CA chancellor under fire for pepper-spray incident

AP News
Posted: Nov 23, 2011 7:17 PM
CA chancellor under fire for pepper-spray incident

Linda Katehi was a college student in her native Greece in 1973 when the government used guns and tanks to crack down on campus demonstrations against military rule.

Thirty-eight years later, the chancellor of the University of California, Davis is under intense pressure following a crackdown last week on student protesters who set up an Occupy camp on campus.

Anger has mounted since online videos showed police officers dousing a row of protesters with pepper spray as they sat passively on the ground with their arms linked. Youtube videos of Friday's incident have been watched millions of times.

Katehi, 57, is now fighting calls for her resignation from students and faculty, condemnations from state lawmakers, and mass protests on her 32,000-student campus, the third largest in the prestigious UC system.

Katehi, who became the school's first woman chancellor in 2009, has also found herself in the middle of a national debate over police use of pepper spray to subdue protesters and about the way colleges balance free speech and public safety.

"I want to unequivocally apologize to the entire community for the appalling use of pepper spray," Katehi told students at a town hall meeting Tuesday. "I will do everything in my power to make sure nothing like that ever happens again."

Rachna Kiri, a 21-year-old political science major, is one of many students who say the chancellor should resign.

"It's not working anymore," Kiri said of Katehi's leadership. "It's very important with so much authority to have the backing of the people. Trust is fragile and when you've lost that, it's very difficult to gain back."

Katehi, a former electrical engineer, has placed the campus police chief and two pepper-spraying officers on administrative leave, and has asked prosecutors to drop charges against nine students who were arrested.

At Katehi's request, UC President Mark Yudof has appointed former Los Angeles police chief William Bratton to conduct an independent investigation of the incident.

Katehi declined a request to be interviewed by The Associated Press. She has, however, publicly said she was horrified when she watched videos of a police officer casually spraying protesters who refused orders to disperse.

During Tuesday's meeting with about 1,000 students, Katehi said she had only directed police to take down tents that anti-Wall Street protesters had erected on the campus quad.

"My instructions were for no arrests and no police force," she said. "I explicitly directed the chief of police that violence should be avoided at all costs."

Katehi said students have a right to protest peacefully, but the university bans camping on campus because of safety and health concerns.

Occupy UC Davis protesters have ignored the camping ban. The encampment went back up Monday night, and campus officials said it included as many as 80 tents Wednesday.

Born in 1954, Katehi studied electrical engineering at National Technical University of Athens, the site of a brutal crackdown on student protesters that left a deep impression on the future chancellor.

At Monday's campus protest, she said, "There is a plaque out there that speaks about the 17th of November of 1973. And I was there and I don't want to forget that."

After college, Katehi came to the United States for graduate school and earned her master's and doctorate in electrical engineering at UCLA before becoming a professor and administrator at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Purdue University.

In 2006, Katehi joined the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she served as provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs when the school was embroiled in an admissions scandal in which politically connected applicants got preferential treatment. She denied wrongdoing and was not called to testify in a state investigation.

When she was named UC Davis chancellor in 2009, the Board of Regents was criticized for paying her a salary of $400,000, nearly 27 percent higher than her predecessor when the university was facing severe budget cuts that led to sharp tuition increases and employee furloughs.

Since then, Katehi has spearheaded a major fundraising campaign, overseen the opening of an environmentally friendly campus development and launched plans to add 5,000 more students by 2020.

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Now her ambitious plans for her campus are threatened by the pepper-spraying incident. Eleven students were hit by pepper spray, including two who were treated at a hospital and later released, university officials said.

Many faculty members say it's time for Katehi to step down. The UC Davis Faculty Association's board called for her resignation, saying in a letter there had been a "gross failure of leadership."

The school's student government passed a resolution calling on the state attorney general to investigate Friday's incident and for Katehi to resign if she fails to enact reforms. And at a huge campus demonstration Monday, some students yelled at Katehi as she walked off the stage, telling her to step down as down as chancellor.

Katehi has no plans to resign and continues to have the full support of UC President Mark Yudof, UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said.

Ralph Hexter, UC Davis provost and executive vice chancellor, said Katehi, who is married with two grown children, feels terrible about what happened and finds the pepper-spraying images appalling.

"It's deeply distressing to her that now this is what many people think of UC Davis at the moment," Hexter said. "It is deeply painful to her that she has been labeled an opponent of students because that's not what she is."

Some faculty members say they still support Katehi. In a letter to the student newspaper, a group of UC Davis scientists and engineers wrote: "Pleas for her resignation are short-sighted . Although not all of her policies have been popular, she has carried out her position with marked professionalism."

Asked what she plans to do moving forward, Katehi said at Tuesday's town hall: "I need as a chancellor to spend a lot more time with the students."


Chea reported from San Francisco.