The Week In Ethics Blog

Why U. of Illinois Scandal Muddied UC Davis Chancellor

Why U. of Illinois Scandal Muddied UC Davis Chancellor

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.

Gael O'Brien

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst for leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection so that they create engagement that transforms their companies’ future. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

Leave a Reply

6 Comment threads
4 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
9 Comment authors
Gael O'BriensubversiveLinda AmickBen Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Spyros Tseregounis
Spyros Tseregounis

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… Read more »

J E Garrett
J E Garrett

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


7 years later and nothings changed… #FIREKATEHI

Gloria-Jeanne Davis, Ph.D.
Gloria-Jeanne Davis, Ph.D.

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.


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?!?

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… Read more »

Linda Amick
Linda Amick

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

Posts by Category


Most Recent

Making Ethics Real Makes Leadership Real

What is the key to effective leadership? The answer is ethics. However, if this doesn’t seem an easy sell…stay with it. Making ethics real makes leadership real. We’ll look at four ways to bring this home. First, some context. Ethical Failures When ethics isn’t a key driver in an organization, the fallout from ethical lapses […]

read on »
Gillette’s Leadership, the Backlash and Possibility

Gillette released this week a short film “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” Some criticize it as an attack on men; others disagree and see it as inspiring and hopeful. My take is the under two-minute video illustrates another Fortune 500 company’s courage and leadership to try and use the power of its brand […]

read on »
2018 Leadership Lessons

It isn’t just leaders’ abilities and experience that give them confidence. Authentic confidence means leaders realize that as smart as they are, their view or approach might be wrong. And what they do about that either fuels ethical leadership or spawns disaster. A significant cause of leadership failure in 2018, as in the past, was […]

read on »

….Gael O’Brien is an expert in building trust and reputation based on shared values. She brings ethics to life. Her passion for ethics is palpable because it’s genuine. Gael is an excellent facilitator, coach, teacher, and writer. Her workshops have been enriching the lives of our students and we’re honored to feature Gael’s ethics articles on our web site. What sets Gael apart? She has an amazing ability to analyze complex ethical leadership challenges from multiple perspectives at once. She sees the big picture and immediately gets to the heart of the matter, digging beneath the surface to get to the real issues that may be causing a breakdown. Then, with all the kindness in the world, she asks some really tough questions. This is when the healing process begins. Gael’s keen sense of strategy, coupled with a truly compassionate heart, has made her one of our most trusted advisors and champions.

Jane Roeder
Director, Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at CSULB