On my evolving thoughts on the #UCDavis saga involving Chancellor Linda Katehi

Still trying to wrap my brain around the controversy at UC Davis involving our Chancellor (the head of the University) Linda Katehi (see some of these news stories if you are not aware of what is going on).  In some sense I could just watch this all from the sidelines and see what happens.  But that is not in my nature.  And, over the last month I have gotten a near endless stream of comments and suggestions (some in private, some in public) about the topic.  Some say I need to be more vocal in condemning Chancellor Katehi (e.g., a student in my lab told me the other day that they have talked to faculty who are wondering why I am being so hesitant to condemn Chancellor Katehi).  Other people (many) say any negative posts about Katehi are damaging UC Davis.  Still others say and and all actions of Katehi must be considered in the context of overwhelming sexism against female leaders.  And so on.  In total I have probably gotten dozens of private comments and even more public comments about the case with suggestions for what I should be doing here.

For those who know me or know about me, I assume you know I am not exactly shy about expressing my opinions on topics like behavior of academics or academic institutions.  For example, just after joining UC Davis I wrote a post that was shared widely, condemning a UC Davis Vice Provost over her misuse of her position in support of Closed Access publishing: Vice Provost of U. C. Davis on the wrong side of Open Access.

I give out all sorts of snarky awards on my blog to friends, colleagues, and other folds in the world for doing things I think are inappropriate (e.g., see this STAT story). Sometimes I go overboard in this, but certainly I am not hesitant at expressing thoughts when I think there has been something untoward going on.  I try as much as possible to turn my microscope on myself and UC Davis too.  For example, see this post from a few weeks ago: UC Davis Storer Lecture series – since 1963 87% of speakers are male.

Again, I know I overdo this sometimes but I am certainly not hesitant to make my feelings know.

But the case of Chancellor Katehi leaves me on the fence and with my fingers unclear what to type somewhat.  And so I thought I would try to write up what my thoughts are here, even if they are muddled.  I wonder what other people think of the situation and would love feedback (as always) on this post.

So – what is so complex here?  What am I trying to wrap my brain around?  I think my challenge here comes down to the following: I don’t know whether some of the responses (including mine) to Chancellor Katehi’s actions are tinged with bias, especially sexism.  Or, in other words, are the actions and inactions of Chancellor Katehi “firing offenses” or have they been overblown by biased and sexist points of view.

And honestly, I do not know exactly how to figure this out.  On the one hand, I accept that there are massive amounts of sexism in society and certainly in regard to how we judge women in power.  On the other hand, I think the actions and inactions of Chancellor Katehi and her administration have been serious (in a bad way).  I note – one thing I have done to try and better understand my own feelings and actions in this saga is to compile all my posts and communications as best I can and go through them.

This has helped me sort out my thoughts and also helped show me at least that I was certainly not going easy on the UC Davis administration over these cases.  I also re-examined my posts about the Pepper Spray incident and aftermath from 2011 which has many parallels to the current situation and also involved Chancellor Katehi. See here for those: posts about the UC Davis Pepper Spray Incident and Aftermath.

Below is a discussion based in part on going through the news stories and posts of others and posts of mine.

Maybe it is best to start with this.  A few weeks ago I was pondering the fate of Chancellor Katehi and I wrote a detailed post about this The #UCDavis Chancellor’s Board Positions and the Need for a More Public, Open and Early Disclosure System.

I also included in that discussion some possible conflicts of interest of my own that might be clouding my judgment.  Those are relevant to this post too and I encourage people to read them.  Anyway, this post was written at the beginning of the latest controversy when all that had been disclosed was her acceptance of a set of outside Board positions that were controversial.  I had written many mini posts and Tweets about the situation such as those below:



And I also had started to see some calls for her to be fired and such and made a point to say I did not feel things were that far along and I also linked to some of those posts.








Anyway I discussed all of this in the longer post linked above. In the post, I concluded two things at the time.  First, the Board positions were not good ideas and second, that her actions in regard to these Board positions did not raise to the level of firing or asking for her to resign.

And I note – all of this was not just a remote discussion for me.  I was part of the story in relation to one of her Board positions. And I got grief and support from people about my comments about this (even though I was clear to say to everyone I did not know anything about the Chancellor’s interactions with this university).


I confess, I found the responses of the “Pro-Katehi” people really disappointing in this story.  The Board positions seemed clearly to be bad ideas – riddled with potential or real conflicts of interest and poor judgement about what the response would be to these positions.  And I wrote publicly as such. For example:


But I still tried to temper my positions and thoughts to give Chancellor Katehi the benefit of the doubt.  And also a student protest began in response to the initial stories and eventually the students “occupied” the Chancellor’s main office.  I don’t have the time in this post to cover the protests, the response to the protests and the response to the responses.  But it got ugly.  And this made things extra complex.  But the protests were quite important in keeping attention on the stories and in revealing both the good and bad sides to some of the critical responses to the Chancellor’s actions.

Since that time much else has happened.  First, it was revealed that UC Davis had a set of contracts with outside agencies to do damage control PR of various kinds.  This literally exploded into a PR nightmare for UC Davis with news coverage from across the globe and massive criticism on social media.  I was one of the people throwing out negative comments.  I was angry and embarrassed and wrote about this extensively.

And I went out of my way to share critical posts about the administration and to also share some past posts of mine about the pepper spray incident.



//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js And I just decided that I felt the need to post about it a lot. For example:


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fjonathaneisen%2Fposts%2F10154000037965767&width=500

But for both of the above stories alternative more supportive narratives were being presented by the UC Davis administration and by various friends and colleagues of mine (and even myself).  These supportive narratives basically took four forms:

  • First, many suggested that many of these actions were perfectly acceptable normal behavior by a university and its leader.  UC Davis and many others kept saying things like that the PR campaign was just about promoting good things UC Davis did.  
  • The second form of supportive narrative was that even if these actions were wrong, there were minor infractions.  
  • The third form of supportive narrative, which I myself discussed and struggled with, was that the Chancellor had done many good or great things and that evaluating her actions should be done with the big picture in mind.
  • The fourth form of supportive narrative, which was not shared much publicly at first, was that the response to Chancellor Katehi’s role in these actions was tinged with sexism. 

I did not buy the first two supportive narratives (that this was normal behavior and that the infractions were minor) and still do not. And I posted about this repeatedly. See for example:

And the third supportive narrative was complicated.  After all just liking what people have done in some area is not enough to grant them a pass on transgressions.  We needed to examine the current actions in detail to figure out just how bad they were.  But the fourth supportive narrative struck a cord with me.  Why?  Well, because I have worked for years with Chancellor Katehi on some issues in bias against women.  And I have become actively involved in fighting implicit and explicit bias against women in academia and it is pervasive.  And I deeply respect the people who kept bringing up this issue.

So as the story continued to evolve it came to a head early last week.  Various emails were circulating around campus suggesting that UC President Napolitano had asked Chancellor Katehi to step down.  And some were happy about this.  But others were not.  I was asked to sign a letter to Napolitano about the case and on first read it simply seemed to be saying “Back off and give the case some time” and so I signed it.  But then I reread it and felt it was too supportive of Chancellor Katehi’s actions (and made some statements for which I did not know of any evidence) so I removed my name.  And then an email came which included a letter written by a colleague of mine Linda Bisson who I believe is very level headed and fair and reasonable. The letter was to President Napolitano and it discussed possible sexism in the responses to Chancellor Katehi’s actions.  And even though I was not sure how I felt about the letter, I felt that it had to be shared publicly.  So I asked – and Linda Bisson allowed me to post it on my blog: Letter from #UCDavis Profs to Janet Napolitano about possible sexism in responses to Chancellor Katehi’s activities.

Just sharing the letter itself generate some heated discussions.  I again note – I was not endorsing the letter.  I just felt the ideas in the letter needed to be brought into the discussion even if I was not sure how I felt about the letter.

The more I think about it the more I realize that sexism is clearly a part of the response to Chancellor Katehi’s actions.  Egregious actions of other UC leaders who are male have not been met with the same level of response.  Repeatedly.  This just seems unfair in many ways.  And also the reaction from President Napolitano seemed pretty extreme and overly personal and reactionary (e.g., some of the charges in it were not part of the current discussion).

And so I went back an reexamined the first three supportive narratives I outlined above trying to consider how they could be viewed in the face of sexism. Regarding the first supportive narrative I guess a question to ask is – what do other universities and university leaders do?  But even if things are done by others I don’t think that justifies them.  I think the PR campaign was massively misguided.  I think the Board positions were unwise and riddled with potential and real conflicts of interest.  So regardless of what others do I think these were missteps.  They show a lack of foresight in thinking about what others would think about these activities.  And the leader of a major university needs to use such foresight and use it well.

Regarding the second supportive narrative, I think this is more complicated.  At first it seemed the Chancellor and her staff were defending all of her actions (the first narrative) which I found unseemly.

But then she did (sort of) apologize and said she would work to fix any mistakes.  I found the apology unconvincing to be honest but was happy to see it.  So she was accepting some responsibility for mistakes and thus I could in a way cross of the first narrative.  Thus we could now discuss whether these mistakes were enough to lead to firing / stepping down.  At that point after consulting many colleagues, I decided that I was still displeased with the Chancellor and her administration in many ways, but that I was hoping that we could move forward in some way.

I think the third narrative (that I felt she had done many good things for UC Davis) played a big role in my thoughts here.

But then, just thereafter there came some new revelations.  And these ones I think rewrite the situation a bit.  First, President Napolitano had apparently asked Katehi to resign (as mentioned above).  And Katehi apparently decided not to.

And then the hammer came down from President Napolitano including various new accusations.  And also the Sacramento Bee revealed further details about the recent social media “listening campaign” paid for by the UC Davis Administration.


These two stories together were particularly distressing to me.  And most distressing they revealed a side of the story I have not discussed move above which was there throughout.  This involves the communications from Chancellor Katehi and her administration about all of these topics.  Napolitano,  for example, was angry about the possible misleading statements about Chancellor Katehi’s role in the PR contracts.  And though I think the Napolitano letter has some problems (e.g., no consolation consultation of anyone from UC Davis apparently before taking this action) I also did feel that some of the communications from the UC Davis administration were misleading.  The UC Davis Administration had been trying to say in regard to these PR and social media contracts that they were all about promoting UC Davis and not about watching or trying to clean up the reputation of Chancellor Katehi.  But if you look at the listening reports published by the Sacramento Bee – they are all about Katehi.  And even more disconcerting, they included a lot of material about me and my brother and many colleagues.  It just smelled really off to me.  And so I got angrier and angrier.  And less forgiving.

And the fact that the reports published by the SacBee included a lot of material about me and my brother and close friends and colleagues really threw me into a bit of a rage.


And these were just the latest examples of disastrously bad or misleading or inaccurate communications coming from the UC Davis Administration.  The press releases they had been putting out were pretty awful. The statements they made were frequently incomplete or downright misleading.  And they seemed to never really get the seriousness of any of the situations.  I had been pointing this out along the way but it just never got better.  It just got worse.  A good summary of the communications problems has been discussed by Marcos Breton in a series of articles in the Sacramento Bee.  For example:


So after all the saga, after all the rehashing of my prior responses, I feel torn still.  I get that there is real sexism in how women and women leaders are treated.  I have been fighting such sexism for years and been inspired by how Chancellor Katehi fight’s fights such sexism with action.  But I think even in the face of this, there are real and distressing mistakes that Chancellor Katehi and her administration have made and keep making.  And these mistakes are doing damage to my beloved UC Davis.  In addition, and also very important,  I worry deeply about unfair charges of sexism against critics of Chancellor Katehi. There are real and valid criticisms of Chancellor Katehi and her actions and her administration and discounting them all just because some aspects of the situation involve sexism is also damaging.

In the end, am I willing to wait for the results of the planned investigation by the University of California into Chancellor Katehi’s actions?  Yes I am.  Do I think she will be absolved of the more serious charges?  I do not know but I truly hope so.

But regardless of the results of this investigation, I am deeply worried about how the entire situation impacts UC Davis.  Yes, Chancellor Katehi deserves to be treated fairly.  And yes, she has done some very good things for UC Davis.  And yes I like her personally. And yes there is a great deal of subtle and not so subtle sexism in the world and likely some in the response to her actions.  But I am unable to stop coming back to the series of clear mistakes that have been made.  Of actions and inactions that have shown poor judgment.  And of repeated, baffling, and damaging poor communications in response to the ongoing situation.  I have given as much benefit of the doubt as I am able to give I guess.  And at this point in time I have just really had enough. I hope we can move UC Davis back to a better path as soon as possible.  Maybe this could happen with a rapid (very rapid) and complete and open investigation of Chancellor Katehi and of her being cleared of all major accusations.  I hold out hope for that to happen.  However, it seems to me that the most obvious way forward, unless something else drastically changes, is going to be with a new Chancellor.

Some responses and comments




//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js UPDATE May 4, 2016. 9 PM. After a lot of thought and discussions with many many many people about this post and about Chancellor Katehi I have come to the conclusion that we need a new Chancellor at UC Davis. I have come to this conclusion for many reasons which I will try to write about as soon as possible.

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

21 thoughts on “On my evolving thoughts on the #UCDavis saga involving Chancellor Linda Katehi”

  1. It actually isn’t too difficult to render a conclusion about the Chancellor here. Granted, she may have done some good things for the university, but her actions as of late paint her as tone-deaf at best and a despot at worst—and, potentially, a liar as well. What happened to the transparency she claimed to be instituting?

    While her board positions may have been legal by the letter of the law, they were unseemly. I would say the same thing if the Chancellor were male. And I sincerely hope these outside income sources for UC Chancellors are given a closer look by the legislature. (Although, I have to admit, it saddens me deeply that these Chancellors may not be able to make their mortgage payments on their lowly Chancellor salaries alone, and so have to resort to extracurricular income…said with tongue firmly in cheek.)

    I’ve been following this blog for a while now. I find your advocacy of gender equality beyond admirable. It’s something we all have a responsibility to do. We have to call bullshit when we see inequality toward ANY human being, plain and simple. BUT, let’s not shy away from calling bullshit when we genuinely see it, regardless of gender/ethnicity/yada/yada/yada. Bullshit is bullshit and it simply needs to be called. And I think you’re shying away from calling bullshit here out of fear—or perhaps guilt?—of doing so on a person who belongs to a group for which you are (rightly so) a fierce advocate.

    You state, “I think my challenge here comes down to the following: I don't know whether some of the responses (including mine) to Chancellor Katehi's actions are tinged with bias, especially sexism.” Why are you asking yourself this? You strike me as the most non-sexist person ever, and yet you are questioning whether your response to this situation is sexist? Huh? This sounds like political correctness taken to an extreme.

    Again, I appreciate, respect, and fully support the advocacy toward gender (and ALL) equality. But if your advocacy has allowed your pendulum to swing so far in the other direction that you are hesitant to call bullshit when bullshit should clearly be called, that doesn’t serve the cause.


  2. First – thanks for this. I agree with much of what you write here.

    Second – I think I am doing a pretty good job of calling BS on the specific actions that are troubling in this case. If you look at my posts about the actions being criticized I have been pretty vocal about also critiquing the actions. Could I have been more vocal? Sure. But I have not exactly been a shiny happy supporter of the actions of the Chancellor.

    But clearly what I am struggling with is whether this should lead me to call BS on the person behind these actions. And I am honestly not sure. I guess over the years I have been evolving to focus more on actions and critiquing them if they are bad than focusing on people (although I do both). So I have been trying not just in this case but in others to do this. And I also have consulted with and heard from many many many people who I trust on issues such as sexism in STEM and ALL (truly all) of them have suggested that it is critical to be deliberative before condemning the person here. And this is not just a “don't critique women” thing. This is people who looked at or know the situation who say “I think there truly is some sexism going on here in how she is being treated vs. how male University leaders are being treated.” And because I trust these people and because I have seen them critique plenty of women leaders, I have taken a cautious approach in going from critiquing actions to making explicit comments about the person. I get that this is riddled with possible issues. And I get that my thoughts are muddled on this. But I think this case is more complex than some are making it out to be.

    So I wrote this post even though I knew my thoughts were not clear and were awkward at best. And I asked for feedback. So I thank you for that. And I think you are likely right with most of what you right. But I guess I have lost the certainty I frequently have in such cases and have become – well – less certain about things.


  3. My two cents:

    Is there enough that seems fishy here that Chancellor Katehi ought to be investigated? Yes. But let's wait to see what the investigation turns up. I too am willing to keep an open mind.

    Has she been subject to sexist treatment? Yes. (See recent Davis Enterprise editorial for an appalling example).

    Should other Chancellors be subject to the same scrutiny? Yes. To my way of thinking, a big part of the sexist treatment she has experienced is giving men a pass for bad behavior but not giving women the same pass. The way to fix that is not to ignore all bad behavior.

    Hope that doesn't oversimplify the issues – I respect your thoughtful and careful approach to this.


  4. Sorry, it's this one:


    Note the highly gendered language here:

    We can’t help but wonder if it’s hubris that’s at the root of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi’s approach to her job.

    Many have described her as cold and aloof; others have said she’s a brilliant engineer who can’t relate to people on a human level. Still others have said her laser focus on where she wants to take this university has blinded her to the basic ethics that must underpin a true leader.”

    And then there is this, which I leave without comment:

    “Did we compare this to a Greek tragedy?”


  5. Can you explain how this is “highly gendered language”? I've read the passage a few times now and am blind to the bias. I even replaced all the feminine pronouns with masculine and it reads the same to me.


  6. I can truly sympathize with your agony because I keep questioning my position with each convincing argument from both camps – and I can assure you I have no gender bias, at least, not to my overt consciousness.

    I keep asking myself why I am so hesitant on making a decision what approach to support; after all, in my current shoes, I would not take any of these missteps. However, we are not in those shoes and don't have the privilege to know the circumstances. Some of the actions were definitely for personal benefit and in the interest of the university. The responsibility of her position is quite demanding and as I hear she was not compensated as well as others in the same position. So it is perhaps understandable for her to find venues to receive monetary compensation using her expertise. I also feel that maybe pepper spray incidence was not to erase the history, but improving the search results highlighting better aspects of UCDavis. I can imagine these PR practices are employed by majority of higher institutions and not using them would give unfair competitive advantage to the others and makes UCD disadvantaged – i.e. I don't have much respect for UNC whether it is warranted or not.
    In the end, I've realized that my inner conflict was about comparing my own ideals of leadership and conduct with the demands of realities of the position. Consequently, I will continue to struggle until I can objectively separate these two…


  7. First of all, why is the article discussing Katehi's personal characteristics at all? They are not relevant here. We should be talking about what she did or didn't do, whether those behaviors violated University policy or some other legal/ethical norm.

    Second, the choice of “hubris” – yes, how dare a woman not only be Chancellor but defend her position as Chancellor. Again, I've not been hesitant to criticize Katehi's actions in the past, but she has a right to defend herself against accusations, and if she were a man I think she wouldn't be labelled with “hubris” for doing so.

    Third, women are expected to be warm and fuzzy. When they are not, they are “cold and aloof.” A man in the same circumstance would be seen as strong and commanding. Here's the thing: she doesn't owe anyone warm and fuzzy. She has a university to run.

    Fourth: “A Greek tragedy.” Katehi is Greek, as the Davis Enterprise well knows. This is really low. (So, not about gender, but about ethnicity).


  8. One of the big issues that no one is talking is how little faulty participate in UC-shared governance. Therefore, many are simply unaware of the kinds of decisions that are made/fought against/worked collaboratively on. One example I can speak from personally is the humanities faculty at Davis saying budget information is not available. That is simply untrue.

    People can have different feelings about the Chancellor's actions and still be opposed to the way she was treated – both in the news and by the UC President.


  9. I greatly respect Jonathan's perspective.

    My direct experience with Chancellor Katehi has been one of enlightened leadership on how to transform UCD into an outstanding educational institution that treats people fairly. One that removes barriers to success that have nothing to do with the individual's abilities. One at which the success of faculty members, other employees, and students is promoted as the path to excellence. Her goals for UCD resonate very strongly with my own, and include things I worked on for years before she came. Her leadership allowed some of them to flourish, whereas it was an uphill battle for even smaller changes in earlier years. Thus, I have have a great deal of respect for some aspects of her leadership and vision.

    As chair of my department, I also understand that leadership is fraught with difficult decisions, and I lack some skills that are necessary to do a thoroughly good job; I am acutely aware of what I do not handle well. Thus, it is critically important for me to carefully consider the consequences of all decisions, to get good advice, and to maintain a fundamental belief that honesty is essential.

    I think the last three things are problems for Chancellor Katehi. And that is serious. I don't know how serious yet because I don't understand or know enough of the facts to evaluate the balance between poor judgement and dishonesty. I can forgive poor judgement and communication skills to a large degree. I'm not sure what level and type of dishonesty I can forgive. (I am likely to end up voting for a president of this United States that has honesty issues…)

    Leadership is complicated, and my expectations for moral behavior in others are very low.


  10. Bias-based statements like these tend raise the emotional level of a discussion. They appeal to unconscious stereotypes, which trigger reactionary opinions and polarization of the situation. Fairness and truth require a more rational evaluation of circumstances.


  11. I'm here to say thank you to Jonathan for all the posts and tweets about this. I appreciate it!
    Chancellor is not only the leader of a university, but also the “face of the university”. As a UCD chancellor, Linda Katehi automatically represents the entire campus (faculties, staffs and students). When issues arrives, people become less forgiving. When we feel the shame, we become emotional. It is important to be critical on ourselves sometimes.


  12. Just for the record … in rethinking some aspects of this story I am moving more and more to the conclusion that there have been some really poor decisions by Linda Katehi and the UC Davis administration under Katehi and that even if there is some sexism in the response that these actions are incompatible with being Chancellor of UC Davis …


  13. I am getting more and more disturbed the more I think about things in regard to the deception and dishonesty parts of this story. I don't see how, for example, there were “listening reports” that clearly were designed for Katehi or her team to find out what people were saying about Katehi. Even if some of this was focused on UC Davis clearly a portion of it was focused on what people were saying about her. And in interviews and in PRs she and her team clearly implied that the social media campaign was all about UC Davis. This just was not true. And the fact that I am in many of these listening reports and that my friends and colleagues are too, does not help. I don't see any way forward anymore with her as Chancellor. I can forgive missteps. But there is a pattern here of lack of transparency and obfuscation (at best) that is coming from our administration that really troubles me. Is she responsible for this directly? I don't know. But it is under her watch. And I am tired of it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: