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UC Davis chancellor's troubles raise a question: How could such a brilliant woman stumble so badly?

UC Davis chancellor's troubles raise a question: How could such a brilliant woman stumble so badly?
Chancellor Linda Katehi, left, at an Occupy UC Davis encampment on the campus in 2011, days after a controversial pepper-spraying incident by campus police. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

She was one of roughly 300 people who were considered to become chancellor of UC Davis. But in one powerful interview, Linda Katehi shot to the top of the list — at least for Linda Bisson, a three-decade Davis professor who headed the faculty search subcommittee in 2009.

She was brilliant, accomplished and poised, Bisson recalled. Katehi, 62, is a renowned scholar in electrical and computer engineering with vast administrative experience who holds several patents in electric circuit design. Most of all, Bisson said, Katehi had done her homework, demonstrating a deep knowledge of Davis and offering a vision to solve real-world problems rather than simply engage in esoteric academic research.

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And Katehi has delivered, raising $1 billion for student scholarships and other campus needs, exciting the faculty with big research ideas and money to fund them, bringing more diversity to campus and hiring top talent to propel Davis to even greater heights.

"What set her apart was that she already had made an emotional connection to Davis," said Bisson, a professor of enology. "And she's lived up to my expectations, which were pretty high."

A former UC Davis police officer who gained global notoriety for pepper-spraying campus protesters two years ago will receive more than $38,000 in workers' compensation, claiming he suffered depression and anxiety. October 24, 2013

Suddenly, however, Katehi was gone — abruptly placed on administrative leave late Wednesday by UC President Janet Napolitano.

Napolitano ordered an outside investigation into "serious questions" over Katehi's involvement in jobs for family members, possible misuse of student funds and "material misstatements" about her role in the hiring of social media firms to bury negative publicity about a campus police pepper-spraying of peaceful student protesters in 2011. If proven, Napolitano said, the actions may violate university policies on conflicts-of-interest, ethical conduct and use of student fees.

Katehi's attorney has called the allegations "entirely unjustified," while the chancellor told faculty members on Wednesday morning that she was "100% committed" to staying at Davis.

On Thursday, the campus was abuzz with a central, perplexing question: How could such a brilliant woman stumble so badly with a string of such questionable decisions?

The latest issues raised follow weeks of controversy over Katehi's decision to take two paid board positions — one with a textbook publisher, the other with a for-profit firm, DeVry Education Group, which is being investigated by state and local authorities for allegedly deceiving students over job and income prospects.

Katehi failed to receive Napolitano's approval for that job, as is required under UC policy, resigned without receiving the $70,000 annual compensation and apologized.

Her mixed record of accomplishments and missteps have sharply divided the campus, with some calling for her resignation and others stoutly defending her despite Napolitano's actions.

Dozens of students debated the chancellor's fate as they walked their bicycles, laid out their laptops and ate lunch in the broad, tree-lined green quad.

Brandi Lohr, a 33-year-old senior from Chicago, said she admired Katehi's background as a woman who overcame obstacles to become an engineer and then consistently advocated for women and people of color in the sciences. Davis was named this year as the nation's best campus for women in STEM fields by Forbes magazine.

"I think it's sad that someone who came here with a great start tarnished her reputation so badly," Lohr said. "Especially as a college student, you want to believe that your leaders have your best interests at heart and are not just looking out for themselves."

Emily Smith, a 22-year-old senior from the Central Valley, said the perspectives of protesters were overblown.

"I think it's easy to pin a lot of stuff on her," Smith said. "I definitely don't think she's a terrible person."

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Jasdeep Singh, a 29-year-old senior from Fresno, was one of the students who spent a month protesting outside Katehi's office. He was disappointed that when he arrived on campus many students weren't aware of the 2011 pepper-spray incident and it took the more recent issues to galvanize opposition against her.

"I was already coming in with the perspective that she was not an ally for the students," Singh said. "The feeling of disapproval was always there."

The UC Student Assn. has called for Katehi's resignation, expressing outrage over reports of lucrative moonlighting while students financially struggled and her efforts to cleanse the Internet of references to the pepper-spraying incident. But UC Davis student association President Alex Lee said students also appreciated her.

Among other things, Katehi's billion-dollar fundraising campaign provided $162.5 million for student support, including nearly 1,500 scholarships, fellowships and awards. She has launched new efforts to help African American, Latino, Native American and undocumented students academically succeed and graduate.

Davis also has led the 10-campus UC system in admitting California students — a touchy issue as criticism has mounted that UC has given preferential treatment to applicants from outside the state because they pay higher tuition.

In addition, Lee said, Katehi hired a new campus police chief following the pepper-spraying incident who has worked well with students.

"Students are divided over what they think should happen to the chancellor," he said. "They do understand that she's done a lot of great things and she's a rare breed: she's repentant. But the pepper-spraying incident left a deep scar on the campus."

Katehi has also drawn mixed reviews from faculty, with some calling for her resignation. As rumors swirled Wednesday that Napolitano had asked Katehi to resign, more than 400 faculty members signed a petition opposing the UC president's intervening without consulting the campus Academic Senate and other administrators.

Some faculty members also wrote to Napolitano earlier this week protesting that Katehi was being singled out for criticism because she is a woman. UC encourages chancellors to join boards, while her reforms with campus police after the pepper-spray incident have won praise, her supporters noted.

Suad Joseph, a professor of anthropology and gender, sexuality and gender studies, said she continued to back Katehi. She called on an external task force to review the treatment of all top UC administrators to address concerns of a systemwide bias against women.

Bisson, however, said the latest issues raised by Napolitano needed to be thoroughly examined. Among other things, Napolitano said that Katehi's daughter-in-law had received promotions and $50,000 in raises over 21/2 years while being supervised by one of the chancellor's staff members; the daughter-in-law was also made supervisor over an academic program that had hired Katehi's son for graduate research.

Katehi's son, Erik Tseregounis, earned $23,500 as a graduate student researcher while her daughter-in-law, Emily Prieto-Tseregounis, earned $114,939 last year, according to UC data. Tseregounis is a second-year graduate student in epidemiology who works at the campus Center for Transnational Health, according to his website profile. His wife, Prieto-Tseregounis, is chief of staff for Adela de la Torre, vice chancellor of student affairs. Napolitano said it did not appear that appropriate steps were taken to address or approve Katehi's son working for her daughter-in-law, who was supervised by one of her direct reports.

Asked if she remained pro-Katehi, Bisson said she would withhold judgment until the investigation was completed.

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"I'm pro-facts. I'm pro-transparency," she said. "Then we go forward."

Watanabe reported from Los Angeles, Dillon from Davis. Staff writer Jason Song contributed to this report.

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

Twitter: @dillonliam

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