According to a copy of a contract released under the California Public Records Act, UC Davis administration admitted to paying public relations firm Nevins & Associates $175,000 “to create and execute an online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention the University of California, Davis and Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi have received related to the events that transpired in November 2011.”
The events that UC Davis administration wished to “clean up” refer to the incident where UC Davis student protesters sitting on a curb were pepper-sprayed by university police, which was filmed and later uploaded to social media sites.
No cleaning products are going to wipe away Chancellor Katehi and her administration’s stained reputation. If anything, their actions dirty it further.
Although Katehi stated that the administration never intended to “delete” the history of the pepper-spray incidents but only “to optimize search engine results in order to highlight the achievements of our students, faculty and staff,” the $175,000 could have gone elsewhere. The $175,000 could have gone toward scholarships for potential students who excelled academically. The $175,000 could have gone toward funding projects by faculty and staff. The $175,000 could have gone toward 21 pepper-sprayed students, instead of the policeman who pepper-sprayed them and received paid leave and $38,000 for emotional damages. But, no, the $175,000 went to a failed PR move. (And we’re also left with the question: If the money did not come from student fees or tuition, then what paid for the PR firm?)
In her April 18 statement, Katehi explained that the public relations firm was hired to “become more focused and strategic in telling the story of our extraordinary students and faculty.”
Yet, tell us Katehi — as you sat on your board positions with private textbook and for-profit university private companies — how does this fit within the UC Davis’ mission statement? Where does it state that UC Davis is committed to constructing an image of itself — like some sort of business?
Students’ interests and needs were never in mind when the contracts with Nevins & Associates were signed. As her statement reads loud and clear, the action was done due to “the importance of philanthropy to UC Davis and the need to make sure those searching for information about the university get a complete picture.”
If UC Davis wished to maintain a positive online image, the administration did not need to hire a PR firm. Continuing the university’s commitment to serve students by bettering undergraduate programs, offering financial aid and improving faculty and departments would have been the right step, because the origin of the negative image came from the university’s treatment of students. By paying a firm to “expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results,” Katehi and her administration did not face the situation they wrought, but rather hid it — because, according to them, the students’ protest against rising tuition was, as Katehi stated, has “been a setback to our reputation and hard-earned prestige.”
Ultimately, as the contract’s wording demonstrates, Katehi and her administration dismiss student voices via not only their attempt to hide, but by demonizing it as “venomous rhetoric” that required “eradication.” As a public institution, UC Davis — and other UCs — cannot perceive critiques as a poison that will slowly destroy the university. Critiques are a chance to better the university and not to hinder it — unless they are ignored in favor of other interests, or as UC Davis administration has demonstrated, corporate interests. The same can be said at our own university, where when calls for divestment from Sabra hummus was made by numerous student organizations, UCR administration chose to leave the brand on the shelves “due to consideration for student preferences without consideration of the political issues raised,” according to Vice Chancellor of Strategic Communications James Grant.
With this action and previous ones committed by UC Davis administration, students must take on an active role on this matter. Although an apology was given by Katehi, it is not enough. Her explanations only demonstrate business interests, no student interests.
UC-wide, students can demand for the resignation of Katehi and other administrators involved as the UC Davis students did during a month long sit-in at her offices. Only demonstrations of our concern can bring about any change.