Leadership & Governance

In Fight Over UC-Davis Chancellor’s Future, Where Does the Faculty Stand?

April 29, 2016

Max Whittaker, Reuters
Linda P.B. Katehi: pressured to resign.
Before the news broke late Wednesday that Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor of the University of California at Davis, had been removed from her post and placed on leave, the embattled leader had boasted of her faculty support.

As rumors swirled on Wednesday that the university system’s president, Janet Napolitano, had asked Ms. Katehi to step down, more than 300 faculty members signed a letter condemning any "pre-emptory action" to remove the chancellor. That same day, Ms. Katehi wrote in an email to deans that she was "100 percent committed" to remaining chancellor, and that she appreciated "the strong outpouring of support I continue to receive from the campus community."

Ms. Napolitano placed Ms. Katehi on paid administrative leave for 90 days, pending an investigation into allegations that she violated university policies, according to a statement from the president. Concerns focused on possible conflicts of interest stemming from the university’s employment of Ms. Katehi’s son, daughter-in-law, and husband; a potential misuse of student fees; and the accusation that Ms. Katehi knew more about consulting-firm contracts than what she told reporters, according to a letter to Ms. Katehi from Ms. Napolitano.

A Pepper-Spray Incident and Its Aftermath

Background articles on the 2011 incident in which a police officer pepper-sprayed seated protesters at the University of California at Davis, and its persistence in memory:

Ms. Katehi’s leave followed mounting controversies: a 2011 incident in which a campus police officer pepper-sprayed peaceful student protesters; her controversial seat, which she later gave up, on the for-profit DeVry Education Group’s Board of Directors; and The Sacramento Bee’s report revealing that the university had paid a consulting firm at least $175,000 to clean up Davis’s and Ms. Katehi’s online image after the pepper-spray incident.

It’s not unusual for controversies like those to hasten a campus chief’s ouster. What is somewhat unusual is that the Davis faculty as a whole is not among those rushing her out the door.

Instead, many faculty members have come to her defense, if only as a way to highlight what they see as much graver problems on the campus and systemwide.

A Breaking Point

Linda F. Bisson, a viticulture and enology professor, told The Chronicle last week that many faculty members, especially women in STEM fields, identify with the criticism Ms. Katehi has faced as a female leader. (She is an engineering professor by background.)

Many women on the faculty are "facing implicit bias and all those challenges, and trying to develop new policies and protocol, so of course they’re supportive because they see the pattern that is emerging," Ms. Bisson said.

On Wednesday night Ms. Katehi’s lawyer released a statement saying she intends to fight the allegations but cooperate with the investigation. "Make no mistake: We intend to vigorously defend Linda’s professional reputation and her standing as chancellor of the university she loves," the statement read.

“I think she might be a bit blind to the fact that fighting tooth and nail to stay on is actually a black eye for the university.”
But others said the leadership crisis had reached a breaking point. Richard Tucker, a professor of cell biology and human anatomy, said that while Ms. Katehi’s battle to remain as chancellor had been welcomed by some faculty members, it is not what the university needs.

"I don’t think she wants to resign," he said. "I think she might be a bit blind to the fact that fighting tooth and nail to stay on is actually a black eye for the university."

"I really do wish," he said, "she’d let go and move on."

A Shared Fight

Though not all faculty members support Ms. Katehi as a leader, some have used the struggle as an opportunity to take a stand against what they see as a breach of shared governance.

The chair of Davis’s Academic Senate, André Knoesen, said in an interview that he first spoke about Ms. Katehi’s situation with Ms. Napolitano on Thursday morning, only after news of the chancellor’s leave was made public. Many faculty members are upset that Ms. Napolitano bypassed the Academic Senate when taking action against Ms. Katehi, Mr. Tucker said.

What’s more, the university system recently overhauled its employee-retirement plan without consulting faculty members, leaving a sour taste for Ms. Napolitano’s leadership style, Mr. Tucker said.

"Faculty as a whole are a little bit weary about how Napolitano has been sort of ham-fisted with certain aspects, like the retirement plan," he said.

Other faculty members have voiced concerns about reduced state support and a budget model that allocates more funding to departments with higher enrollments, said John T. Scott, chairman of the political-science department. "It wasn’t really Katehi-specific," he said of the faculty’s discontent. "It was more like, Where are we heading as a university?"

“Many faculty who were against her came around and ended up supporting her.”
Indeed, some faculty members say Ms. Katehi was leading the university in the right direction, despite her administrative missteps, Mr. Scott said.

Ms. Bisson, the viticulture professor, was the Academic Senate chair in 2011, at the time of the pepper-spray incident. She said Ms. Katehi had worked to make the university more transparent to help correct the mistakes of five years ago.

Ms. Katehi met with faculty members and students, individually and as groups, months after the pepper-spray incident, Ms. Bisson said. And when the Academic Senate requested a report on the incident, the university was quick to respond.

Since then Ms. Katehi has worked to rebuild trust at the university, and for many her work has paid off, Mr. Tucker said. "Many faculty who were against her came around and ended up supporting her," he said.

When critics called on Ms. Katehi to resign after the pepper-spray incident, 242 faculty members signed a letter supporting the chancellor that’s similar to this week’s letter. The 2011 letter said the faculty had accepted the chancellor’s apology and urged her to continue to lead the university.

No Confidence

One of the clearest signs that the faculty as a whole is not eager for Ms. Katehi’s departure, Ms. Bisson said, is that its members have not sought a vote of no confidence in her leadership.

"It only takes 50 faculty to request a no-confidence vote, and this time there are none," she said. "If people really didn’t like her, we’d have to do a no-confidence vote."

Even when campus outrage was rampant after the pepper-spray incident, the Academic Senate rejected a no-confidence resolution in 2012, with 69 percent of faculty members voting against it.

Today’s controversy doesn’t come close to the outcry over the pepper-spray incident, Mr. Scott said. Still, as the missteps multiplied, some faculty members are questioning if Ms. Katehi was ever cut out for the job.

"It’s just sort of one thing after another," Mr. Scott said. "This one is more like a series of small losses and skirmishes, but they add up to the point where people say, What’s going on?"

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.