University of California chancellor placed on leave in wake of scandal allegations

A huge and embarrassing scandal is rocking the University of California System, the nation’s largest and most prestigious state university.  University president Janet Napolitano has placed on involuntary leave of absence the chancellor of the University’s Davis Campus, widely considered the world’s pre-eminent agricultural research and teaching facility (its wine research has no peer).

Sam Stanton and Diana Lambert of the Sacramento Bee report:

Citing “serious questions” about whether UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi violated policies on employment of her family members and the use of contracts to remove negative information from the Internet, UC President Janet Napolitano placed Katehi on leave Wednesday night pending the outcome of “a rigorous and transparent investigation.”

“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,” Napolitano’s office said in a statement issued Wednesday night. “The serious and troubling nature of these questions, as well as the initial evidence, requires a rigorous and transparent investigation.”

Napolitano said she would appoint an independent investigator to compile a report before the start of the next academic year and that UC Davis Provost Ralph Hexter would fill the chancellor’s post on an acting basis.

The P.R. contracts to scrub the internet came in the wake of a hugely embarrassing incident in which a university police officer pepper-sprayed demonstrators, which was recorded by cell phone cameras and went viral.  The university reportedly has spent at least $175,000 to scrub this, but documents have now revealed that personal P.R. for the chancellor seems to have been part of the deal:

Documents released to The Sacramento Bee late Wednesday through California Public Records Act requests show how closely the university’s image consultants tracked coverage of Katehi’s latest controversies.

One email from Sacramento-based IDMLOCO dated March 7 suggested a way of “inserting some positive Linda Katehi press into the conversation once the time is right.”

Other documents showed campus officials received regular reports on how Katehi’s reputation was being affected by media reports.

“Over the weekend, the conversation volume spiked to the highest point since the negative stories about Chancellor Katehi began,” a March 16 email from IDMLOCO stated. “The conversation spike was surrounding the Mrak Hall 5th floor sit-in that began on Friday, where students protested for the chancellor’s resignation.

“Resignation has become the primary theme in the social conversation over the weekend,” the email stated, noting that “currently, the sentiment is 48 percent negative, 15 percent positive and 37 percent neutral.”

Another firm, Nevins & Associates of Baltimore, was hired earlier and paid more than $90,000 to repair the image of the university and the chancellor after the pepper-spray incident.

In an Oct. 16, 2012, email from company founder David Nevins to Katehi chief of staff Karl Engelbach, Nevins spelled out a plan to “highlight the accomplishments of UC Davis and Chancellor Katehi.”

At the moment, less is known about the allegations of improperly hiring family members and the acceptance of board seats.  That is what the investigation is for.

Higher education is a very big business, and the executives who manage it command vast budgets and are paid very well.  Though they may wear academic robes at commencement ceremonies and revel in the prestige of being seekers of truth, they are also executives as self-interested as the mortals who run big corporations.

The scandal unfolding at Davis threatens to reveal just how ordinary are the temptations of the chief executive of a large university campus.