UC Davis’ summer of scandal

How will ongoing leadership turmoil affect the California university’s lucrative brand?

UC Davis administrative issues are putting the school’s reputation through the grinder.

UC Davis administrative issues are putting the school’s reputation through the grinder.


This is an extended version of a story published in the July 21, 2016, issue.

The fifth floor of UC Davis’ Mrak Hall has experienced some changes in recent months.

What was once filled with student protesters and covered wall-to-wall with signs calling for Chancellor Linda Katehi’s termination is no longer. Instead, the chancellor’s office is essentially locked off to the public. Visitors wishing to take the elevator to the floor are met with an inoperable fifth-floor button and greeted with a “For media questions, call …” sign on the stairwell door.

It’s the perfect metaphor for the leadership troubles at UC Davis, caused by a scandal-driven administrative carousel that has already chewed through a longtime chancellor and her chief financial officer, and cast a shadow on the current office-holder.

“This has been Exhibit A through Z with a morally bankrupt administration under chancellor Katehi,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, on of the first lawmakers to call for the chancellor’s resignation.

As UC officials try to stabilize one of the nation’s top universities, is it only a matter of time before the embarrassing public chaos taints the lucrative UCD brand?

First, a refresher: In April, after a series of controversial missteps, University of California President Janet Napolitano put Katehi on investigative leave, temporarily replacing her with provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter.

Katehi has been accused of nepotism, misspending student funds and misstating her role in an online propaganda strategy to drown out negative news reports about the campus.

A month after Katehi’s suspension, UC Davis Chief Financial Officer Dave Lawlor abruptly resigned after 18 months. Neither Lawlor nor UC Davis officials have given an explanation regarding his exit.

How did one of California’s top universities get to this point, and where does it go from here?

Before she suspended Katehi on April 27 over multiple accusations, including a whistleblower complaint questioning her misuse of student funds, Napolitano was her advocate.

The Sacramento Bee first reported in March that Katehi stepped down from her paid position as board member of the DeVry Education Group, a for-profit company being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for participating in predatory lending practices, before she was paid.

Aside from the $70,000 she would’ve made with DeVry had she not stepped down, Katehi did receive $420,000 for her role serving as a board member of the textbook publishing company John Wiley & Sons from 2012-14.

But despite agreeing that some of Katehi’s moonlighting practices were against university policy, Napolitano backed her. And she backed Katehi again when UC Davis students occupied the chancellor’s office for five weeks.

Katehi spokesman Larry Kamer argued that some of the accusations his client is facing are “regularly done by other administrators in the UC system.”

“What we want to know is, what was it that changed, in just a month’s time, for [Napolitano] to do a complete 180 and put Chancellor Katehi under investigation,” he told SN&R.

The final straw, it seems, came two weeks before the suspension, when The Bee reported Katehi spent $175,000 to scrub the internet of negative images from the 2011 pepper-spray incident in which UC Davis police officers dosed peaceful protesters in the campus quad. The protest, part of the larger Occupy movement, was one of several large demonstrations across the UC system over steep tuition increases.

Since its initial reports, the newspaper also revealed details regarding a trip to Nestle’s digital acceleration team’s headquarters. The trip, according to documents, represented Katehi’s further efforts to create a similar team to help track the school’s online reputation.

Later, it was learned that the UC system mounted its own $158,000 online campaign to counter a disparaging state audit that claimed its admissions policies targeted nonresident students because of the higher tuition.

But those allegations come as little surprise to students like Emily Breuninger, an elected officer of the Davis chapter of the UC Student-Workers Union and one of the students who staged the weekslong occupation in Mrak Hall.

“Hubris is the name of the game with university administration,” Breuninger said. “I wouldn’t put it past Napolitano to do shady things. I trust her about as much as I do Katehi.”

Last week, Napolitano recommended modest changes to the UC Regents that would allow administrators only two outside paid jobs instead of the previous three, and add a step of approval to ensure the position isn’t a conflict of interest.

Between trying to refute media reports and comply with investigators, embattled chancellor Katehi, her lawyers and her media team have been busy since the start of the investigation. She’s even threatened to withhold the $200,000 in Wiley & Sons money that she promised to donate for scholarships.

As part of the process, Katehi and former U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, who is leading the investigation, met in Sacramento for a combined 12 hours on June 29 and July 1, Kamer told SN&R. Following the meeting, Kamer said his client is “feeling confident” about the investigation, despite having previously claimed it was compromised because of Napolitano’s role in it.

“The UC president was [involved] in these events, so it’s problematic that she’s part of the investigation,” Kamer said. “Instead, the UC Regents should handle this investigation.”

Barring any setbacks, Haag’s investigation is expected to wrap up by August 1.

Even as UC Davis’ past chancellor haunts the campus, questions are simmering about the man poised to take her place.

Napolitano appointed Hexter the acting chancellor while the increasingly bitter uncoupling with Katehi unfolds. But Hexter, who resigned as president of Hampshire College amid a storm of similar controversy in 2010, comes with his own baggage.

“[Hexter] was forced out of Hampshire College by students for the same sort of shit—misuse of funds,” Breuninger contended, referring to his abrupt exit as president of the Massachusetts liberal arts school.

Although it isn’t certain that Hexter was pushed out by the Hampshire College community, his August 2010 resignation after five years as president was preceded by Katehi-like decisions.

In 2010, Hexter had plans of spending upward of $350,000 to construct an admissions office in the Adele Simmons Hall, a building located in the center of the Massachusetts campus. With it would’ve been an adjoining parking structure, according to articles from the local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

The problem, as Hampshire College alumnus Michael Meo remembered, was that faculty and students only learned about the project weeks before it was set to begin, when a student working in the admissions office discovered it and informed the campus community. At the time, the college was facing an economic crisis and was cutting back on “other expenses, salaries for faculty and staff and building maintenance,” the Gazette reported. There was also the issue of college tuition, which, according to Hampshire College records, increased $1,114 for the 2010-11 school year to $51,279.

Students and faculty wanted to know why the project had been kept secret.

“There was lots of confusion, because we only had about three weeks left of school when we found out,” Meo said. “We created a platform for discussion for administration to tell us what was happening, but Hexter didn’t show up or respond.”

Instead, Meo said Hexter holed up in his office when he was confronted by students staging a sit-in to demand answers.

“That was a rallying point,” Meo said. “People used it as a launch pad to express their dissatisfaction with the administration and Hexter.”

In response to the lack of transparency, students issued a list of demands, and called for the project to be halted. Ultimately, Hexter responded to students by email, announcing that the project was put on hold until “the campus could collectively engage in discussions about this issue with campus committees and in wider venues.”

Hexter resigned three months later, and the plan never came to fruition. He didn’t respond to an SN&R request for comment.

Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for UCD’s Office of the President, says the administration is confident in Hexter’s ability to take over, even if just temporarily.

“Clearly we had no concerns in placing Hexter as the acting chancellor,” Klein said. “And if, hypothetically, there were to be a new chancellor, we would hope he stays as interim until one is hired.”

Still, the above drama has yet to affect two of the university’s biggest markers of success.

UC Davis is still U.S. News & World Report’s No. 1 ranked school for veterinary medicine and agriculture, and Forbes’ No. 1 college for women in STEM fields.

University spokeswoman Kim Hale said the administration doesn’t expect the recent allegations will hinder the college’s status in the near future. Nor does she see it hurting the school’s hiring of administration staff.

In recent years, UC Davis has had lengthy job vacancies for the deans of four schools: letters and sciences, education, graduate school of management and biological sciences. According to Hale, the university has hired to fill two of those positions permanently, put in an interim dean for the school of education, and is interviewing for the school of letters and sciences.

“We’re not seeing that it’s having an effect. We, as a university, have just continued our momentum that we had before [the investigation],” Hale said.

Admissions are still soaring, too.

Numbers announced by the UC’s Office of the President show a big increase in Davis’ freshman admissions. The school admitted a total of 4,301 new students for the upcoming fall semester—a 17.4 percent increase from the previous year.

And, according to U.S. News’ chief data strategist Robert Morse, the current problems won’t likely shroud the college’s status as a top university, either.

“It’s rare to see major year-over-year changes in a school’s ranking due to movements in one or two areas,” Morse said in an email. “Acceptance rate, for example, accounts for 1.25 percent of a school’s ranking, so it would take a major drop in applications to have a noteworthy effect. Academic reputation is also very stable and typically changes very little year to year.”

Nevertheless, despite the administration’s everything-will-be-fine message, lawmakers like McCarty haven’t let up.

McCarty, who sits on the state’s Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education and Finance, wants more legislative oversight of the university system. At next month’s meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, he said he will request an audit into the spending of the UC president and the system’s individual chancellors.

“The system can’t just be content and say, ’Linda Katehi’s issues are in the past’ and move on from it,” McCarty explained. “We have to find a system to prevent this from happening again.”

Current students still want to see change, too—not just at UC Davis, but in the entire university system, which Breuninger believes needs to dismantled and restructured.

“Katehi is just an hyperbolic example of what’s actually happening in all university systems,” Breuninger said. “Our fight isn’t over. We need to connect with other UCs to fight against this privatization of our public universities.”