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Davis, California

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Chancellor Emerita Linda Katehi reflects on career, looks to future


Katehi talks about discrimination she has faced, salary, upcoming memoir; says she has returned to her calling

In her office within the Academic Surge Building, Chancellor Emerita Linda Katehi discussed her return to researching and teaching after her resignation from her position as UC Davis chancellor. She also addressed her controversial 2017-18 salary, disclosed stories about past experiences with sexism — an issue discussed in her upcoming memoir — and spoke about how she felt administrative work was unsatisfactory.

With regard to her $318,000, 2017-18 salary which, when annualized, will be about equal to that of the current chancellor, Katehi stated that her critics do not understand or recognize the complexity of the situation. This quarter, she is teaching a one-unit class.

“People don’t understand, everyone teaches one class because we do a huge amount of research,” Katehi said. “The university expects me to earn $500,000 in research a year, so I will [work] for my salary. Senior faculty members [like myself] are expected to do a lot of service on committees and review cases, besides teach and research. It’s very hard for people to understand the complexity of the job, so they just look at the one class.”

As a member of the UC Davis faculty, Katehi said she is happy to be done with administrative positions.

“I always felt like being a faculty member was more respectable than being [an] administration member,” Katehi said. “I was always very cynical of administrators — they are the people who tell you what not to do, even though you’re making so much money for the university. I see being an administrator as a service, not a career. I did not come to the university to become a chancellor, I found myself there. It is much more of a political position, and I don’t want to be a politician. Politics are dirty — they are about an agenda.”

Katehi said she originally joined the administration because she thought she “could make a difference” and said she now hopes what she accomplished while chancellor “will remain” in place.

Talking about her relations with the media — which she dealt with often while chancellor — she criticized muckrakers and agenda-driven publications.

“The only thing that matters is truth,” Katehi said. “You have to show evidence you discovered the truth. That’s not true anymore in the media with some people. I’m kind of sick of it. People call it ‘investigative journalism,’ and the last thing they do is investigation. I would bow to the journalist who really cared about the truth, not the ones who find evidence to support their view.”

Katehi was the recipient of a lot of criticism during her time as chancellor — including criticism that invaded her personal life.

“Last year, I was receiving phone calls in the residence saying ‘leave town, you and your family, get out of here,’” Katehi said. “We moved the number to a private number. How the heck did they find this? There was a time when those things bothered me, but not now.”

When asked about the progress on her memoir, which she began roughly a year ago, her face lit up. Katehi said she has “found a publisher” and “signed the contract last week.”

She has part of the book on a table in her office. The pages of pre-memoir notes were constructed mainly of drawings, thoughts and stories. Katehi talked about her memoir as a monument for her accomplishments against the odds of achieving her goals, including the sexism she faced as a woman in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Katehi grew up on Salamis, a Greek island. In her home community, Katehi was first shamed for enjoying math, and so caught glimpses of the cobbled path ahead of her as a female electrical engineer.

“I grew up in a very small and remote place and was the only woman to go to the university then,” Katehi said. “I was very good at math. For a young girl to be good at math there was considered weird, and I was considered a weirdo for a long time.”

Katehi talked more about her experiences as a child in rural Greece and said she was inspired by international accomplishments in STEM.

“I wanted to become an electrical engineer after Apollo 11— that’s really what changed my life,” Katehi said. “In my small and uneducated […] community, my great-grandmother never even believed those pictures were right, and she thought that someone was lying about the pictures.”

Katehi said she had experiences with discrimination early in her career.

“People laughed in my face when I was younger and told them I was an electrical engineer,” Katehi said. ”How many kids have seen an electrical engineer that’s a woman?”

She spoke openly of one particular experience while still in Greece, after earning a degree in electrical engineering from the National Technical University of Athens. In 1977, while applying for jobs, a misogynistic call from an interested employer left her in disbelief — an interested employer had misread her posting and wrongly assumed she was a man.

“He said ‘Are you telling me are you are an electrical engineer?,’” Katehi said. “He then said ‘Do you expect me to hire you?’ I said ‘Yes?’ [And] he said ‘Thank you, but no.’”

She worked at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor from 1984 to 2001 as a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Starting in 1994, Katehi became the associate dean of academic affairs and graduate education. Katehi described the status of women’s rights in America as more progressive than that of Greece, although she continued to face multiple forms of discrimination in the United States.

“I never felt discriminated in the U.S. at first, but I then moved to [the] University of Michigan and became a faculty member,” Katehi said. “The students would call me ‘Linda’ even if I told them I was their professor. They talked to me like a secretary. The secretaries would come to me and say, ‘After the faculty meeting, you should go and clean the table.’”

She recounted a contest she was discouraged from participating in because of her gender that she ended up winning. After winning the contest, Katehi said, a University of Michigan staff member made a discriminatory comment about contest-holders purposely picking women.

Katehi was candid about experiences at the University of Michigan, as both an assistant professor and as a dean. She talked about the blatant sexism she faced and unprofessional behavior she endured during her time there. When Katehi asked for maternity leave while working as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, she was denied and told that faculty members were not allowed such leaves.

”As an assistant professor at [the] University of Michigan, I […] got pregnant with my daughter,” Katehi said. “I had medical problems, and the administration was rude. I told them that the doctor told me I should not raise weights or stand too long, but I had a class to teach. I had to sit down to teach my class. Do you know how humiliating that is?”

Katehi recounted other situations in which doors were slammed in her face and students berated her with sexist language. Katehi said she recounts these stories in her memoir.

“I want [the memoir] to have a positive message,” Katehi said. “I was able to do a lot of things in my life. At the same time, I don’t want to hide problems I’ve faced. Most of the time when I was younger, I thought there was [a] problem with me. Am I too cold? Am I unfeeling? It gets in your brain. But if you know others have experienced the same, it can make you feel better. I was thinking about […] how [I] can speak of things that are very painful, without making people feel bad, so I thought I [would] try adding a bit of humor — so, this is what [the memoir] will be about.”

She said she envisions the book as a model for optimism, self-reflection and discovery for women and girls — Katehi said she would like to serve as a role model.

“You don’t see too many women engineers who become chancellors,” Katehi said. “In fact, I was the only one in the U.S. But if you see an example, then eventually you can see yourself in that opportunity. When I went to college, [there] were two girls in a class of hundreds. When I went to graduate school at UCLA, [there] were maybe two or three at most.”

Katehi’s current research includes working on wireless communication beyond 5G — cell phone frequencies of the future. Katehi holds 19 patents, and her previous cell phone, radio and antenna circuit technologies are used in transmitting and processing.

“I decided to take a new direction in wireless communications and it’s technologies for what we call beyond 5G,” Katehi said. “They expect it will go from 3G to 4G and then 5G. After that, people are trying to figure out where to go beyond 5G — how will people communicate in the future? What will phones look like? My interest is in adapting technologies that will make this wireless grid available to everyone because, so far, […] technology is expensive. The wireless grid is so pervasive — unless you’re part of [it], you won’t be able to get a job.”

According to Katehi, technology is already as important as water or energy. Her ultimate goal is to create cheap technology — “Why not go for a $10 iPhone?” she mused.

Besides her research, Katehi said spending time with students is much more gratifying than attending meetings all day.

“When I was a chancellor, while it was a demanding job, it was not intellectually stimulating,” Katehi said. “As a chancellor, you disconnect from the academic side. Most of the time, it’s solving problems [which can be] ugly, personal or beyond solution.”

Katehi spoke lastly about her emotional departure from the UC Davis administration. She said she enjoys where she is now, where she can easily see her everyday accomplishments, and looks forward to the future.

“For me, as [someone] who has a human need for immediate return, I needed to be a professor again,” Katehi said. “I always knew what my role was, being around students. I never anticipated that I would be in administration for that long. But it’s all good. At least I can say I’ve had a lot of experiences.”


Written by: Aaron Liss — campus@theaggie.org


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