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California

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla: Blunt-spoken visionary or belittling bully?

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Chancellor of UC San Diego Pradeep K. Khosla has come under scrutiny by the UC Office of the President investigating whether he has bullied employees.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

He’s overseen $2.5 billion in construction of new buildings in the past five years. An additional $4 billion or so are in the works. Private donations are at an all-time high. So is enrollment, which hit nearly 39,000 last fall.

“Pradeep Khosla is the best chancellor UC San Diego has ever had,” said Rajesh Gupta, one of the school’s computer scientists. “The. Best.”

Many agree. But midway through his seventh year in office, questions are being raised about Khosla’s management style.

Nine current and former employees told the San Diego Union-Tribune that a University of California Office of the President (UCOP) investigator asked them in recent months whether Khosla or senior staff had exhibited bullying behavior toward campus employees.

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Seven of those told the investigator that Khosla can be insulting, demeaning, rude or threatening.

The group included three former campus administrators who went on the record in December, characterizing Khosla as a bully in a story published by the Union-Tribune.

UC San Diego said that it is cooperating with UCOP in the investigation that was highlighted in that story. UCOP would not discuss the matter, which appears to have started with a whistleblower report. Nor would Khosla, who has been UC San Diego’s chancellor since 2012, when he arrived from Carnegie Mellon University, where he was dean of engineering.

Since the story appeared, another former administrator has gone on the record, telling the Union-Tribune that he contacted UCOP in 2014 to report alleged bullying behavior by Khosla.

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Thomas Leet, a former assistant vice chancellor for human resources, told the paper that he was acting on behalf of 11 UC San Diego employees when he made the complaint.

UCOP declined to discuss Leet’s claim. Nor would UC San Diego, saying it was not aware of a 2014 investigation. A spokesman for the university said Khosla would not be made available for an interview.

Many of the school’s faculty have rushed to Khosla’s defense, saying that he’s an outstanding chancellor who treats people well. His backers include eight faculty who jointly met with the Union-Tribune to talk about Khosla’s accomplishments.

The Union-Tribune communicated with more than 50 current and former faculty, staff and administrators, from all areas of the university, and received starkly differing viewpoints.

His supporters describe him as an affable, passionate, blunt-spoken visionary who has been skillfully guiding the campus through an extraordinary period of success and strain.

Enrollment has soared by almost 10,000 since Khosla became chancellor, a boom that’s making it hard to find enough classroom space. More classrooms are being built. But enrollment is expected to continue to swell.

Khosla also is seen as empathetic and generous. Elizabeth Villa, a young molecular biologist, says the chancellor took three hours of personal time to teach her how to better compete for the university’s lifeblood, research money.

But his detractors say that Khosla can be confrontational, insulting and demeaning. They claim he has a habit of combining insults and compliments, leaving people unsure about what he actually means.

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They describe him more like the brusque CEO of a private company than the chancellor of a large public university that prizes collegiality.

The topic of bullying has been addressed by UC President Janet Napolitano. In 2016, she sent a letter to system chancellors and executives that said, in part, that the UC “does not tolerate abusive conduct or bullying.”

The letter said abusive behavior “may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.”

UCOP told the Union-Tribune that whistleblower reports that include allegations against a chancellor are handled by a senior official in the Office of the President. “Disciplinary action warranted in a particular case depends on the careful consideration of often complex, nuanced circumstances and interests,” UCOP said.

The consequences could include the firing of a chancellor.

Some of Khosla’s detractors also say that the chancellor, who turns 62 in March, does not welcome dissent, putting people on edge.

“There is an atmosphere of fear on this campus,” said Andrew Scull, a sociology professor. “People are afraid to speak out either because voicing their views may bring retaliation on their department or unit.”

“There’s a sense that information flows down, not up, which is never healthy. We have a Chancellor who has isolated himself from the faculty, and created a toxic culture rather than a welcoming one.”

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Scull’s claim brought sharp disagreement from the eight UC San Diego professors who sat down with the Union-Tribune after learning that the paper was preparing a story on Khosla’s management style.

“I’ve talked back to [Khosla] 100 times,” Villa said. “He respects it. He laughs. He invites these kinds of situations.”

Atmospheric chemist Kim Prather said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard this quote: ‘If you want everyone to like you don’t become a leader. Go sell ice cream.’ [Khosla] is a leader.”

Khosla’s staff also pointed to the results of campus worker surveys, which show that employees generally give the school high marks on how they are treated as people and workers.

Leet says he began hearing complaints about Khosla in 2013, the year after he became chancellor. Employees turned to Leet because he was assistant vice chancellor of human resources. Dealing with such complaints was part of his job.

The complaints involved “bullying, intimidating, and threatening behavior that had reduced some staff members to tears and/or seeking psychological therapy,” Leet told the Union-Tribune.

“The persons who complained did not want their identities revealed to the Office of the President. They were highly skeptical [UCOP] would take appropriate action … and [they felt] they would be subjected to retaliation on campus given that they were certain they’d be identified due to the nature of their complaints.”

Leet says that in the summer of 2014 he contacted UCOP investigators and reported that at least 11 UC San Diego employees, including administrators, had allegedly been bullied by Khosla or members of his senior staff. Leet claims that he witnessed three of the incidents.

He also said that UCOP sent the system’s former auditor, Patrick Reed, to campus to investigate. Leet claims the system’s staff “acknowledged that there was a problem at San Diego, but [UC President Janet] Napolitano had bigger problems with chancellors at two other campuses.” He said he was never formally provided with the findings of the inquiry.

UCOP will not discuss Leet’s claims. Reed could not be reached for comment.

Leet further says that he was so troubled about the way Khosla talked to people that he privately told the chancellor in 2013, “I know a great executive coach who could assist you with strengthening your leadership skills.”

He said he doesn’t know whether Khosla followed up on his suggestion.

Leet retired from UC San Diego in December 2014. The university publicly praised his 24 years of service and said, “Tom has been an ardent supporter of diversity and civility.”

The bullying issue resurfaced in 2018 for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

A UCOP investigator began asking current and former UC San Diego employees about Khosla’s management style. Specifically, UCOP wanted to know whether the chancellor and some of his current and former senior staff had engaged in bullying, which can involve such acts as offensive language and insults, and making someone the victim of a prank.

The Union-Tribune has spoken with nine people who have been interviewed by the UCOP investigator, including former UC San Diego administrators Judy Lane, Kristina Larsen and Stephanie Barry.

Larsen is an attorney who represents the other two women.

She said, “The Chancellor and his staff insulted, berated, humiliated, and isolated my clients, among other things. One described feeling as if she were suffering from PTSD after leaving UCSD.”

The university described Barry as a “visionary” when she became its alumni affairs officer in early 2016. The campus fired her the following year for reasons it won’t discuss. Barry says the university told her it “wanted to go in a different direction.”

Leet said he reached out to the current UCOP investigator in December to discuss his concerns about Khosla after he read the Union-Tribune story.

Boone Hellman, UC San Diego’s former campus architect and associate vice chancellor for facilities design and construction, also spoke to the investigator.

“I repeatedly saw [Khosla] use this tactic of making a very cutting comment in a joking manner then close with a compliment,” said Hellman, who retired from the campus in in 2013.

“You were always left wondering which part of the comment he intended. I believe he used this to intimidate or hurt the other person, and that is a partial definition of bullying.”

Khosla’s style is open to interpretation.

“Pradeep is a doer,” said Robert Horwitz, president of UC San Diego’s Academic Senate. “To some, he could seem imperious, impatient. Others say, ‘Finally, someone who is getting things done.’”

UC San Diego officials also say they have been under pressure from the UC to rapidly expand the university to help the system cope with enrollment pressures.

The resulting boom has caused problems, especially last fall. Khosla’s team grossly under-estimated enrollment, which jumped by nearly 2,200. The school had to scramble to find housing for many students.

Some professors question whether Khosla is focusing on growth at the expense of everything else.

Elizabeth Simmons, the school’s executive vice chancellor, disagreed, saying that when Khosla first arrived he “launched a strategic planning process that drew input and inspiration from thousands of stakeholders on campus and in the community.

“The resulting Strategic Plan lays out ambitious intellectual goals patterned around interdisciplinary themes that intertwine the arts, humanities, social sciences, medicine, and the natural sciences and engineering.”

Margaret Leinen, director of the university’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, agreed with Simmons, saying, “The reality is that the university is being managed very well by the Chancellor. A very small minority disagrees.”

gary.robbins@sduniontribune.com


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