Scandal at UC Davis points to larger issues

As former Undergraduate Student Government President Rini Sampath penned in a recent Facebook post, “University administrators, whose primary concern should be their work with student scholars, have shifted their priorities to running a multi-billion dollar business.” Last Wednesday, the Sacramento Bee brought to light a stark reminder of that progression — UC Davis’ costly efforts to clean up its image by sweeping its 2011 pepper-spray incident under the cyber rug.

The newly released documents that the Sac Bee obtained through the California Public Records Act show that UC Davis has poured at least $175,000 into channeling certain aspects of its past out of reach — in particular, the documentation of police pepper-spraying students point-blank during an otherwise peaceful protest on Nov. 18, 2011. UC Davis’ very own chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, had sent for those forces.

Among those companies UC Davis contracted to scrub its online tracks was Nevins & Associates, hired to advise in the “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and Chancellor,” according to a copy of the contract.

To put it plainly, this is an instance of a publicly funded institution extracting money from California residents and its own students to fund an effort to keep those same individuals from accessing stories on negative campus incidents. There’s something wrong with this picture.

And yet, the administrators at UC Davis still don’t see it.

In a statement released Monday, Katehi justified the hiring of firms that specialized in “search engine optimization” as a way to paint a more complete picture of the campus for potential donors.

“None of our communications efforts were intended — or attempted — to erase online content or rewrite history,” Katehi said. “At UC Davis, we live with the lessons of 2011 every day.”

The history of disconnect between her words and her actions is outrageous. The fact that Katehi hadn’t been ousted in 2011 shows that this isn’t a case of one bad apple. It points to an ugly truth: that the upper ranks have been turning a blind eye to not only her missteps for years, but also the many students and faculty who have voiced their concerns vehemently to no avail.

Immediately after the 2011 incident, Nathan Brown, an assistant English professor at the school, wrote in an open letter to Katehi, “I call for your resignation because you are unfit to do your job. You are unfit to ensure the safety of students at UC Davis. In fact: you are the primary threat to the safety of students at UC Davis.”

Yet, despite the vocal concerns of Brown and many others, Katehi was able to stay on, only to make more missteps. Since 2011, she has moonlighted on various boards, including that of DeVry Education Group, a for-profit college currently being sued by the Federal Trade Commission — positions that were blatant conflicts of interest for a leader of a public university. It’s clear that even if Katehi keeps her job, she won’t be able to resolve the confidence she’s lost with the student body.

While it’s reached this point, however, according to the Sac Bee, UC President Janet Napolitano still maintains that though Katehi has made mistakes, she is still a good chancellor who should remain at UC Davis.

As UC Davis third-year physics department graduate student Connor Gorman told campus newspaper The Aggie, “There’s also the larger structural problem associated with universities […] being moved more toward a corporate model that prioritizes profit […] over students.” Blogger Scott Shackford also captured the issue well by framing it as “another example of colleges no longer fulfilling their roles as defenders of speech and openness, combined with abusive police behavior, with an added dash of the administrative bloat that’s driving up higher education costs.”

With tuition hikes even here at USC, it’s clear that those fears and anxieties are real and present beyond UC Davis. The memorandum that Provost Michael Quick sent out Tuesday could be a step toward transparency, but students and faculty still need to maintain vigilance and voice.

UC Davis has demonstrated this need well. For more than a month, since March 11, students camped out on the fifth floor of Mrak Hall to pressure Katehi into resigning. On April 15, the UC Student Association voted in favor of her resignation. The Sac Bee has taken definitive strides to hold culpable parties accountable. All these efforts go to show that though the system has failed to listen to the cries of concern sounding over the span of five years, the press, the faculty and, above all, the students will not stand still and tolerate its shortcomings.

Valerie Yu is a senior majoring in English literature and biological sciences. She is also the blogs editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Heart of the Matter,” runs  every other Thursday.