Shawn Hubler

Shawn Hubler: How about a class in optics at UC Davis?

UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, center, waits to speak during a campus rally after the infamous 2011 incident in which campus police went after peaceful student demonstrators with pepper spray.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, center, waits to speak during a campus rally after the infamous 2011 incident in which campus police went after peaceful student demonstrators with pepper spray. Associated Press file

The pepper spray incident was admittedly a lulu. Still, reasonable minds could see how that situation could have blindsided the head of any university.

And then the hiring of the $260,000-a-year communications chief on the public dime in the wake of a recession – OK, that didn’t look great, either. Still, call it an unforced error, the high price of panicking.

But UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi has been in her job for seven years now, and for all her fine work, and there is much of it, she just can’t seem to stop tripping herself up on random judgment calls that – d’oh! – a blindfolded Homer Simpson could see coming.

Never mind last year’s gaffe, in which she splurged on a $250,000 a year “chief global strategist” in the midst of a nationally publicized fight over UC spending. Now, just in time for UC’s annual budget ask before state lawmakers, comes this embarrassing business with DeVry University.

DeVry is, of course, the for-profit college familiar to watchers of late-night TV and followers of federal allegations. It couldn’t have less in common with UC Davis if it tried.

Just for starters, unlike the University of California, and, indeed, most institutions of higher education, DeVry is publicly traded; while the UC’s stated goal is to educate Californians, DeVry’s is to make money. To fulfill that fiduciary duty to its shareholders, DeVry advertises heavily for students and signs them up for federal student loans, which they may or may not ever be able to pay off, given that employers tend to be leery of for-profit credentials.

DeVry offered Katehi a $70,000-a-year seat on its board in December, according to UC Davis. Weeks later, in January, it was sued for false advertising by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which charged that DeVry deceived students with claims that 90 percent got jobs in their fields within six months of graduation.

According to the complaint, students were only getting good jobs in their fields if, by “good job” and “field,” you meant people with management degrees working as hospital volunteers and restaurant servers.

DeVry is contesting the suit, but its numbers raise questions even without it. According to the federal college scorecard launched last year by the Obama administration, about 77 percent of the people enrolled at DeVry are paying with student loans, compared with 45 percent at Katehi’s campus, and the typical debt at graduation is about triple the debt of a UC Davis graduate.

For-profit colleges have been under state and federal scrutiny for years. Anyone following the news would get the picture. Just as anyone could see why DeVry might covet UC’s legitimacy.

Anyone but Katehi.

“I look forward to participating on DeVry Education Group’s board of directors and thank them for inviting me to join,” she was quoted as saying in DeVry’s February press release, issued after her swearing-in to the board post. “DeVry Group’s goal to enable a quality learning experience that inspires and educates students to be our next generation of leaders is essential to our nation’s progress.”

To which California state legislators, consumer watchdogs and Katehi’s boss, UC President Janet Napolitano, who, according to a UC spokeswoman, was in Europe when this all went down and signed off on none of it, replied in unison: Wait – what?

Katehi declined my invitation to explain her thinking. Her UC Davis spokespeople said she accepted the board seat because she thought she could help an institution that a lot of people look to for job training.

DeVry has more than a dozen campuses in California, including one in Folsom. I can see where Katehi might have hoped to enlighten a rogue player. Aside from her blooper reel, she’s done a laudable job on many fronts at UC Davis, boosting fundraising past the university’s $1 billion goal more than a year early, keeping the campus in or near the top ranks of public institutions and enrolling more undergraduate Californians than any UC campus.

And UC policy does encourage chancellors to sit on boards. And it appears, so far at least, that this would have been Katehi’s first paid board seat – an income stream that even a $424,360-a-year chancellor might be glad to have later. And the president of the University of Arizona also joined the board, so Katehi wasn’t DeVry’s only director from the mainstream higher ed world.

“DeVry offers an important option for many students whose educations are constrained by their circumstances,” the UofA’s Ann Weaver Hart said in a statement Wednesday, adding that she was “fully briefed” on the FTC complaint and still not giving up the position.

So add it all up and – nah. Sorry, but the most generous thing I can say is that Katehi cut DeVry loose as soon as the criticism surfaced.

And even that move was awkward. Her resignation, vaguely blaming “a variety of other issues that have come to the fore” for her delay in giving up the board appointment was a little like Donald Trump blaming his televised failure to denounce the Klu Klux Klan on a malfunctioning earpiece.

What “other issues”? Issues like the fact that the California Student Aid Commission is so skeeved out by DeVry’s rates of graduation and loan default that its poor students now are ineligible to receive Cal Grants?

Some might shrug this all off as life at the top, a job for Katehi’s PR department. And she surely does appear to be a one-woman full-employment act for them this week. Or some of them: The aforementioned associate chancellor for strategic communications, hired a little more than a year after UC Davis police were caught on video pepper-spraying peaceful students at a 2011 Occupy protest, was quietly replaced in September, her position eliminated amid agitation over $200,000-plus administrative salaries.

Still, what we have here is an executive with a Ph.D. and decades in higher education who came this close to letting the University of California be co-opted. This isn’t some mere failure to communicate.

Stuff happens in any big job, but does this much of it need to be self-inflicted? I thought people learned at universities.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee