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National

UC Davis Chancellor Faces Calls To Resign Over Pepper Spray Incident

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Northern California, a university tried to sweep an incident under the rug, and the effort has spectacularly backfired. The story begins in 2011, when students at UC Davis marched to protest tuition and fee hikes. A police officer pepper sprayed some of the students. The students sued and won. The officer was fired - end of story, except that it was all over the web. And that's why, five years later, it is back in the news thanks to some sleuthing by reporter Sam Stanton of the Sacramento Bee. Welcome to the show.

SAM STANTON: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: So apparently leaders at UC Davis did not like that this story had gone viral. What did they do?

STANTON: Sometime after the pepper spray incident, they decided that there were too many negative references on the Internet to UC Davis and, specifically, to the chancellor, Linda Katehi. And so they hired a firm in Maryland to help them eradicate these negative references from the Internet. So before we published our story on Wednesday, I did a search for UC Davis pepper spray, and I got about 100,000 results still, which isn't that many, considering that, in 2011, there were millions of views of that video you're referring to of the officers pepper spraying those students.

SHAPIRO: Explain how these scrubbing companies work because, this morning, I went to Google and I typed in UC Davis. And the first suggested auto-fill response was UC Davis pepper spray. So it's not as though this has disappeared from the web.

STANTON: Right, and that's what the university was trying to get rid of with these companies. And what these companies promise is they will generate enough positive stories so that the first stories you see are things about the UC Davis winery program or the UC Davis ag school - something that they think puts them in a better light than pepper spraying their students.

SHAPIRO: Explain why this is a scandal, because people and organizations do PR and damage control and crisis management all the time. What's wrong with the school doing it in the way that you've uncovered?

STANTON: Well, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with it. There are three lawmakers who came out yesterday calling on Katehi to resign

SHAPIRO: This is the chancellor.

STANTON: Correct, the chancellor. They don't think that using public money to burnish the reputation of the school or an individual was appropriate. That's the way they see it. There are other people who believe that what they did is tantamount to changing history.

SHAPIRO: Well what does the school say about it?

STANTON: The school doesn't say very much about it. They issued a statement saying that everyone tries to present themselves in a positive light, but they're not giving us very many details on these contracts. And they haven't given us all the documents that we've been seeking, you know, that would show us what reports came back from these companies about the results that they achieved or didn't achieve.

SHAPIRO: As we've said, the school chancellor is kind of the central figure to this story. Tell us about her.

STANTON: She has been here since 2009, and she has been lauded as a major fundraiser for this school. But she's also been a very controversial figure because of the pepper spray and because of other student protests. So she's currently the subject of a sit-in in her office that is ending today after five weeks that erupted over her position on some corporate boards, including that of a textbook publisher and DeVry University. The students are very upset about that.

SHAPIRO: What has the student reaction been to your reporting about the efforts to scrub the pepper spray incident from the web?

STANTON: Explosive. They're ending their sit-in today at noon. They feel that the international focus on that story has proven their point. There have been renewed calls for Chancellor Katehi to resign because of that story, and so they think there are better ways for them to spend their time.

SHAPIRO: Do you think she will resign?

STANTON: No. She's apologized for the corporate board seats. She's returned some money to a student fund. But there's certainly no indication that she's even considering that

SHAPIRO: Sam Stanton of the Sacramento Bee, thanks for joining us.

STANTON: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: We reached out to UC Davis, which sent us the statement that Sam Stanton mentioned earlier in our conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.