UC Davis chancellor placed on leave over “missteps”

FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2011 file photo, University of California, Davis, Chancellor Linda Katehi, told lawmakers that she never ordered campus police to use force or pepper spray on students last month, while testifying at a legislative hearing at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Katehi has been placed on leave amid an uproar stemming in part from the school's hiring of consultants to improve its image, following a widely criticized protest pepper spraying incident by police. UC President Janet Napolitano's office announced Wednesday, April 27, 2016, that she is appointing an outside investigator to determine whether the actions of Chancellor Katehi have violated university policies. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The chancellor of the University of California’s Davis campus was put on indefinite leave Wednesday amid an uproar over her service on corporate boards and the school’s hiring of consultants to improve its image online, following the widely criticized pepper spraying of protesters by campus police, the university’s president announced.

UC President Janet Napolitano plans to appoint an independent investigator to examine the “serious and troubling” questions raised by the actions of Chancellor Linda Katehi and to determine if they violated any university policies, Napolitano’s office announced in a statement.

In the meantime, Napolitano has removed Katehi from the post she has held for nearly seven years until the inquiry is completed. The campus provost, Ralph Hexter, will fill the chancellor’s shoes on an acting basis.

“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.”

Along with probing whether Katehi has been truthful in downplaying her role in the hiring of the online image consultants and the source of the funds used to pay them, the investigation will look into the hiring and compensation of three of her relatives, the statement said. Katehi’s husband, son and daughter-in-law all work at UC Davis, according to The Sacramento Bee.

Napolitano’s announcement ended two days of tense speculation at the Davis campus over Katehi’s status.

A petition to Napolitano circulated among faculty members and signed by more than 300 professors earlier Wednesday stated they believed Napolitano had asked Katehi to resign and voiced objection to “this peremptory action carried out without any consultation.”

Katehi added to the intrigue with a midday email to her deans and vice-chancellors in which she said she was “100 percent committed” to staying on as chancellor.

“I very much look forward to continuing to lead the campus to greater levels of success and excellence in the future,” she wrote.

Katehi, 62, an electrical engineer who has advocated for women in the sciences, came under fire early in her tenure at Davis when campus police officers used pepper spray on seated demonstrators 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.

Although Katehi weathered the crisis, calls for her resignation resurfaced after The Sacramento Bee reported in March 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 director for a textbook publisher.

Student protesters upset by what they perceived as a conflict of interest spent five weeks camped outside her office, staying there even after Katehi said she would donate some of the proceeds from her service on the board of textbook company John Wiley & Sons to a scholarship fund.

Pressure for her to quit continued to mount when The Bee reported the campus had spent at least $175,000 on Internet search optimization consultants who promised to diminish online references to the pepper-spray incident so the public would get a more favorable image of Davis.

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.

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