Chancellor Katehi and student trust

I want to clarify something.

Last week The Sacramento Bee ran a profile on UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who just finished her first year on the job. Reporter Laurel Rosenhall interviewed me about how students perceive the new chancellor. Here’s what she wrote:

Yet Katehi failed at fostering students’ trust, said Jeremy Ogul, an incoming senior who is opinion editor at the California Aggie student newspaper.

“There is more of an adversarial relationship between administration and students than I’ve ever seen before,” said Ogul, 21.

Students saw the prior chancellor, Larry Vanderhoef, as “a really lovable guy,” Ogul said.

“Even if we didn’t see what he was doing on a day to day basis, people trusted that he was working in our interest and working to make our lives better. And I don’t feel that people feel that about Linda at all. Students are constantly talking about her salary.”

While Rosenhall quoted me accurately, her paraphrase was a little strong. I do not think Katehi failed at fostering student trust. It is far too early in her tenure to be making those kinds of judgments. I do think the circumstances of the past year made it extremely difficult for her to convince students she’s on their side. She certainly tried, and I’m sure there are some students who trust her and think she is doing a good job. But most of the students I talk to and hear from see her as a suspicious and calculating outsider.

Larry Vanderhoef had something like 15 years to build trust and goodwill among students, so when he had to make a tough call, most people gave him the benefit of the doubt. The only time Katehi has had is this extremely difficult year of budget turbulence. It’s nearly impossible to build trust with people when you’re slashing their budgets and cutting their programs.

And there is a lot Katehi has done that students don’t give her credit for. (I made this point to Rosenhall but she left it out of the story.) For example, Katehi participated in a campus town hall on the budget at some point in the past year. From a student perspective I think that’s one of the best things she’s done as a chancellor. Students got to directly ask her a lot of tough questions, and she responded gracefully and candidly. Someone asked why her salary was so large, and she answered that it was commensurate with her professional experience and the prevailing wage of university leaders. A lot of people weren’t satisfied with that answer, but I think the fact that she was willing put herself on the spot was powerful and effective. It certainly made me trust her more.

So I don’t think Katehi failed. It’s too early to say something like that. I just think she has more work to do.

UPDATE 10/01/10: Several students and recent alumni have told me they disagree with my perspective on this. They say I’ve got it backwards; Katehi is way more visible and accessible than Vanderhoef ever was, and Vanderhoef didn’t have as rosy a reputation as I suggested. Since we all interact with the chancellor in different settings, on different issues, and at different levels, I understand why people might see this issue differently. Vanderhoef did an excellent job of making the Aggie editorial staff feel comfortable and close to the chancellor. Apparently that’s not representative of other groups’ experiences with him. Duly noted.

UPDATE 10/11/10: Yesterday I had an opportunity to talk to the chancellor directly about the article and bring up some of my thoughts from this blog post. Much to her credit, she didn’t seem offended or defensive at all, unlike practically everyone else who supports her. She said opinions need to be voiced, because without opinions out there it’s impossible for people and institutions to react and change. She also said it was good there was a critical voice in the profile; otherwise it would have been unrealistically positive. Finally, she said the best leaders are those who make decisions based not on what’s best for their short-term popularity, but based on what’s best for the long-term good of the organizations they lead. She recognizes that there are people who don’t like her, but her motive is not to get people to like her; it is to establish a legacy as a chancellor who did what was necessary to make the university better.