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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Katehi adds that whatever the final outcome, the campus will have a strong focus on public policy. “We need to take advantage of the state capital and emphasize our policy programs,” she says, in order to become “a major think tank.” As this year’s proposed climate change legislation 9 shows, California is pushing boundaries and taking a leadership role when it comes to protecting the planet. But crafting those complex and far-reaching laws requires deep expertise. Katehi wants Davis to be the go-to source for thought leadership, with UCD students interning in the offices of policy- makers and UCD professors regularly testifying before committees.
“There is something to be said about having proximity to the State Capitol,” she says. “We want all of our state legislators to be aware of UC Davis, to know of the impact that we can have to extend the work that they are doing. So this campus is going to provide the major window for us to connect with the rest of the state.”
But Katehi knows that even starting now, the pivotal role she hopes the region claims is many years away. While she does expect the World Food Center to be open in Sacramento within five years, establishing the university as a global leader in sustainability will almost certainly take 20 more.
“Big ideas like that do not happen overnight,” Katehi says, citing the 16 years it took to build UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay, a second campus for UCSF that has become a hub for biotechnology. “It takes a long time.”
Inside Surge II, some of the staff started to cry. They felt, says Katehi, like hostages. But no one knew what to do next, not even the protesters. There was no leader for the Occupy group, 10 no plan of action, no guarantee that if Katehi came out that she would be safe. After the pepper-spray incident, Katehi was distrustful of her police force, loath to call them in even though then chief Annette Spicuzza was with her. She wanted to diffuse the situation, not escalate it.
As she waited out of sight in an interior room as her staff advised, she couldn’t help but think of the uprising she had witnessed as a 19-year-old student at Athens Polytechnic on Nov. 17, 1973—38 years, almost to the day, before the UC Davis clash. Fascist troops of Greece’s military junta government smashed through her school’s gate with a tank while snipers shot protesters from rooftops during a crackdown against dissenters of the authoritarian regime. Dozens of civilians were killed. Now, “I was on the other side of the equation,” she says.
Griselda Castro, the then assistant vice chancellor of student affairs, suggested calling Kristin Stoneking, a Christian pastor who was friendly with the protesters, for help. By the time she got to Surge, it was dark out and “there was definitely electricity in the air,” Stoneking says. Inside, it was worse: “Fear, exhaustion, confusion, not a lot of strategizing.”
Stoneking, like the Occupiers, believed that Katehi owed it to the students to face them. She thought it “wasn’t going to be appropriate for [Katehi] to slip out back,” she says, even if that had been possible.
But Castro says the staff didn’t know how it could be safe to put their boss in front of this huge, hostile crowd. They advised the chancellor not to risk it. It wasn’t just Katehi they worried about; if it turned into a riot, everyone was in jeopardy. Then Stoneking came up with a plan that she felt addressed the safety issue: The students would form a line sitting on the pathway outside and promise to be peaceful. Katehi would go through that gantlet, “making eye contact with each person as she walked and remaining silent as a show of respect,” says Stoneking. This austere exit, the pastor thought, could serve as a “reflective moment” for the “harm that had been caused.” Castro said administrators worried the stark setup would be “humiliating,” a walk of shame that was more about public punishment than dialogue, but they presented the plan to Katehi. Without alternatives and with the situation growing more tense, she agreed.
A few minutes later, Katehi walked out into the darkness with Tseregounis behind her. For 35 years of marriage, he’d watched her back. 11 Tonight he was nervous, scanning the crowd for trouble, but it didn’t come. The students kept their end of the bargain.
But far from a moment of silent communion, Katehi was hit with the blinding bulbs of TV cameras and dozens of cell phone screens. The random click of shutters made a discordant rhythm with the even tap of her high heels on the pavement as she walked slowly down the line, making eye contact when she could. The quiet seemed oppressive, enforced by Stoneking when reporters tried to ask questions. For two long minutes, she walked that walk.
Like the pepper-spraying, this video also went viral and has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. In it, her silence seemed like defeat, a disgraced woman on her way out of power.
But those who know Katehi saw a different narrative—a leader taking a personal hit for a resolution that was best for her students and staff, and for the university. And best for Katehi; it kept her in the fight. If this was what the students needed, the price of getting her staff out safely, this was what she would do.
“I know that it was agonizing for her to take that walk, but it was also courageous,” says Castro. “Being humble is not the same as being humiliated.”
Katehi would not be waylaid by pride, by circumstance or setback. 12 While some people might fold under that scrutiny, Katehi rebounded. Quitting, says Tseregounis, is not “her style.” Against the advice of her staff, she came out that Monday morning and apologized to a crowd of thousands of students and faculty on the same quad where the student protesters had been pepper-sprayed, and became visibly emotional as she alluded to her own experiences in 1973. She later spoke to the media about the incident, and defended herself to senators and assembly members, the board of regents and the public, and during an extensive investigation that lasted more than six months.
Realizing that, in her drive to make UC Davis better, she hadn’t focused enough on the students and what was happening on campus in the present, she revamped her team and their outreach to make sure she knew what her undergrads were thinking, even personally holding open office hours once a week, which she continues to do— virtually unheard of for a major university chancellor. She also hired a new police chief, one with an ethos of service over enforcement.
Heads rolled, but not hers. She never considered resigning, either that night or in the coming days and weeks.
“I thought I may leave the university, but it was going to be for my own reasons,” she says. “[Critics] wanted me to resign not because they cared about the university. They wanted to score a win. I cared about the university so I said, ‘OK, I will do whatever I need to do, bring the university back to the stability that I think the university should have, and then if the situation has not improved or if I don’t feel that I can be an effective leader, I’ll leave.’ That’s the decision I’ve made.”
As a new class begins this fall and Katehi starts her seventh year, students will find a campus that’s more financially and socially stable than that of the one she began with, a school on the upswing, and one that “in the last five years, has really come into its own,” says Matsui.
Katehi has proven she’s an effective leader, with the mix of personality and persistence to move even a bureaucratic and byzantine organization like a public university in a fresh direction. That was half the challenge, and she has set a series of big ideas in motion that has the potential to elevate both the school and the entire Sacramento region.
The seeds she’s planted in her first six years are already taking root, but the legacy-creating projects are still years off, and the biggest of them may not reach fruition until long after her time as chancellor has come to an end. Still, she has already succeeded in growing a brazen concept into a believable possibility. She hopes that when she’s done, she’ll be remembered as someone who “took the university to a different level from where it was before.”
That’s likely. “Katehi came about at the right time,” says Matsui. “The university was looking outward and trying to define its own future and in essence needed somebody like [her] to bring new ideas and a new vision, which she has.”
Her relentless determination may even be the force that transforms this region from an agricultural powerhouse into a planetary pioneer when it comes to sustaining the human race in the 21st century. Katehi clearly not only has the conviction of her ideas, but the deep belief that this particular university at this particular time in history will ultimately succeed in ways that few others can yet imagine.
“It’s going to happen,” she says with assurance. “You will see.” S
9 California lawmakers proposed a package in February 2015 that would set high goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum use, and for creating new standards for energy efficiency, including a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by vehicles by 2030. As of press time, the bill had passed in the Senate. ^
10 Occupy believed in “participatory democracy” with no leaders. Everything was decided through meetings of the General Assembly. ^
11 Tseregounis has never had issues with his wife’s high-profile career. “It’s amazing to find someone who was raised in this traditional Greek culture who is very open and supportive of my mother and her career and her professional ambitions,” says their daughter Helena. “Is it not interesting?” adds Katehi. “Yeah, that’s who Spyros is.” ^
12 Katehi likes to read biographies of women who inspire her, like Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton, who know a thing or two about surviving crises. ^