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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From left: Katehi as a teen in 1969 on a trip to Nafplio, Greece; as a 2-year-old at home in Salamis in 1956 (Courtesy of Linda Katehi)

If the island of Salamis, where Katehi was born, has an Achilles’ heel, it may be the lush groves of pine trees on its southern side that led it from riches to ruins.

Located just off the coast of Athens, ancient shipbuilders discovered that those thick forests had the perfect wood for making boats. Over the centuries, Salamis became an important and prosperous port because of the shipyards. It eventually became home to Greece’s largest naval base, which was carpet-bombed by England and occupied by Germany during the Second World War.

After the Allied victory, Greece fell into a civil war. When the resistance took the base briefly, the right-wing government let loose another barrage of bombings. By the time Katehi was born in 1954, there wasn’t much left except some trees.

“It was devastated,” Katehi says. “I still remember the holes from the mines.”

But the physical wreckage wasn’t the worst of it.

“In communities that are devastated by poverty, you lose somehow your own respect for yourself, so you get a lot of other things,” she says of what life was like for the 15,000 inhabitants of the island, many of whom were related from generations of inter-marriages. 5 “You get drinking, there was domestic abuse, there were all kinds of things.”

Katehi’s family was so poor there wasn’t always enough food. Sometimes she was lucky to get one meal a day. “We had nothing,” she says. “I was telling my mom since I was very young, ‘How can I get out of here?’ My mom used to say, ‘Well, you have to educate yourself,’ and I became obsessed with that idea. For me, education was the way out and nothing else.”

By third grade, it was clear she had an aptitude for numbers. That year, two of her school’s three teachers got sick, and the remaining teacher, nicknamed “Mr. Zero” for his harsh evaluations, combined all the classes up to sixth grade. It quickly became clear that Katehi could do the older students’ work. “I was able to solve the problems, and he told my mom that I was good in math,” she says.

Her mom, Georgia, a native of the island, eventually opened a small clothing store and earned enough money to hire a tutor for Katehi to keep her ahead. Katehi’s father, Vassilis, half-Jewish and half-Catholic from the Greek island of Corfu, had changed his surname to Katehi from Zamit to hide his Jewish heritage when he joined the Navy at age 16. (Her parents died within weeks of each other last summer.)

Vassilis was away from home for months at a time, often without contact. “My father was a good person but he was not a good father,” says Katehi, an only child. “He was always absent. I don’t think he ever thought of his family.” Her husband, Spyros Tseregounis, a UC Davis engineering professor, thinks he probably had what would be diagnosed today as post-traumatic stress disorder from his time at war.

In her teens, Katehi figured out she wanted to be an engineer, mostly because she was fascinated by the images of the control room in Houston, Texas, broadcast during Neil Armstrong’s historic first step on the moon in 1969. “I was so impressed,” she says. “I asked my teacher, ‘Who are these people who are all doing these things?’ And he said these were engineers, and I thought, ‘This is what I want.’ ”

She qualified for a prestigious scientific prep high school in Athens, making her one of the few women on the island to be on a college path. It meant moving the family to the city. But her father objected. “If you become an electrical engineer, two things will happen to you,” she remembers him saying over Sunday dinner. “No one is going to hire you and no one is going to marry you.” Georgia said they were going anyway.

Katehi’s goal was to make it into Athens Polytechnic, the MIT of Greece. “Nothing else mattered. I had never been so focused in my whole life,” she says. “It was fear, let me just tell you. I mean, I could kill myself rather than live there [on Salamis].”

Katehi with her husband, Spyros Tseregounis, an engineering professor at UC Davis, at an alumni event inside Sacramento’s Central Library in 2013 (Photo courtesy of Linda Katehi)She was accepted at age 18, one of only two women in her class of 189, and was promptly pulled aside by a male classmate who wanted to know why she was stealing a man’s spot. By the end of her first year, the gender hazing—jokes, verbal abuse, refusing to give her lab space—had gotten so bad that she wanted to quit. “They hated my guts,” she says of the male students. But, she says, she wasn’t about to derail her own future because of them. “I did not have any other options. So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to make it, and move on.’ ”

Today, she’s an outspoken, un
apologetic feminist who is so old
school she isn’t against using the
word “feminist.” “I’m not going to
apologize for who I am,” she says. “It’s very personal to me.” But that fortitude was hard-won. It wasn’t until she had achieved professional success, running her own lab at the University of Michigan, where she had gone for her first teaching job in 1984 after earning a Ph.D. from UCLA, that she decided that being a woman didn’t mean accepting bias as part of the deal.

Her team created circuits for wireless use, especially military applications like radars. She holds 19 patents 6 and she managed a “very large lab” with more than 15 researchers, receiving funding from NASA, the Department of Defense and the NSA among others. But despite obvious accomplishments, Katehi still felt there were instances when her gender was her main attribute.

“I think I’d just had it,” she says of the jokes, offhand comments and overt actions that seemed acceptable to her colleagues. “I decided I will not compromise when it comes to discrimination. I don’t have to.”

Katehi with her children, Helena and Erik, at the Henry Ford museum complex in Dearborn, Michigan in 1996 (Photo courtesy of Linda Katehi)That desire to invoke change eventually led her to becoming the associate dean of academic affairs and graduate education, then jump to dean of engineering at Purdue University in 2002. But it really “started to come to fruition,” says her daughter Helena, a lawyer in Los Angeles (she also has a son, Erik), when Katehi became the first female provost of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2006. “That’s when I started to realize that this was something that was going to be really great for her,” Helena says.

Now, as the sixth chief at UC Davis and its first female one, Katehi is intent on making it a haven where women, from undergrads to chancellors, have real parity. 7

“My mom fought her whole life and whole professional life just to be seen as equal,” says Helena. “She wants to have a university where there is gender equality and women feel like they have the same ranks and opportunities that men do. I think she got it from looking at the realities of the world around her.”

Katehi has pushed hard on the issue, and according to a 2013 National Center for Education Statistics poll, UC Davis was ranked No. 1 in the country for advancing women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), with 2,503 women in 169 programs.
On the faculty side, more than 50 percent of deans at Davis are female, as are 37 percent of department chairs and 45 percent of tenure-track faculty, numbers she has steadily grown since she started, but with an understanding that “we will never give the position to a woman unless she’s the top. Always, the positions will go to the top candidates.” Katehi just ensures the rules are fair and the recruiting pool diverse, working to undermine the subtle biases that support glass ceilings.
“I know that many women would not like to talk about the discrimination they have gone through, but I think it’s important to talk about it,” she says. “I have decided I’m going to talk about it until have no voice in my mouth anymore.”


Katehi, dressed in a shimmery olive skirt suit with heels and a matched set of metallic jewelry, spoke to a luncheon filled with some of the school’s top female boosters at the UC Davis Conference Center in early June. Although she has been described by some as “reserved,” to the largely professional women in attendance, she comes across as affable, with calm authority, a woman who, as Congresswoman Doris Matsui describes her, “is not a screamer. She’s somebody that you respect. When she says something, people listen. She’s the type of person who not only can be a leader of an institution like Davis, but is also an incredibly warm, wonderful person, too.”

Her message today is about the august future of the university. But it includes a growing list of her accomplishments to date; the tangibles that cause even skeptics to pause and consider how different Davis is today from when she took it over in 2009.

Katehi says she is going to make Davis into the premier school in the University of California system. But her drive doesn’t stop at the state line. She wants to leapfrog UC Davis into the top 10 rankings for all American universities, public or private.

The university is on its way to reaching the goals of the 2020 Initiative—the formal name of Katehi’s plan to boost Davis’ rankings and add 5,000 students—along with the infrastructure to handle them, she tells the crowd as they finish up their farm-fresh meal.

In addition to Davis’ current U.S. News & World Report ranking of No. 38 among public and private schools in the nation, it’s rated ninth among public universities (its fifth consecutive year in the top 10). The school was listed at 42nd and 11th, respectively, when Katehi started.

It also has two programs rated No. 1 in the world this year by respected higher-education data firm QS World University Rankings: agriculture & forestry and veterinary medicine. The only other institutions to be rated No. 1 in more than one discipline were Harvard, MIT and Oxford.

UC Davis’ $30 million Shrem Museum of Art is scheduled to open in late 2016. (Rendering courtesy of UC Davis)

The physical footprint of the school has already expanded as well. Just outside the door of this event is the most visible example—the unlikely curves and angles of the $30 million Shrem Museum of Art (scheduled to open in late 2016) rising across the street—its skeleton alone a promise of beauty and interest, and its existence another reminder that Davis is gathering all the required accoutrements of greatness under Katehi’s watch.

There are also currently $2 billion of building projects in the works for the next 10 years, not least among them a new $400 million chemistry complex. Katehi sees chemistry as the “core discipline for everything that we do,” the replacement for physics and math as the basis for progress in this century, and a cornerstone of her attempt to make Davis the flagship UC campus of the future. Chemistry, she believes, will be the bedrock of the discoveries that push science forward in the coming decades, providing new materials, processes and pathways for everything from water conservation to crop science. Also in the construction pipeline: A new $15 million music classroom and recital hall to open in early 2016; the 600-seat California Lecture Hall, set to open in 2017; and the largest solar panel array of any university in the country opening later this year.

And then there’s Sacramento.

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. “Sacramento has been looking for an entrance into the global economy and she is showing us the way,” says developer Kipp Blewett. So although the school’s medical center is a powerful force in Sacramento, Katehi wants the city to be emotionally connected to the school beyond health care.

“Because we have not been visible in Sacramento, the region has not felt that we are their university,” she says. “They know us more in Chile, 8 and so the commitment I have made to be visible in Sacramento is a commitment that comes out of a major need. We are not going to be able to be the university of the 21st century without really having the region feel that we are their university.”

The core of that effort is a new World Food Center outpost somewhere near the Capitol. Katehi describes this project as more of a district than a single locale (the World Food Center at Davis will remain an on-campus “umbrella” meant to pull together research and resources, she says, including a $40 million commitment from food conglomerate Mars, Inc. and recent agreements for a joint food safety institute with partners in China and a $12 million project with Chile).

How UC Davis will manifest itself here is still up for discussion. No specifics have been decided, although Katehi says a central city campus would have an “urban” footprint. “There is always evolution,” she says, “but I think there is an understanding that this area needs to be focusing more on food. Are there going to be centers that would do related work? Are there going to be outlets that will try to promote healthy food? Will it be a combination? That still needs to be defined.”

Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, envisions it as a “solution center” capable of bringing together people and knowledge at the “nexus of climate, water and energy use, and health and nutrition,” which would help the planet address the 795 million people who suffer from chronic hunger (it’s the No. 1 health risk in the world, killing more people than tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria combined), the 1.9 billion who are overweight and the 600 million who are obese—all major crises centering on food.

The importance of sustainable agriculture in the coming years can’t be overestimated, says Ross. Food production needs to increase by 60 percent by 2050 to handle the ever-growing population and longer lifespans. But 63 percent of arable land and 70 percent of fresh water is already spoken for. New solutions are imperative.

5 Katehi’s mother, Georgia, was the first in her family to marry a non-native, which caused her grandmother to yell, “It’s great to have a shoe from your own place even if it’s used,” when she was mad, says Katehi, meaning Georgia should have married one of her own. ^

6 These patents are NASA-grade complicated, but generally about putting more power into ever-smaller spaces. ^

7 Katehi says she was treated differently because of her gender during the pepper-spray incident and adds that “even at the cost of coming across as trying to put the blame off on something else, you know, even at that cost, I think it’s important to call it what it is.” In fact, though the Occupy Davis and Occupy Cal incidents both sparked national outrage and took place only nine days apart, the Wikipedia page of then UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau contains barely a sentence referencing his school’s incident, whereas Katehi’s page features an entire section on it. ^

8 With funding from the Ford Foundation, graduate students from Chile came to UC Davis as part of the “convenio Chile-California” from 1965-73, an exchange meant to encourage free trade. Those graduates became widely known in Chile as the “Davis Boys,” for revamping the country’s agricultural economy to include exportable fruits and produce. ^