Posted On: Tuesday, October 6, 2009
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.
I had the great fortune of working with Gael O’Brien as I prepared to give a Ted Talk…. Her positive reinforcement, combined with gentle redirection, allowed me to bring forth a story that even I didn’t know I could tell. The lessons she taught me ….will be carried into my career for many years to come. Importantly, Gael was committed to taking the journey with me to ensure that I put forth my very best self.