The History of UC Davis Chancellors

Top row (from right to left): Stanley Freeborn, Emil Mrak, James Meyer, Theodore Hullar; bottom row (from right to left): Larry Vanderhoef, Linda Katehi, Gary May (SPECIAL COLLECTIONS / UC DAVIS LIBRARY, SANJANA CHAND / AGGIE FILE, CIERA PASTUREL / AGGIE FILE, GEORGIA TECH / COURTESY)

Distinguished professors look back on six individuals who shaped the university

The University of California (UC) Board of Regents unanimously voted on Feb. 21 to select Gary May, a dean at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as UC Davis’ seventh chancellor.

Prior to the creation of the chancellor position, university affairs were managed by the deans of the College of Agriculture and the Agricultural Extension at the University Farm. In 1958, Stanley Freeborn, who had served as the chair of the division of entomology for ten years, was appointed as UC Davis’ first chancellor. According to “Abundant Harvest: The History of the University of California, Davis,” Freeborn was known for his friendly nature and also as the occasional timer for soccer games, due to his love of university sports.

After Freeborn’s retirement from the position in 1959, Emil Mrak, a food scientist and microbiologist, was appointed as the university’s second chancellor. During Mrak’s decade as chancellor, he oversaw the extensive expansion of the university, as the student population grew from 2,600 to 12,000. In addition to his determined attitude, “Abundant Harvest” writes that Mrak was also known for his hospitality and good relationship with the student body.

In 1969, James Meyer took over the chancellor position, where he remained until his retirement in 1987. Meyer, a former dean of the College of Agriculture, is responsible for the renaming to the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

“His biggest strength was his very calm approach [and] his very steady leadership,” said Alan Hastings, a distinguished professor of environmental science and policy who has been a faculty member at UC Davis since 1979. “His biggest fault was that, at a time when there were lots of resources, he did not aggressively pursue those for the Davis campus, as opposed to other campuses in the UC system.”

Meyer’s replacement, Ted Hullar, proved to be an extremely different leader than Meyer was. Unlike his predecessors who had previously worked within the university, Hullar served as the chancellor of UC Riverside before he was appointed chancellor of UC Davis.

“One [difficult factor] was having somebody from outside UC Davis who did not understand UC Davis,” said chemical engineering professor Robert Powell, a faculty member since 1984. “There was also a feeling of, […does] this devalue Riverside? People here were just calling all of their friends at Riverside and finding out that they were really happy for him to leave. That was a bad decision.”

Hullar was one of the most, if not the most, widely criticized chancellors among UC Davis faculty members, according to Hastings.

“His was a fairly short and tumultuous reign,” Hastings said. “I think he certainly was somewhat polarizing in a way. There was a sense that he did not do enough planning in order to carry out the programs he was working on.”

According to Powell, under Hullar, research became more monetized. However, Linda Bisson, a professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology and faculty member since 1985, said that Hullar had an additional long-lasting impact.

“I’m a real fan of change agents,” Bisson said. “You have somebody coming, opening doors and windows and [saying], ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ You might not like what they say […but] now there can be a dialogue.”

After almost six years as chancellor, Hullar was transferred by then-UC President Jack Peltason to a temporary job in Oakland. Meanwhile, Larry Vanderhoef was appointed as interim chancellor in May of 1993 and officially named the fifth UC Davis chancellor in 1994.

“Larry was a real nuts-and-bolts budget [and] money guy,” Bisson said. “It was a change. He brought a practicality with him that was, I think at the time, welcomed. Not so visionary, but day-to-day, the place is going to run.”

According to Hastings, Vanderhoef enjoyed interacting with students and would meet informally with student body presidents and faculty members by taking walks with them. Powell, who served as the special advisor to the chancellor from 1996 to 1999, remembered Vanderhoef as having a more holistic perspective than Hullar.

“He was much more in tune with what was going on in the campus,” Powell said. “The year 1990 started the bad budget year, […and] Larry led this budget-cutting exercise that we had to go through. He led the beginning of the recovery from the budget cuts and how that would be structured. He had to play a much more organic role of leading the campus.”

Under Vanderhoef, the main entrance to the campus was shifted to the south side, and his goal to create a world-class performing arts center manifested into a reality with the Mondavi Center in 2002. Powell also said one underappreciated legacy of Vanderhoef’s was the addition of UC Davis to the Association of American Universities.
Vanderhoef retired in 2009 and was succeeded by the university’s first female chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi. According to Powell, the majority of faculty members strongly supported Katehi throughout her time as chancellor because of her ability to understand “quality research.”

“One top priority [for Katehi] was definitely to increase the research profile of the university,” Powell said. “A priority that came out of necessity was to create a stable financial model for the university. She definitely wanted to increase the international profile of Davis [and] she wanted to increase the national profile of Davis. Definitely a priority for her [was] women in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics].”

However, Katehi came under fire in November of 2011 when campus police pepper-sprayed student protesters under her reign. Ph.D. candidate Amory Meltzer previously served on the Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholar Welfare committee, where he became familiar with the Reynoso Task Force Report that assessed the pepper spraying incident.

“Reviewing some of the Reynoso Reports […] certainly made me very aware of the chancellor’s role or lack of a role,” Meltzer said. “That was my first moment of becoming aware of Chancellor Katehi’s presence, and it certainly wasn’t positive. I think, over the years, until she was removed, that definitely hung over her. I would say that for my part and for most other graduate students, I think she was often a non-presence. She didn’t seem to be part of the community [and] wasn’t directly engaged with students.”

After the incident, Katehi was met with mounting media and student backlash as details came out about her role in the usage of university funds to scrub the internet of photos from the pepper-spraying incident. Katehi also faced charges of conflicts of interest — including nepotism — and acts of poor judgment, which led to her resignation in August of 2016.

While Meltzer saw most students in support of her resignation, Powell said the majority of faculty were in support of Katehi and wanted her to remain chancellor. Elizabeth Picazo, a second-year neurology, physiology and behavior major and ASUCD representative for the Preparatory Education Committee, said tensions continue to run high after Katehi’s resignation, even almost a year later.

“[Her resignation] did leave a lot of grey area,” Picazo said. “It left a lot of anger and distrust of the people who are in charge of student academics and student affairs here. There’s still that distrust [for] a lot of students because that situation had gone on for so long with very little resolution during her time.”

Bisson, who worked closely with Katehi as a member of the Academic Senate, which assists in governing the university as part of the shared governance model, believes Katehi was the chancellor who understood “the heart and soul” of UC Davis the best.

“She had a lot of community support, far more so than I think any of the other chancellors,’” Bisson said. “I think [she] did a lot for the issues on campus — hate crimes, microaggressions, all of those discussions.”

Bisson, Powell, Meltzer and Hastings are pleased with the appointment of Gary May as the seventh chancellor of UC Davis.

“One thing which I think is great is that he’s spent his […] entire academic career at […] one institution, which is a commitment that’s very, very positive,” Hastings said. “He appears to have […] the right kind of personality — somebody who is going to be open, maybe willing to acknowledge different viewpoints and to really listen to the diversity of views across the campus, which is a real challenge. I’m really excited for the future.”

According to Powell, although the same sort of echochamber created during Katehi’s time as chancellor has already started to form around Gary May’s outside income, it is important that the university has an open mind in light of the transition to the new chancellor.

“I think he will bring a lot to the campus,” Powell said. “And we have to be accepting of what he brings.”
Written by: Hannah Holzer — features@theaggie.org

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