Linda Katehi Leans In

Four years after UC Davis police pepper-sprayed student protesters, chancellor Linda Katehi has not only strived to build stronger ties with her campus community, but her hyper-ambitious plans to transform UCD into one of the top 10 schools in America—and maybe help save the planet while doing it—finds her building an entirely new legacy for her university, and for herself.

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Portrait by Jeremy Sykes


TTwenty-four hours after campus cops at the University of California at Davis blasted student protesters with military-grade pepper spray on Nov. 18, 2011, chancellor Linda Katehi found herself under siege inside a narrow shack of a building called Surge II, just a few hundred yards from where the assault happened, wondering if the growing crowd outside might turn violent, and how a simple safety operation had devolved into an international incident in less than a day.

Born in the remnants of a war zone, with that aristocratic poise that seems to stick to some Mediterranean women like salt from the sea air, Katehi could usually tell when trouble was coming. Not this time, though.

“It had me so confused and so frustrated because I exactly could not understand how we got there, from trying to remove some tents from the quad to having a major crisis like this,” she says in a sonorous Greek accent that rains adverbs in unlikely places in her speech. “Something like that happened for no reason, practically.”

But at that moment four years ago, surrounded by more than 300 students, Katehi didn’t have time to parse out how it had come to this. Students were pounding on the green metal siding, and someone had managed to get a door open near the parking lot. The protesters weren’t going to let it close, and two university staff members, a man and a woman, were steadfastly and successfully holding guard at the breach, a so-far nonviolent but charged standoff.

Many in the crush outside identified with the radical Occupy Movement, which had sprung to life just two months earlier in New York’s Zuccotti Park, declaring themselves part of the 99 percent of the population that shared the economic leftovers of the sliver at the top. As fast as social media could spread their message, those protesters morphed into a global force. Occupy was roiling forward like fire, and wherever the sparks landed, flames grew. 1

In Davis, Occupy students had formed a small encampment on the quad to protest rising tuition. Katehi was worried about their safety (especially for female students, she says) over the weekend, when the buildings would be locked, basic sanitation unavailable, and the situation largely unmonitored. She thought it best if people didn’t sleep there, and ordered the tents to be taken down on Friday afternoon.

She had failed to expressly forbid officers to use force, but she had not wanted or expected them to.

Still, it happened.

Videos taken at the scene show a line of uniformed officers in riot gear advancing on a loose crowd. One walks up to a row of seated, peaceful protesters blocking a sidewalk, arms linked, and almost casually shoots a viscous-looking orange liquid straight into their faces from a bright red canister, holding it just inches from their eyes. Another officer steps up with a second can. Bystanders shout, “You don’t have to do this!” But he does it anyway.

It was the second time in less than two weeks that UC police had turned violent against students. Nine days earlier, campus officers at Berkeley had used batons against Occupy protesters, including professors, in a similar situation. But within hours of the UC Davis incident, videos uploaded to YouTube had gone viral. By Saturday, it was the No. 1 trending topic on Google. On social media and elsewhere, Katehi was being called a Nazi, fascist, “Chemical Katehi.”

She had planned on giving a press conference to apologize, and her staff had chosen this dismal triple- wide for the broadcast equipment it housed. But word leaked out that she was going to make her initial statement about the brutal incident only to reporters, removed from the raw emotions of the students and the perceived accountability of a face-to-face encounter.

On Nov. 21, 2011, three days after the infamous pepper-spray incident, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi addressed student protesters at a campus rally and apologized for what had transpired. (Photo by Bryan Patrick/MCT/Newscom)

These Davis Occupy students weren’t having it. They were already demanding that she resign.

In the coming months, more than 100,000 people would sign a petition for Katehi’s removal, a task force led by a former California Supreme Court justice would fault her leadership and she’d be called before the California Legislature to explain herself. To many, it seemed unlikely that she would keep her job.

But this was just day two, and she was still trying to figure out how she got here in the big sense, and how, practically, she was going to get out of Surge without making it worse.


In retrospect, Katehi accepts the blame for what happened. “It was my fault because I’m running this university and it happened at this university under my watch,” she says, sitting in the living room at the Chancellor’s Residence in June, a few days before the class of 2015 graduates, perhaps the last full class of students with first-hand knowledge of those events nearly four years ago.
The walls around her are covered in art, mostly drawn from the school’s cache—a Wayne Thiebaud of paint cans, a stark Cibachrome print by photographer Doug Hall, a replica of a coat of arms from the Byzantine Empire, one of the few pieces that belongs to her. 2 She is wearing a flowing blue and white tunic over pants, her short brown hair perfectly coiffed, even on a Sunday. 3

“Leaders need to take responsibility,” says Katehi, 61, leaning back on the leather couch. She has publicly apologized and taken that responsibility dozens of times since the incident, but it’s still the first thing many people think of when they hear her name. Pepper spray is linked to her like a tail on a kite.

But now she’s working on an ambitious—and audacious—strategy for UC Davis (and Sacramento) that she hopes will cut loose the tie of that inflammatory aerosol and turn it from the subject of her legacy to a footnote. She says she is going to make Davis into the premier school in the University of California system, above Berkeley and UCLA. In this century, “we are going to be the No. 1” UC in the Golden State, she says.

But her drive doesn’t stop at the state line. She wants to leap-frog UC Davis into the top 10 rankings for all American universities, public or private, she says. (U.S. News & World Report’s highest-ranked public university is currently UC Berkeley but among all schools, Berkeley comes in at 20th, and UC Davis at 38th, for some perspective on what kind of jump that would be).
 While she’s at it, she also hopes to shrink the psychological and physical divide of the 3.2-mile Yolo Causeway and meld Sacramento and Davis into a single region sharing a new economic engine that generates well-paying jobs and prosperity for workers and business—all centered on sustainable ways to keep the planet healthy and nourished. That is part of her personal commitment to the school’s founding land-grant mission, 4 which promises not just that students can rise up through education, but that the surrounding cities can benefit, too.

She plans on planting a high-profile Aggie flag in downtown Sacramento in the form of a new campus, likely in the railyards near where Kaiser Permanente recently announced plans for an 18-acre hospital complex, to accomplish this.

Katehi wants to make sure that the capital city thinks of UC Davis as its own. She believes that their futures are tied together in ways that are only beginning to emerge, with the urban energy of Sacramento and the intellectual output of Davis working in synergy.

There’s a lot of speculation about what the school’s presence in Sacramento will entail. But right now, it’s still a matter of debate, from its size to its timeline and, most critically, its purpose. Katehi says that the “campus” would likely initially house the public policy portion of the much-lauded World Food Center, currently headquartered at Davis since its debut in 2013. The Sacramento facility would be the brick-and-mortar gateway between the university and the Capitol. Eventually, she sees the locale housing an undergraduate school of public policy and perhaps a school of public health as well. While no schedule has yet been established—as of early July, the university was not in negotiations to purchase land at the railyards—she expects some part of the undertaking to be open within five years.

“Having seen her up close, I know how bold the vision is and how transformative it could be,” says Sacramento developer Kipp Blewett. “This is the beginning of the process for reshaping the region.”

Katehi is going to fire up this economic turbine by harnessing our region’s burgeoning farm-to-fork identity and turning it into a worldwide force of innovation and thought leadership (along with money-making start-ups and corporate partnerships). Katehi hopes to help transform Sacramento into a global think tank for answers to the myriad food-related issues that plague our planet, including hunger, obesity and water management. Davis will be the “university of the 21st century,” she says.

Six years into the job, Katehi is finally “on full thrust,” she says earnestly. “We are fully moving forward on the things we always wanted to do.”


1 By October, after formally existing for only a month, Occupy protests had been held in 951 cities spanning 82 countries. On Nov. 2, thousands of Occupiers had shut down the Port of Oakland, the seventh largest in the U.S. for container traffic, leaving its AT-AT Walker-like cranes sitting idle. In New York, activists had faced off against police just the day before the UCD pepper-spray incident. ^

2 Her husband, Spyros Tseregounis, bought this fake coat of arms on a trip to Disneyland and snuck it on the wall when Katehi was gone. “Oh, my God. It’s so tacky,” she says. “I will move it at some point. I have some ideas on how to do that.” ^

3 She often works seven days a week and stays fit by doing the elliptical every morning from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. while watching the news, usually CNN. But when she takes a break, she likes to cross-stitch. She has been working on her current project for five years and is about an hour away from finishing it—an elaborate copy of an ancient apron created from a pattern obtained at the Benaki Museum in Athens. She plans on framing it. ^

4 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 during the Civil War to facilitate building state universities on leftover Transcontinental Railroad parcels (land grants). The Act made college available to the “industrial classes” and cemented the American notion that education is a right. ^