The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

UC-Davis chancellor placed on administrative leave after revelations of ‘scrubbing’ Internet

In this Friday, Nov. 18, 2011, photo UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move Occupy UC Davis protesters while blocking their exit from the school’s quad. (Wayne Tilcock/The Enterprise/AP)

The chancellor at the University of California at Davis has been placed on administrative leave after reports that the school paid at least $175,000 to consultants to clean up the school’s online reputation.

University President Janet Napolitano, in a statement and letter made public late Wednesday, said there was a wider investigation underway involving Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, not just into the “scrubbing” incident but into possible conflicts of interest, among them, allegations of special treatment and large raises for her son and daughter-in-law, who are employees of the university with the son reporting directly to his own wife. Katehi’s daughter-in-law got salary increases of $50,000 over a 2½-year period, Napolitano said.

UC-Davis is one of 10 schools in the highly regarded University of California system. Located about 15 miles west of Sacramento, Davis has about 35,000 students.

The decision by Napolitano follows weeks of protest and turmoil since the Sacramento Bee revealed on April 13 that “UC Davis contracted with consultants for at least $175,0000 to scrub the Internet of negative online postings after the November 2011 pepper-spraying of students and to improve the reputations of both the university” and Katehi herself.

“Some payments,” the Bee reported, “were made in hopes of improving the results computer users obtained when searching for information about the university or Katehi, results that one consultant labeled ‘venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the chancellor.’”

Because of the Bee’s revelations, the scrubbing effort backfired badly, producing a mountain of negative publicity that ultimately served only to repeat thousands of times over details of the pepper-spraying incident that the consultants were attempting to erase from the public’s memory. The pepper-spraying incident was captured on video as Occupy demonstrators ignored orders to leave the UC-Davis campus and university police started spewing pepper spray into the crowd. The police response prompted massive protests on campus, which gained national media attention and ignited a debate about police brutality and use of excessive force against peaceful protesters.

UC Davis thought it could pay to erase a scandal from the Internet

Katehi, a scholar in electrical and computer engineering, became chancellor in 2009, and as the Los Angeles Times reported, “has been widely criticized for questionable moonlighting activities” as well as the scrubbing contract.

In her statement, Napolitano said:

Information has recently come to light that raises serious questions about whether Chancellor Katehi may have violated several University of California policies, including questions about the campus’s employment and compensation of some of the chancellor’s immediate family members, the veracity of the chancellor’s accounts of her involvement in contracts related to managing both the campus’s and her personal reputation on social media, and the potential improper use of student fees. The serious and troubling nature of these questions, as well as the initial evidence, requires a rigorous and transparent investigation.  As such, President Napolitano will  appoint an independent, outside investigator to conduct the investigation and submit a report, before the start of the 2016-17 academic year.  The president, with the support of the leadership of the Board of Regents, has determined it is in the best interest of UC Davis that Chancellor Katehi be placed on investigatory administrative leave from her position as chancellor pending the outcome of this investigation.  Pursuant to an existing delegation of authority, UC Davis Provost Ralph Hexter will fill the chancellor role on an acting basis.

In a letter to Katehi, Napolitano also said, “Questions have been raised about the employment of some members of your family, including whether employment actions related to your daughter-in-law and son violate University conflict-of-interest policies and requirements related to the employment of near relatives. … Your daughter-in-law, who directly reports to one of your direct reports, has received promotions and salary increases over a two-and-a-half year period that have increased her pay by over $50,000 and have resulted in several title changes. During that same period, you put forward a pay increase of over 20% and a title change for your daughter-in-law’s supervisor.”

Katehi’s attorney, Melinda Guzman, in a statement reported by the Bee, called the action “entirely unjustified. This smacks of scapegoating and a rush to judgment driven purely by political optics, not the best interests of the university or the UC system as a whole,” Guzman wrote. “The Chancellor welcomes an independent, objective investigation and a full release of all relevant documents and public records. Make no mistake: we intend to vigorously defend Linda’s professional reputation and her standing as Chancellor of the university she loves.”