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.
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.
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.
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. ^
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].”
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.”
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.
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.
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. ^
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.”
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. ^