Calls for UC Davis chancellor’s ouster grow amid Internet scrubbing controversy
The University of California’s student association late Friday called on UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi to resign amid revelations that the university paid to remove Internet references to a 2011 incident in which police pepper-sprayed students.
The group is the latest to join a growing call for Katehi to step down.
It was disclosed that UC Davis paid at least $175,000 to clean up its online reputation.
Newly released documents obtained by the Sacramento Bee show the university was determined to improve both its image and that of Katehi.
In one case, UC Davis worked with Maryland company Nevins & Associates on a six-month contract that paid $15,000 monthly, according to a copy of the document. The deal was signed in January 2013, just a few months after University of California regents agreed to pay a settlement to 21 UC Davis students and alumni who sued the university.
Nevins & Associates said it would work to remedy the “venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the chancellor” through “strategic placement of online content.”
That included an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to dilute negative search results with positive stories.
In June 2014, the university awarded an $82,500 contract to the public relations firm Idmloco to design a “comprehensive search engine results management strategy.” The documents outlining the contracts were released to the Sacramento Bee in response to requests filed under the California Public Records Act.
Idmloco vowed to achieve a “reasonable balance of positive natural search results” and identify “key messages and themes” that would be useful.
The company was awarded two more contracts last year — one for $8,000 a month up to a limit of $96,000 and another for $22,500 a month, or a maximum of $67,500.
Under those contracts, Idmloco was to assess and revamp the university’s social media messaging.
In a statement Thursday, UC Davis officials defended the efforts as an important part of an overall communications strategy.
“It is important that the excellent work underway at UC Davis with respect to educating the next generation of students, pursuing groundbreaking research, and providing important services to the state is not lost during a campus crisis, including the crisis that ensued following the extremely regrettable incident when police pepper-sprayed student protesters in 2011,” the statement said.
Police at first contended that pepper spray was the most appropriate tool on hand to deal with what they described as an unruly mob encircling the officers. At the time, the Occupy Wall Street movement had spilled onto college campuses, combining with student anger over rising tuition and cuts to higher education to spur protests and sit-ins.
However, a UC report in April 2012 declared that the pepper spraying violated policy and that school leaders bungled how it handled the protest. The report from a task force appointed by Katehi and then-UC President Mark Yudof strongly rebutted campus police claims that the Occupy demonstrators who had pitched tents on a UC Davis quad posed a violent threat.
In 2013, John Pike, the former UC Davis police officer who pepper sprayed the campus protesters, received $38,055 in workers’ compensation after claiming he suffered depression and anxiety as result of the public outcry.
Pike, who had filed for the compensation from the University of California system, also cited stress from death threats he received after the incident. Pike was fired in July 2012 after being on paid administrative leave for eight months.
Attempts by UC Davis officials to control negative Internet memes are not surprising because of the sheer volume of people who surf the Web, said Ira Kalb, an expert in branding, image creation and marketing at USC. Managing these reputations and protecting them from being “hijacked” is a growing field, he said.
Software enables firms to pick up feeds from social media and analyze whether mentions are positive or negative.
“It’s very important to manage a reputation, and people often don’t realize that,” Kalb said. “So many companies have been seriously damaged for not having a strategy for handling this.”
The UC Davis revelations come as Katehi has drawn increasing criticism — and calls for her resignation — for other actions such as accepting paid outside board positions, including serving on the board of John Wiley & Sons, a college textbook publisher, from 2012 to 2014.
On Thursday, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) said Katehi should resign.
“The chancellor serving on the board of a textbook company was sufficient enough grounds to suspect that the best interests of the students weren’t being served,” Gatto said in a statement. “But the recent disclosure that the university made substantial, questionable PR expenditures cemented it in my mind.”
Emily Breuninger, a graduate student in sociology, said she wasn’t surprised the university spent money to polish its reputation.
“I’ve been disappointed with this administration since I got here,” said Breuninger, one of dozens of protesters conducting a sit-in outside Katehi’s office. “The university keeps repeating how much they value free speech and public discourse but they are actively trying to stamp out the public’s ability to know what’s going on.”
Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.
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