UC Davis chancellor placed on leave over ‘series of missteps’

The University of California announced Wednesday that it has placed the chancellor of its Davis campus on leave amid an uproar over her service on corporate boards and the school’s hiring of consultants to improve the school’s image online, following the 2011 incident when campus police pepper-sprayed protesters.

UC President Janet Napolitano plans to appoint an independent investigator to determine whether Chancellor Linda Katehi violated any university policies with her actions, Napolitano’s office said in a statement.

Napolitano removed Katehi from her post, which she has held for nearly seven years. The campus provost, Ralph Hexter, will fill the chancellor’s shoes on an acting basis, the statement said.

“I am deeply disappointed to take this action,” Napolitano said in the statement. “But Davis is a strong campus, nationally and internationally renowned in many academic disciplines. I’m confident of the campus’s continued ability to thrive and serve California students and the Davis community.”

Katehi, 62, came under fire early in her tenure at Davis when campus police used pepper spray on seated protesters during a November 2011 Occupy movement protest. The action received global attention because of widely circulated videos and photos of the cringing demonstrators getting sprayed.

The Davis Faculty Association called for Katehi’s resignation for ordering police to dismantle the protesters’ tent city. An independent investigation later criticized her for demonstrating ineffective leadership leading up to and during the incident, which sparked a series of campus reforms.

Even though she waded through the rough waters of that crisis, Katehi came under fire last month when the Sacramento Bee reported that she had accepted a seat on the board of a for-profit college company the federal government is suing and previously earned hundreds of thousands of dollars as a textbook publisher.

The Bee then reported the campus had spent at least $175,000 for image consultants to scrub internet search results of the pepper spray incident to boost the university’s image.

Other companies were also paid to help improve UC Davis’ online image, using a strategic communications budget that almost doubled in the six years after Katehi became chancellor in 2009.

The UC Student Association called for her resignation two weeks ago. The group that represents 240,000 University of California students echoed the calls already made by seven state lawmakers and student protesters.

“The UC must do better by its students. Katehi collected a $425K salary while students on her campus skipped meals, lived in their cars, and sat on the floor in their classrooms,” president of the UC Student Association Kevin Sabo said in a statement. “The UC has plenty of challenges – nefarious Chancellors should not be one of them. We applaud President Napolitano’s decisive action and commend her for standing with students”

In a statement last week, Katehi apologized for “a series of highly publicized missteps” that she acknowledged had overshadowed the university’s accomplishments and “been a setback to our reputation and hard-earned prestige.”

She disputed, however, the idea that her administration had tried to bury the pepper-spray incident by working with the search optimization firms and investing more than $2.6 million on advertising and campus outreach.

“Because of the importance of philanthropy to UC Davis and the need to make sure those searching for information about the university get a complete picture, we needed to do a better job telling the world about the university’s extraordinary achievements,” she said. “So we did what any organization in a similar situation would do? We sought to strengthen our communications capabilities.”

UC Davis enrolls about 27,000 undergraduates and 4,600 graduate students at a campus 18 miles from Sacramento.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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