BY HANK REICHMAN
[UPDATE 4/20: Yesterday an eighth legislator and the first Republican, Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) added his name to the roster of California lawmakers calling for Katehi’s resignation, declaring in a tweet that the University of California exists to educate students, not enrich administrators.]
Calls for the resignation or firing of University of California at Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi have increased in the wake of the Sacramento Bee’s disclosure that her administration had spent at least $175,000 trying to scrub the Internet of negative references related to the November 2011 pepper spraying of students by campus police. [I posted about this two days ago as part of my ongoing series on issues in the University of California.] Katehi was already under fire for her paid service on corporate boards, including a seat on the for-profit higher education firm, DeVry, for which she did not seek requisite approval from the UC Office of the President. Katehi resigned that position. On Thursday, three more legislators called for Katehi’s resignation or dismissal, bringing the total to seven. Assembly members Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona), and Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay) said the recent report by the Bee was the final straw.
Gatto first posted his call for the resignation on Twitter Thursday morning: “Spend millions on PR while students costs soar? It’s time for Katehi to resign.” He later added, “Her serving on the board of textbook companies was sufficient enough grounds, but her recent article detailing large and questionable PR expenditures cemented it in the minds of man.”
“Chancellor Katehi’s decisions have raised serious questions about her ability to lead UC Davis and represent the University system,” Rodriguez added in a follow-up statement. “The University of California campuses should be making decisions that serve the best interest of students, not executives.”
Stone, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that as the Legislature considers the UC budget, “it is very disturbing to hear that a Chancellor has been spending precious public resources on a PR campaign to obfuscate questionable decisions. Clearly it is time for Chancellor Katehi to move on.”
In a statement issued Thursday after national media outlets reported on the Bee’s findings, UC Davis said, “Communicating the value of UC Davis is an essential element of our campus’s education, research, and larger public service mission. Increased investment in social media and communications strategy has heightened the profile of the university to good effect.”
“Communication efforts during this time were part of the campus’s strategic communication strategy. In fact, one of the main objectives during this time was to train staff on how to effectively use digital media to improve engagement with our stakeholders,” the statement continued, adding that “[m]ost of the growth in the communications budget is tied to raising the visibility of our College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the School of Veterinary Medicine, both rated the best in the nation.” The statement also cited a 2014 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education that “the mean amount that universities spend on marketing was reported as $3.7 million, with the highest at $25 million. We believe UC Davis compares favorably with other institutions of higher learning. Communications spending represents a small fraction of the $4.3 billion operating budget of UC Davis.”
Assembly members Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), and Evan Low (D-Campbell) previously asked the Chancellor to resign after it was reported that Katehi had accepted the questionable paid board seats. Two other state lawmakers, Sens. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) previously questioned Katehi’s decision to accept the DeVry seat but said she should remain as chancellor. Another local lawmaker, Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) called on her to resign but rescinded that stance after she apologized to students and talked to him by phone.
Yesterday the University of California Student Association, which represents 240,000 students in ten UC campuses statewide, joined the chorus. “The pepper spray incident shaped student protest and campus response for the last five years,” association President Kevin Sabo said in a statement after the vote. “Chancellor Katehi abdicated responsibility, but still felt it was necessary to initiate an impossible hunt to save her reputation. This is not a lapse in judgment, but a pattern of Katehi’s blatant disregard of her responsibility as a UC leader.”
Meanwhile, the five-week student takeover of a fifth-floor lobby in Mrak Hall outside Katehi’s office came to a quiet close Friday. The two dozen or so remaining students who made up the rolling occupation cleaned the carpets and cleared their provisions from a staff refrigerator. They left red roses on the floor, then marched through campus, many carrying signs and wearing silver duct tape over their mouths that read “Fire Katehi.”
The students said they decided to end their occupation because they felt isolated and wanted to bring their protest to the broader campus. “It’s everyone’s fight,” said Emily Breuninger, 27, a graduate student who emerged as a spokeswoman for the group. “It’s a relief to be out in the fresh air, or somewhere with windows.”
Since March 11, when students began the occupation, university police have kept a low profile. And when the students ended their sit-in, they did so without being forced into the move. University officials occasionally asked the students to leave, but never pressed the issue, apparently fearing that something like the pepper spray incident might follow if they did.
Outrage over the Bee‘s revelations have spawned new life for reports on the pepper spraying as users of Twitter, Facebook and other social media have spread the reports. On Wednesday, before the report, a Google search for “UC Davis pepper spray” produced about 100,000 results. This morning (April 16), the number was 267,000.
Today, Katehi rebuffed a question at the campus’s annual Picnic Day about calls that she step down. She said the university will respond further to the Bee‘s report on Monday, but gave no details. “There is going to be a response to the Bee because the Bee has … misrepresented the facts. There is going to be a response on Monday,” Katehi said.
That should be interesting, to say the least. Frankly, it seems to me that it’s past time for Katehi to go, if only to save UC Davis, its faculty, staff, and students further embarrassment, if not further absurdly wasteful administrative spending.