UC Davis chancellor resigns following probe into ethical violations

Two starkly different portrayals of Linda Katehi emerged Tuesday after she resigned her post just moments ahead of the release of a report on an independent investigation into her tenure as UC Davis chancellor.

One – propagated by her attorney, Melinda Guzman – was of a strong and accomplished public servant who was cleared of all charges in a bruising and unfair witch hunt.

“Linda Katehi and her family have been exonerated from baseless accusations of nepotism, conflicts of interest, financial management and personal gain, just as we predicted and as the UC Davis Academic Senate found within days of this leave,” Guzman said.

The other – put forward by UC President Janet Napolitano – was of a deeply flawed administrator who, investigators found, had shown poor judgment, violated multiple university policies and misled, even lied to, her superiors, the public and the media.

“In these circumstances, Chancellor Katehi has now offered to resign, and I have accepted that resignation,” Napolitano wrote Tuesday in a letter to the UC Davis community. “These past three months and the events leading up to them have been an unhappy chapter in the life of UC Davis. I believe it is in the best interest of the campus, the Davis community, and the University of California that we move forward.”

Napolitano ordered an investigation in April in response to allegations that Katehi had violated conflict-of-interest rules in the hiring and promotion of her son and daughter-in-law at UC Davis. Investigators also looked into whether she had made “material misstatements” to Napolitano in asserting that she had not been involved in hiring social media firms to scrub the Internet of references to campus police pepper-spraying of student protesters in 2011. The three-month probe also examined charges that she misused student fees and used poor judgment regarding outside board memberships.

The 102-page report by independent investigators led by Melinda Haag, a former U.S. attorney, came to mixed conclusions about Katehi’s conduct. 

Investigators did not find evidence that Katehi was involved in employment or compensation decisions about her family members or that she misused student fees. 

But they concluded that her assertions that she played no role in the social media contracts were “misleading at best and untruthful at worst.”

The report painted a picture of a chancellor so obsessed with her public image that she insisted on hiring public relations firms to improve it even after a 2012 UC study found the pepper-spray incident was not harming the campus’ reputation.  

Katehi, the report said, also misinformed Napolitano about her $70,000-a-year board seat with the DeVry Education Group, falsely stating that she had not yet started service when she actually had attended two meetings at which she had learned that DeVry was being sued by the federal government for allegedly defrauding students. She also failed to show “diligence and judgment” by joining the board of King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, the report said, even though she knew of allegations that it improperly inflated its research statistics. 

“Chancellor Katehi has engaged in a pattern of misrepresentations, … has repeatedly exercised poor judgment when confronted with challenges, has consistently disregarded the impact of her actions on the campus and the university as a whole and has failed to mitigate troubling management practices,” said UC spokeswoman Dianne KIein. “This behavior is not fit for a UC chancellor or anyone in a leadership position.”

Under the settlement, Katehi will remain on administrative leave for a year as chancellor emeritus, receiving her $424,360 annual pay with the promise that she will return as a faculty member. If she should choose not to return for at least a year, she would forfeit the chancellor’s salary payment, Klein said. Her faculty pay would be decided by UC Davis campus officials.

UC agreed not to pursue charges of misconduct with the UC Davis Academic Senate, which could threaten her tenure. In return, Katehi agreed not to file legal actions against UC.

Napolitano said that a search for Katehi’s successor would begin immediately and that Ralph Hexter would continue to serve as the acting chancellor. 

Katehi’s resignation marks the denouement of a high-profile — and highly unusual — public battle between a UC president and top administrator in the 10-campus system of 250,000 students. Although conflicts are not unusual, they usually are handled quietly. In 2005, when UC President Robert Dynes opened a conflict-of-interest investigation into Provost M.R.C. Greenwood, for instance, she quickly resigned.

“There are plenty of cases where the system head and the campus leader come to blows, but the norm is that someone offers a settlement … with a nondisparagement clause and everyone smiles and agrees to move on,” said Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, a national online news and career site.

Not so with the Katehi case. For the last three months, proxies for Katehi and Napolitano traded charges over such matters as whether Katehi was failing to cooperate with UC, lying about her campus dealings or speaking out when she had promised to stay mum. The chancellor’s decision to hire an attorney and media consultant to make her case in public startled longtime UC watchers. 

“To hire PR people and legal guns to publicly criticize your boss — it’s unbelievable,” said one UC administrator, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case. “Bridges are being burned everywhere.” 

Guzman said such steps were necessary to combat what she called “inaccuracies and incomplete information” disseminated by Napolitano’s office. Guzman said, for instance, that Katehi properly filed notifications to UC that her son, Erik Tseregounis, had been hired in 2014 to do graduate research and had become engaged to a UC Davis administrator, Emily Prieto, in 2015. (The report noted, however, that Katehi filed the notification about her son six months late and failed to file one when his research center was moved under Prieto’s oversight.) 

The resignation ends the UC ascent of a woman known as a brilliant electrical and computer engineering scholar and credited with raising $1 billion for student scholarships and other campus needs, boosting diversity and energizing faculty with big research ideas. The Greek immigrant, who holds several patents in electronic circuit design, pushed Davis to admit the largest number of California students on any UC campus. This year, Forbes magazine named Davis the best campus for women in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But critics said Katehi, 62, stumbled too many times. An independent report blamed her for failing to prevent campus police from pepper-spraying students. News of the Internet scrubbing and her additional moonlighting jobs led several legislators and the UC Student Assn. to call for her resignation.

Others, including Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) and Assemblywoman Catharine Baker (R-San Ramon), said Tuesday that the resignation would give UC Davis a fresh start.

The road to Katehi’s downfall began in March, when the Sacramento Bee reported that the chancellor had taken paid board seats with DeVry and also had received $420,000 over three years for service with textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons. 

Katehi had failed to obtain Napolitano’s permission for the DeVry seat, but the UC president initially stood by her. Katehi was hardly the only senior manager to moonlight. In 2014, 49 of UC’s 180 senior managers reported income from outside activities, totaling a combined $1.77 million.

But Katehi’s problems grew when the Bee reported on the efforts to bury Internet stories on the pepper-spraying. Then Napolitano’s office found documents indicating that the chancellor had misled the president in asserting she had no role in the social media contracts, UC spokeswoman Klein said.

Napolitano summoned Katehi to an April 25 meeting and asked for her resignation. Guzman said she gave Katehi two choices: resign completely from Davis or, if she exercised her rights to stay on as a faculty member, she’d face an investigation of her family members.

Klein called that account “absolutely false.” Napolitano offered to help Katehi transition to a faculty position, and “Katehi agreed to keep matters confidential so that a graceful exit could be arranged,” Klein said. 

But Katehi refused to step down. On April 27, she sent an email to the UC Davis Council of Deans and Vice Chancellors saying she was “100% committed” to continuing as chancellor. The email  was quickly forwarded to all faculty members.

That infuriated Napolitano, who later that day informed Katehi that she was placing her on paid administrative leave and appointing an independent investigator.

Andre Knoesen, chair of the UC Davis Academic Senate, on Tuesday hailed Katehi's “energetic advocacy” for public education and UC Davis. But he said the tensions with Napolitano “have had a negative effect on the Davis campus and make it impossible for Linda Katehi to be effective as a chancellor.” 

Others in academia hailed Napolitano for acting decisively against a chancellor who repeatedly brought negative attention to UC — especially at a time of delicate negotiations for more funding with Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature.

“Janet Napolitano is a serious administrator who sees Katehi’s actions as character flaws that harm the university and they have to stop," said William G. Tierney, an education professor and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC. “She is very clear about how she sees the world. The appearance of impropriety is almost as big of a problem as an actual impropriety.” 

“You don't want to wake up and find out that one of your campus leaders is in the news for alleged wrongdoings,” Tierney added. “At a time when UC is really having major financial issues and the Legislature and governor are asking for reforms, this gets in the way.”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

Times intern Sophia Bollag contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

10:54 p.m.: This article has been updated with more information about the 102-page report and other details about Linda Katehi’s tenure. 

8:45 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details.

5:30 p.m.: This article has been updated with a statement from UC President Janet Napolitano and terms of the settlement. 

1:25 p.m.: This article has been updated to remove outdated information.

This article was originally published at 12:55 p.m.

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