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Davis, California

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Anti-Katehi rhetoric echoes Trump supporters

PUBLIC DOMAIN / JAY GELVEZON
PUBLIC DOMAIN / JAY GELVEZON

Accusations against Linda Katehi are unfounded and irresponsible

Following UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi’s struggle with the student body last year, her resignation in August should come as no surprise. And who can blame her? The ceaseless attacks on her character and leadership decisions would knock down even the strongest of leaders. But the chaos surrounding her fall from grace underscores a more sinister trend. Similarities between Katehi’s denouncers and Donald Trump’s pocket cronies abound, with worrying implications for the United States.

Many Trump enthusiasts don’t seem to care that bullying and thuggery — like the kind that takes place at his rallies — have no place in civilized society. Though not through violent means, the #FireKatehi protesters in Mrak Hall showed similar disdain for civil discourse. A letter penned by a graduate student identified “sexist and racist behaviors, threatening and bullying of staff, students and faculty” carried out by the protesters. Video surfaced of protesters ridiculing Katehi’s smile and refusing to sit down in a cordial dialogue. Vandals defaced the beloved Eggheads for lack of a more mature response to Katehi’s moonlighting activities.

Behaviors like this sound familiar, although carried out by a group on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Violence and intimidation at Trump rallies has been ubiquitous. One supporter was charged with assault after sucker-punching a protester in Tucson. Katehi’s more extreme detractors ironically failed to distance themselves from tactics which their political demographic often condemns in others.

Bullying aside, the accusations against Katehi only grew worse as media attention increased. The investigation acquitted Katehi from five of the seven charges, with the remaining two charges falling under a category of miscommunication and not complete fabrication. An independent investigation found that “Chancellor Katehi honored the letter and spirit of the near relative policies […] and she has not exercised improper influence over or offered favorable treatment” to her family. Regarding the outlandish accusations over budget manipulation, the report states that “Chancellor Katehi did not appear to have any involvement in this [improper use of student revenues] line-level budgetary decision.”

In terms of the internet “scrubbing” scandal, the report does admit that “Chancellor Katehi minimized her knowledge of and role in certain social media and strategic communications contacts.” Minimized knowledge, while not completely acceptable, still confers an idea of miscommunication and not outright deceit. But why are we so quick to jump on Katehi for trying to improve our university’s reputation? While the pepper-spray incident was unfortunate, Katehi was not directly responsible for the actions of Lt. Pike, and though her choice not to disclose that a PR firm was hired was a lapse in judgement, she should be credited with taking steps to enhance UC Davis’ image. Better job prospects for graduates and more substantial recruitment are just a few of the benefits given by a school viewed by the public in a positive light.  

Katehi notably helped bridge the gender gap in STEM at Davis, raised around $1.13 billion in donations at a time when public university funding is low and oversaw the initial expansion of the university to remain competitive in an increasingly globalized world.

But the now-moot accusations leveled against her — which were tantamount to character assassination — are reminiscent of those that Donald Trump and his posse go after Hillary Clinton with. Conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health issues abound, with no basis in reality. Remember Benghazi? Despite bundles of evidence and testimony acquitting Clinton of any major wrongdoing, Trump’s supporters still use the murder of ambassador Chris Stevens in blitzkrieg one-liners about her character. Katehi in the end was regarded as little more than a careless, neoliberal chancellor. I would hope her most vocal critics avoid this behavior in the future.

The #FireKatehi protesters failed to realize the potential damage caused by demonizing a powerful woman with the capacity for good, but being dealt a variety of misfortunes, like pepper-spray, was driven to make good intentioned, but opaque decisions. Let’s hope America doesn’t make the same mistake.

Written by: Nick Irvin — ntirvin@ucdavis.edu

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