university revisited its policy on top officials who want to join corporate boards and accept the lucrative pay that often comes with such invitations. Such affiliations, paid and unpaid, can be fraught with potential conflicts of time and interest, though they also are invaluable in connecting the 10 campuses with their communities – and local philanthropists.

Surely an explicit ban on damaging the university’s reputation might have made Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi think twice before joining the board overseeing embattled DeVry University. Katehi has been on administrative leave since late April, when queries about her involvement with DeVry, which is under federal scrutiny, led to a broader administrative inquiry into her leadership at UC Davis.

Had she not joined that board, however briefly, the ensuing local scandal might not have resurrected old questions about her judgment, dating to 2011, when student protesters were pepper-sprayed by campus police.

That, in turn, might not have unearthed complaints about the image consultant UC Davis had hired to bury internet references to the matter, which raised doubts about whether Katehi had had more to do with the contract than she insisted, and whether she had been less concerned for the university than for herself.

Those doubts led to public records requests that, for weeks and months, remained unfilled as documents pertaining to Katehi’s tenure at UC were examined by the university’s general counsel. Finally, amid student protests, statements from Katehi that didn’t match the record, and fresh controversy about potential favoritism for relatives of hers on the UC Davis payroll, UC President Janet Napolitano asked for her resignation. Katehi refused.

Thus did one embarrassment, five years ago, snowball into a situation that is likely to cost Katehi her chancellorship and, probably, her professional reputation. Given the contributions she has made academically and as a fundraiser for UC Davis, her trouble is extraordinary and truly unfortunate.

So we’re glad the regents are following up, and making sure the rules work. That said, Katehi’s story isn’t entirely, or even mostly, about flaws in the policy handbook. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist – or a brilliant engineer at a renowned public university like Katehi – to know there’s probably a catch when a for-profit college with legal, regulatory and image problems offers you $170,000 a year in stock and outside salary just to glean your wisdom.

Katehi has admitted that she should have forgone that questionable gig, along with another seat, worth $420,000, that she took on the board of a publisher of university textbooks. In fact, she pledged to put $200,000 of that money into a scholarship fund for UC Davis students.

Now, pending the results of the UC investigation in August, her publicist has said she may keep that money. The broken promise is unworthy of someone of Katehi’s stature, and unlikely to help restore her own reputation. Perhaps there’s a case study for some executive, someday, in this story.

But rules aside, Katehi’s trouble with optics is a big part of the pickle her career is now in.

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