What Began With Pepper Spray at UC Davis Ends With a Golden Parachute

Chancellor Linda Katehi, who wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to minimize the incident, has been forced to resign. But the public will keep paying her lavishly.

Issei Kato / Reuters

On November 18, 2011, Lieutenant John Pike, a University of California police officer, approached lawfully assembled student protesters seated peacefully on a campus quad in Davis and ordered them to disperse. When they refused, he attacked them with a chemical agent that causes pain, temporary blindness, and breathing difficulties. A subsequent investigation found that Pike’s use of force was “objectively unreasonable”; that he was neither trained nor authorized to carry the weapon he used to dispense pepper spray; that he abdicated his duties as an incident commander;  and that he wasn’t alone in sharing responsibility for the brutal incident, which disgraced UC Davis in the eyes of many who watched it.

Among other culprits, the investigation blamed UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who bore some culpability for the decision to remove students from the quad, the dubious timing of the operation, and the failure to convey that force should not be used. She said at the time that she took “full responsibility” for what happened. Ever since, student activists have been calling for her resignation.

This week, they finally got their wish.

But Katehi wasn’t ousted for her part in the brutal pepper-spraying of harmless undergraduates. She was done in mostly by her quixotic attempt to cover up the incident.

At great cost, she spearheaded a lengthy effort to deny it a prominent place in Google results or her Wikipedia page.“The evidence indicates that Chancellor Katehi was acutely concerned with damage to her personal reputation following the 2011 pepper spray incident,” an official inquiry found, “and that she was interested in the consultants working to improve her own online reputation as well as the reputation of UC Davis.” At her urging, Davis paid $407,000 to a series of PR consultants hired in that effort, which also consumed an unknown number staff hours.

What did UC Davis get for all that time and money?

Abject failure. Attempting to manipulate Google and to rewrite Wikipedia entries inspired renewed attention to the pepper-spraying and more bad press for the institution, which Katehi also damaged when she decided to take paid positions on corporate boards for a leading college-textbook company and a for-profit university.

Back in 2013, when the absurdly long process of terminating Pike’s campus employment finally concluded, I reflected on the excessive protections that California affords misbehaving public employees, and the attendant results at Davis. By my calculations, Pike received more than $70,000 in salary between the pepper-spray incident and the day he ceased to be employed by taxpayers, though he did no work in that time. And then, he was awarded another $38,000 in a worker’s compensation for alleged “psychiatric injuries” caused by the way he was treated.

Meanwhile, the students who Pike needlessly attacked with a chemical agent got just $30,000 per plaintiff, plus a $250,000 sum that was split up among all their lawyers. At the time, I filed the whole debacle away as yet another example of how California treats its public servants much better than the public they’re ostensibly serving, even when the former literally attack the latter to nationwide opprobrium.

Alas, the final accounting is even more perverse than I anticipated.

The official inquiries concurred that bad judgment and incompetent leadership by both Pike and Katehi were responsible for the pepper-spraying, which harmed numerous innocents and cost taxpayers like me millions in legal settlements. In a sane system, both of them would’ve been unceremoniously terminated.

As noted, Pike cost us another $108,000.

As noted, Katehi then wasted $407,000 on unethical PR efforts that only deepened the PR hit.

Katehi then earned another 6 figures or so while on paid leave during the just-concluded investigation.

Now, another official report has documented her bad behavior—among other things, it concludes that Katehi misled the public and her bosses—and she has been forced, at long last, to resign her leadership role. So is the taxpayer finally off the hook?


California’s median household income is $61,933. Assistant professors at UC Davis earn about $80,000.

“After resigning Tuesday as UC Davis chancellor under a cloud of controversy, Linda P.B. Katehi will take advantage of a University of California perk that allows campus leaders to receive chancellor-level pay with few responsibilities for one year,” the Sacramento Bee reports. “Katehi will continue to receive her salary of $424,360 plus retirement and health benefits, but she will not have to teach classes in her transition year, after which she plans to become a UC Davis engineering professor.”