Whether right or wrong, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi has been riddled with conflicts of interest: a board seat at a competing institution, using university funds to manipulate how information about Katehi and the infamous University pepper spray incident appears on the web, significant salary increases to her family members on university payroll, and more.
Most of these potential conflicts could have been easily avoided had Katehi used a simple ethics rule, which I like to call the Ricky Ricardo rule.
The Ricky Ricardo Rule: If you’re doing a lot of ’splainin’, you’re in a problematic situation.
It’s a pretty easy guideline to follow and helps prevent the questions and scrutiny that Chancellor Katehi seems to have invited by her lack of savviness as a leader of a large, public institution.
California has a rule mandating that public officials of cities, counties and special districts complete an ethics training course within six (6) months of taking office. Unfortunately, this rule does not appear to extend to chancellors of public universities, or to state senators or assembly members.
It makes you wonder whether Chancellor Katehi ever received any kind of ethics instruction or guidance on conflicts of interest given her lack of awareness of how her actions trigger an appearance of impropriety - whether they were improper or not.
Frankly, I would expect any leader at that level to be savvy enough to run all their decisions through a quick “ethics filter” to anticipate the public perception of their actions.
The other week, UC President Janet Napolitano had a private discussion with Chancellor Katehi regarding her transition out of the chancellor role. Ultimately, the private discussion didn’t work and President Napolitano resorted to placing Katehi on administrative leave while she hired a former U.S. Attorney to investigate the conflict of interest allegations against Katehi.
Ironically, Chancellor Katehi’s last stand and her refusal to exit gracefully is yet another conflict of interest. She is placing her personal interests above that of the University she has sworn to serve, and her interests are in conflict with the University’s interests.
Whether motivated by a bigger severance package or fighting for her job, Katehi’s refusal to exit gracefully will likely cost the public high six or even seven figures in investigation costs and more bad press surrounding one of the top gems in the UC system. It translates to costing the University an unnecessary, significant expense and could undermine its ability to compete for top faculty and students in 2016.
If Katehi stopped to ask herself whether her current actions provide more benefit than harm to the University, she’d quickly see she’s engaged in yet another conflict of interest.
Perhaps it’s time to mandate that all leaders of public organizations go through an Ethics 101 course? It may be a low impact activity that could provide big returns for the public.