Why U. of Illinois Scandal Muddied UC Davis Chancellor

Update: August 9, 2016, Chancellor Katehi resigned today after the investigation report was released. Its findings cited issues with her judgment, lack of candor with university leaders and violations of university policies.

Update: April 28, 2016, Chancellor Katehi suspended for 90 days pending an investigation into whether she used public money to fund a social media campaign to reduce the prominence of the 2011 Pepper Spraying in search engines, nepotism in jobs for her son and daughter-in-law, and conflict of interest in taking a board seat. See also, Week in Ethics: UC Davis Leaders Fail to Give Voice to Values,” 4/19/2012  

Scandal travels like a tsunami; it deposited Linda Katehi’s reputation in California, doused with mud, weeks before she moved there to assume the role of chancellor at University of California Davis (UCD). A high achiever, Katehi had solid administrative credentials, was well regarded as an electrical and computer engineer, had chaired a U. S. President’s Committee on the National Medal in Science, and had earned 16 U.S. patents and many awards.

This is a cautionary tale of how being vindicated doesn’t necessarily erase the stain of having one’s ethical leadership challenged.

In late May 2009, as she was leaving her provost role at the University of Illinois, the Chicago Tribune uncovered a scandal involving preferential admissions practices favoring well connected, less qualified students at that school. Katehi had had responsibility for U of I’s admissions. From then, until after she started her new job at UCD in mid-August, she encountered ongoing negative media attention and the enmity of a California state senator already unhappy with the UC system over salary increases, budget cuts, and transparency issues. Sen. Leland Yee called on UCD President Mark Yudof to conduct an investigation and stop Katehi’s appointment.

Katehi unequivocally denied knowledge of or involvement in the preferential admissions program called Category 1. Media covering the story posed a question not well answered by Katehi about how the scandal could erupt in her department without her knowledge. A few weeks later the Tribune’s ongoing investigation revealed that Katehi had been copied on 14 emails dealing with the preferential admission program; California media, in particular, called out credibility issues. She had forwarded to her vice provost a status inquiry from a politician’s campaign manager about a wait-listed heiress; the student was later accepted. Katehi reasserted she had done nothing inappropriate.

In an interview with the Davis Enterprise, she called her ethics impeccable; proven every place she has worked. She added, “What is happening at Illinois is not important to UC Davis. In fact, it’s not important to me anymore. It is important to Illinois and the University of Illinois has to deal with those things.” Her response seemed arrogant and dismissive; she missed a chance to reinforce that integrity, fairness and transparency matter at every university, no matter how superior their systems.

When the San Francisco Chronicle asked why she’d been unaware of unethical admissions procedures happening around her, she replied she’d been kept in the dark: “I was not informed.” Her reply didn’t own responsibility for knowing what is going on around her. She mishandled this; she came away sounding evasive, at best; clueless, at worst. She could have turned this into an opportunity to affirm how she’ll ensure that the high standards she sets for herself and what UCD stands for will be reinforced in the culture.

Through her crucible, however, Katehi had the unwavering support of the UC Davis president. Meanwhile, a member of the state commission investigating the Illinois scandal indicated Katehi “escaped any in-depth look by us because we made a decision early on that she wasn’t a key player.” The commisioner continued, she “very well could have played no role.” So she was not implicated in the commission’s report.

It will take awhile before her Wikipedia bio and the dozens of media stories linking her to the scandal fade away. Last month, finally, stories about her role as the new chancellor appeared without references to the Illinois Admissions scandal.

But herein lies a lesson in how to handle better reputation crucibles; here are five suggestions:

1. No matter how strong you believe your ethics to be, a breakdown has occurred somewhere; defensive and/or arrogant responses get in the way of being heard;

2. Think through how to explain what occurred as accurately and concisely as possible to avoid creating the perception of credibility gaps;

3. Don’t hide behind “no comment” or intermediaries or distance yourself from issues that people logically expect you to address;

4. By answering tough questions and the issues behind them, leaders have a chance to build/rebuild credibility – if not with reporters, with the readers/viewers;

5. If ethical behavior is the standard the leader not only models but holds others to, it follows that there will be fewer ethical breakdowns, and reputations won’t be under fire.

And tsunamis of scandal won’t leave you covered with mud.

Gael O’Brien   https://theweekinethics.wordpress.com

http://strategicopportunitiesgroup.com

October 6, 2009

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9 Comments on “Why U. of Illinois Scandal Muddied UC Davis Chancellor”

  1. Spyros Tseregounis Says:

    Dear Mr. O’Brien:
    I would like to point out some errors and discrepancies in your article entitled “Why U. of Illinois Scandal Muddied UC Davis Chancellor” that do not cover the whole story and do not serve the actual events that were behind the admissions scandal at the University of Illinois.
    – “…how being vindicated doesn’t necessarily erase the stain of having one’s ethical leadership challenged…”
    This may be the case when someone makes a decision based on reasons (usually political) that is not related to the issue of relevance (admissions in this case). The report by the Illinois Governor’s commission clearly vindicated Dr. Katehi. Of course no stain can be erased, since there is no stain in the first place.
    – “…Category 1…”
    The special admissions, which were not part of the regular admissions, were known as Category I not 1.
    – “Katehi had had responsibility for U of I’s admissions.” and “not well answered by Katehi about how the scandal could erupt in her department without her knowledge”
    The provost’s office was responsible for the regular process of the University admissions. Category I was not part of the regular process. (It is at least curious that some people have trouble accepting this simple fact). For the Category I applicants, the regular admissions process was bypassed; these admissions were handled directly by the Chancellor’s office with the assistance of a few University administrators without the Provost’s knowledge. There was nothing unethical about the regular admissions process at the University of Illinois. Dr. Katehi’s response clearly addressed this point and therefore it was well answered.
    – “…Katehi had been copied on 14 emails dealing with the preferential admission program…”
    The Tribune reporters had subpoenaed thousands of e-mails that appeared to be related to preferential admissions. Most of these e-mails were not related to preferential admissions or to Category I. The 14 e-mails where Dr. Katehi’s name appeared were part of the regular admission process and not related to any preferential treatment of the candidate students.
    – “…She had forwarded to her vice provost a status inquiry from a politician’s campaign manager about a wait-listed heiress; the student was later accepted. Katehi reasserted she had done nothing inappropriate…”
    During the admission process, inquires about students’ admissions status are received. As a courtesy to the student and her/his family, university officials do disclose information about a student’s admission status when such disclosure will not violate the admission process. The Provost responded to such an inquiry made to her by an acquaintance on behalf of the student’s family. The student in question was admitted through the regular process based on her own qualifications (the waiting list is part of the regular admissions process). No preferential treatment was ever requested or received on behalf of this student.
    – “In an interview with the Davis Enterprise, she called her ethics impeccable; proven every place she has worked. She added, “What is happening at Illinois is not important to UC Davis. In fact, it’s not important to me anymore. It is important to Illinois and the University of Illinois has to deal with those things.” Her response seemed arrogant and dismissive; she missed a chance to reinforce that integrity, fairness and transparency matter at every university, no matter how superior their systems.”
    This paragraph completely misses the point of her interview and tries to paint a picture of Dr. Katehi as arrogant and elitist. Her answer was neither arrogant nor dismissive but the only correct and appropriate response to the issue raised by the reporter. Indeed, the admission issues at Illinois are an internal issue of the State and the University and of no importance to UC or UCD. And, since the commission’s report cleared her of any wrong doing and she is not an Illinois employee, the issue was not important to her anymore (of course on a professional basis). As for the missed chance, a simple research of Dr. Katehi’s lectures, speeches, publications, and record will convince even the most critical skeptic (of course assuming that he/she is unbiased) that in her whole career she has strived for integrity, fairness, and transparency in any place that she worked or studied.
    – The five suggestions at the end of the article.
    These are fine suggestions, but unfortunately they lose their meaning listed in this article since the author tries to imply that Dr. Katehi has mishandled and violated those principles. The justification is based on using obscure and inaccurate reasoning and by cherry-picking her comments. In reality:
    1. There was no breakdown anywhere in the ethical contact of Dr. Katehi’s tenure at Illinois; and of course there were no arrogant or defensive responses except in the mind of the author.
    2. Dr. Katehi was not involved in the specific process and did not know of any of the details. Therefore it was not possible to just by “thinking through” explain accurately what has occurred.
    3. No mention is given in the article when and where Dr. Katehi tried to hide behind a “no comment”. The only time that Dr. Katehi was unavailable for comment was when she was travelling to Europe and impossible to reach due to time differences. Any other time she was more than willing to respond to inquiries for interviews and questionings.
    4. During her professional life, Dr. Katehi has been answering questions (sometimes tougher than those related to the Illinois admissions issues) and she has built a reputation as an academic leader, researcher and educator that it is beyond questioning. And, there is nothing to rebuild, since there was no “tearing down” of her reputation as a transparent and ethical leader.
    5. The article fails to demonstrate any ethical breakdowns of Dr. Katehi’s leadership. The reasons for questioning her reputation were not related to her ethical contact or her involvement with inappropriate admissions practices, but rather to the charged political climate at UC related to the dwindling state support, employee furloughs and layoffs and increasing student fees.
    Sincerely,
    Spyros Tseregounis
    Associate for the Chancellor
    University of California, Davis

  2. J E Garrett Says:

    So this woman’s defense is that she shouldn’t be held accountable, because she’s stupid?

  3. Gloria-Jeanne Davis, Ph.D. Says:

    I certainly appreciate the defense offered by Dr. Tseregounis but unfortunately the attitude of many readers will be “don’t bore me with the details”. Did this happen on Dr. Katehi’s watch? If it did, she should have known about it. Do not let the sage advice of Gael O’Brien go unheeded. That advice can start rebuilding the bridge of credibility.

  4. Mary Says:

    Very good piece in your Week in Ethics this week,regarding Ms. Katehi! Your five suggestions for reputation were right on, but I think the real problem is that these high officials do not want to take “responsibility” for their actions or inactions which you touched on nicely. What makes them think they are above all that?!?

  5. eshos@hotmail.com Says:

    There are e-mails where Katehi wrote that the university must bring on this student (who was originally rejected for lack of merit in her application for admission) based on the recommendation of a political operative. This is a public record obtained via FOIA. Then her husband defends her here, without revealing his conflict of interest, only describing himself as her “associate.” So we have a lack of transparency to go with her track record of patronage in school admissions. To complete the trifecta, we have nepotism, as I see her husband got a job at UC Davis, soon after she was hired, just like he did at U of I. All on the dime of public university families going into deep debt to pay rising tuition. And to top it off this so-called ethicist sits here, absolving her without doing original research and telling us that her gravest sins were in failing to spin it all properly. Is this a crisis PR website or an ethics discussion? Because if it is the former, then perhaps you can advise Katehi again today … the best advice in that case is, “If you don’t want to see it on CNN, then don’t roll the tanks into the square and over the protesters, general.”

  6. Linda Amick Says:

    Is there any institution left in the USA that is not corrupt? Crony Capitalism rules the day.
    Disgusting.


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