The #UCDavis Chancellor’s Board Positions and the Need for a More Public, Open and Early Disclosure System

So, I assume by now many people out there have heard about the controversy going on at UC Davis over the board positions taken by the UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi.  If you have not – here is a brief summary.

  • In late February, Chancellor Katehi accepted a board position at the for profit educational company Devry but then steeped down after complaints.  See for example this story by Diana Lambert in the SacBee for details.  Note – she has admitted that her accepting of this position prior to getting approval from the UC President was a violation of UC policy.
  • Chancellor Katehi received $420,000 in compensation for serving on the board of John Wiley and Son’s from 2012-2014.  See this SacBee story by Diana Lambert and Dale Kasler for more detail.  In relation to this report, Chancellor Katehi has apologized and has said she will donate “all the stock proceeds” she made from Wiley to a Scholarship fund for UC Davis students.
  • Chancellor Katehi served on the International Advisory Board of King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia for a year.  This is the same University that has been strongly critiqued for its practice of paying highly cited scholars to become adjunct faculty in order to boost its ratings. It has been reported that she did not attend any of the board meetings in person and did not receive any compensation for this.  See this and this for more detail.  
There have been many responses to these revelations including:

The situation does not appear to be letting up.  I note – in the description above I have tried to be as objective as possible in describing the situation.  And I have been thinking a lot about what I think should happen now.  Do I think the Chancellor should resign?  Should she be fired?  Do we need more faculty to come out in support of her?  What is the best path forward for UC Davis?  I certainly have thoughts on these questions and related topics.  And I assume many people who know me know that I am not exactly shy about expressing my thoughts in public.

But … there is one major thing that gives me pause here.  And it relates to the comment above about trying “tried to be as objective as possible” here.  The reason this gives me pause here is because one of the key issues at play relates to “Conflicts of Interest” – both real and perceived – in the Chancellor’s board positions.  Many critics have argued that each of these board positions comes with major conflicts of interest in the Chancellor’s job as the head of a major public university.  The Chancellor’s supporters have argued that these board positions at worst involved the appearance of a possible conflict and not any real conflict.

Why I am digging into this conflict of interest topic?  Because I think one key way to help people assess whether there are any real or possible conflicts of interest in one’s activities is to fully disclose as much as possible about one’s activities.  And I think the UC in general and the Chancellor of UC Davis could do a much much much better job in terms of disclosures.  And I have a proposal for that.

But before we get into that I think it is necessary for me to make some disclosures.  Here are some:

  • I am a Professor at UC Davis
  • I have worked on a few projects with the UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi directly and indirectly and I have always had positive interactions with her).
  • I have worked on the UC Davis ADVANCE Project ( to increase the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers) for which Chancellor Katehi is the lead. 
  • I don’t always agree with actions taken by Chancellor Katehi but I do believe she is truly committed to improving UC Davis
  • I have worked for many years on “open access” to scholarly literature (and a little bit to textbooks) and have occasionally been at odds with the John Wiley and Son’s company.
  • I was involved in an exposé of what I believe to be unethical behavior of King Abdulaziz University a few years ago in their attempts to buy rankings by trying to have scholars change their institutional affiliations on publications and in citation databases.  See for example this and this and this.  I note – I was threatened by one of the people from KAU who I helped expose.  I am NOT A FAN of KAU.
  • I spent almost two months writing about the pepper spray incident and follow up in 2011 in an effort to help save the image of UC Davis, which I love.  See some of my posts about this here.  The whole incident and the aftermath was very traumatic for the University and many individuals associated with the University, including myself.  There were calls for Chancellor Katehi to resign then.  And there were statements of support by deans and faculty.  I refused to sign either.  I thought she and the UC Davis admins made many mistakes and did not by any means deserve endorsements.  But I also thought it was unclear if their mistakes were enough for them to be pushed out. 
  • Other disclosures of mine are here:
I have listed these disclosures because I am not sure I can be objective about this story.  And I want everyone reading this to have this information so that you can make your own decision as to whether you think my possible conflicts of interest might cloud my judgement in various ways.  I tried to be objective in outlining what I think the current state of the situation is above, but I understand that not everyone may agree.  And if people think my view of the situation is too biased, well, they probably will not care too much about what I think we should do now.  And I am OK with that.  What I want most is for people to know now just what my positions are, but what might have affected what my positions are.

OK – so that is a way longer introduction than I had imagined in getting to the question of “what should we do now?” 

A reader who thinks I am not completely compromised might ask – what do I think about the situation and what do I think should happen now?  Here are some comments:

  • I personally think that accepting each of these board positions was really not wise.  Yes, the Chancellor may have accepted them with the best of intentions.  And yes, she may not have done anything inappropriate in her time on the two on which she served (Wiley and KAU).  But I think it would not have been that hard to imagine how these board positions might be perceived – especially by UC Davis students.  And that alone I think should have led to turning down these board positions.  She has admitted Devry was a mistake. She has not admitted (as far as I know) that Wiley was a mistake but has hinted that she can see how some people may not like it.  She has not admitted at all that KAU was a mistake as far as I can tell (and has defended it as being in the interest of promoting diversity), but given that it was known in 2011 widely that they were buying ranking in a seemingly unethical manner, this should have raised some red flags.  I do wonder a bit whether my really unpleasant interaction with KAU has made me more judgmental about this board position than maybe I should be (hence why I thought it was important to disclose this above).
  • Despite the above comments, I do not think that the board positions taken by the Chancellor are enough of a problem to call for her firing or resignation.  There are two major reasons for this.  My min reason for this is that I think one has to weigh the board position issue against all she has done as Chancellor and overall I believe she has done many very good things as Chancellor and that she is truly and deeply committed to UC Davis.  I understand that other people do not agree with this.  So I think in a way how people respond to this board position issue may relate largely to how good a job they think she has been doing as Chancellor.
  • I think a key mistake in this whole situation involved a poor job of disclosure.  More on this below.
  • I think another key mistake has been the slow and minimal communication with UC Davis and the public in response to these issues.  I really wish Chancellor Katehi and UC Davis administrators would hold some town halls or the like to discuss these issues and to explain to us why these board positions were taken.
So in summary – I think the Board positions were mistakes but I do not think they rise to the level of calling for the Chancellor to be fired or to resign.  I do think we should use this situation to completely revisit the topic of conflicts of interest, disclosure, and outside activities of the UC Administrators.  There have been calls, for example, to greatly limit if not stop entirely outside activities, especially at for profit entities, by the UC Chancellors and other higher ups.  I am not sure what I think about these calls, but they are definitely worth considering.  However, I think as a first step the UC could tackle one key issue – Disclosure.  

In general I think disclosures of possible conflicts of interest are done really poorly in academia.  So poorly that before this whole issue cropped up at UC Davis I made a proposal that scholars add disclosures to a centralized universal scholarly ID system known as ORCID.  See Improving Ability to Identify Possible Conflicts of Interest of Scholars 1: Adding a Disclosure Field to ORCID.  This would certainly help when on sees a paper by someone (say, Eric Lander) and would allow one to get more information about their possible conflicts of interest (say, billions of dollars in possible royalties for the institute one runs).  I think such a system would be very useful.  But it is not really enough for the issue at hand here.

So in order to at least get the UC started down a better path in terms of conflicts of interest and activities by UC administrators I propose the following simple steps (and I note – this are just some ideas and thoughts, not a well formulated system at this point).

Proposed Public, Open, and Early Disclosure System for UC Administrators.

  • This system should be applied to all top UC Administrators (UC President, Chancellors, Provosts, Deans, and possibly others)
  • Disclosures of outside activities and potential conflicts of interest must be made publicly available in a centralized location. 
    • This would include Form 700s and other declarations.
    • I have been told such forms are available for all UC Admins.  They are certainly not readily available.
    • UC Administrators should be required to update such disclosures quarterly
  • The disclosures need to be referenced and linked readily and widely:
    • The disclosures should be provided at the administrator’s profile pages 
    • Disclosures or links to them should accompany all official communications of these administrators (much in the way disclosures should accompany scholarly publications).
  • Administrators should be required to submit proposed outside activities to the public PRIOR to commencing those activities. 
    • There should be a public commenting period regarding these proposals
    • The specific activities and compensations must be included in all proposals
    • The proposals should include a discussion of the putative benefits to the UC for such activities.
    • There should be a more public, more formal review process for determining if the proposed activities are in the best interest of the UC
  • These disclosures should happen whether or not any other regulations about outside activities happen.
I understand this will not solve all the issues associated with outside activities, conflicts of interest, and such.  But I think one big step would be for the UC to adopt a more open, public, early, easy to find, and widely share disclosure system for outside activities of UC Administrators.  And perhaps, just perhaps, requiring such open, public, and early disclosure system would lead some UC Administrators to think more carefully and clearly about what outside activities they choose to do – or propose to do.

Update 3/23: some other links of relevance

Been attempting to get for 700s for the Chancellor (as an exercise, not to dig into them in any detail). Writing about it in a seagate post.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

6 thoughts on “The #UCDavis Chancellor’s Board Positions and the Need for a More Public, Open and Early Disclosure System”

  1. Terrifically summarized. I completely agree in regards to the opportunity this poses to define disclosures and conflict issues in an increasingly merged society of academics and industry partnerships. As in the bill to put signs on senators for financial contributions, there is such a perceived sense of bias in these sorts of relationships that academics need to be preemptively transparent, reactive, and inclusive, and this needs to start by example at the very top.


  2. I was an undergrad at UCD right at the start of the student protests, but the pepper spray incidents happened after I graduated. I remember when Chancellor Katehi was hired, she had received a sizable increase in salary as compared to her predecessor to ensure that we would get a competitive and good chancellor. I guess the chancellor is so good that she can also maintain a second six figure salary job on the side.

    I really like your proposal about disclosure; is this something that you will present to Board? Could they mandate this kind of policy?


  3. It is highly disturbing that a chancellor who has been in the position for so long would willfully neglect to disclose her participation on the board. The fact she has done her job on some occasions by working with you and others, does not make “doing bad” excusable, it just means she hasn't been useless while making >$400k/year from the university alone. It is further insult to students that she sets up a scholarship fund with her dirty money only after getting caught, as if somehow that makes her actions better. How can you support her when the administration makes boatloads of money while student tuition fees are going up and faculty compensation is going down? Her involvement with KAU is also not just an eyebrow-raiser — do you really think she would do free work for a university caught up in trying to buy their way up the university rankings? Her actions smell of someone getting careless from having too much compensation and power for too long.


  4. Another relevant question is how many more scandals will it take before she deserves to be forced to resign? If she only reports shady board positions when caught, how many more does she have going on the side that the university also doesn't know of?


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