Volume 27 · Number 1 · Fall 2009
Linda Katehi Q&A
Linda Katehi talks about her career, the budget and the future of the university as she begins her appointment as UC Davis' sixth chancellor.
(Robert Durell photography)
Neighbors crowded around a small television last May in Linda Katehi’s hometown on the Greek island of Salamis for a glimpse of the girl they had seen grow up. Along with her parents, they shared the excitement of watching UC Davis give an early welcome to Linda Katehi as the campus’ sixth chancellor.
“My parents are not very savvy with computers,” Katehi said, “but my cousin had made a DVD of the webcast [from the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts], and I think the whole neighborhood came to watch it at my parents’ house.”
Katehi, 55, spent her childhood in Paloukia at a time when people in the small, working-class town had few expectations for their children, especially the girls. Becoming a university chancellor is a far cry from anything she or her parents could ever have imagined.
“My parents were very proud, of course, because everybody was telling them, ahhh, this was so important and everything, but I don’t think they themselves can appreciate really what this is,” she said by cell phone from Athens during a July vacation that included a visit with her parents.
The UC Board of Regents appointed Katehi on May 7 to succeed Larry Vanderhoef, who stepped down after 15 years as chancellor. Katehi’s first official day on the job, Aug. 17, found her in Washington, D.C., attending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s education policy discussion and dinner with other academic leaders from the United States and abroad.
Not bad for a girl from Salamis, where most people worked blue-collar jobs at the island’s naval base.
“The best you could do was to finish high school and then hopefully get a job and get married, I guess,” she said. “So the perspective, you know, when I was growing up, was different — college was not really part of a career plan for girls. I mean, I didn’t have a career plan. It was more like an effort to explore something different and learn more.”
Her father played in a navy band, and he met her mother on Salamis. She was a stay-at-home mom until Linda entered high school, when she started a small business.
“And she was the one who really encouraged me to become educated,” recalled Katehi, who became the first in her family to go to college.
“They were not used to making plans that involved a lot of education. Going to school was something I enjoyed, but finishing high school, I guess, was the highest expectation my parents had, and then beyond that, as I used to tell them, was more like a gift than anything else.
“But for me, it was always taking the next step, and I was driven by curiosity to do something more, or something more important, rather than to meet the career goal.
“And, so, that, in fact, I think is what characterizes, mostly, the steps that I have taken in my career. When I went to college, really, I thought I was going to finish and then go to work.”
And she did, as an electrical engineer. But two years later, she said, “I realized that going to graduate school was important, that it was critical for my own intellectual, say, curiosity, to take that next step.”
She came to the United States in 1979, earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at UCLA, and always thought she would go back to Greece to work.
“But, after I finished my Ph.D., becoming a faculty member really became just the next step, something more to do, and something more challenging, I mean, just to prove to myself first of all and then others that I could do this.
“A lot of people are asking me, ‘At what point did you develop this career plan and when did you know that you wanted to become a chancellor or a president of a university?’
“And I would say that I did not have a plan like that. Somehow it happened, that I was driven by, I guess, the challenge.”
Katehi previously served as provost of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which became embroiled in controversy — after her appointment as the UC Davis chancellor — over a “clout” list that gave preferred admissions status to applicants with connections.
Katehi said she “played absolutely no role in admissions decisions regarding so-called Category I admissions.” University of Illinois President B. Joseph White and Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Richard Herman backed her up, and UC President Mark Yudof also stood by her.
Indeed, Katehi’s name was nowhere to be found in a state investigative commission’s Aug. 6 report that criticized White, Herman, two deans and the university trustees for “failures of leadership.”
So, is Katehi happy to leave the politics of Illinois behind? “I am,” she said with a laugh, adding, “even if I think I will join different types of politics in California!”
California politics — and finances — present Katehi and the entire UC system with a monumental budget challenge, which is where we begin our questions and answers (edited for length):
UC Davis Magazine: You have said your goal is to solidify UC Davis’ position as one of the top public research universities in the country. How can we weather this new budget storm and maintain our standing — for the sake of today’s students and our thousands of alumni?
Chancellor Katehi: In good times, it would have been very difficult for institutions like UC Davis to step back and think very carefully about what we do and how we do it. Now, with our financial challenges, we are motivated to make changes that will make our institution better, without necessarily changing our mission.
If we manage to become less bureaucratic and more efficient, I think eventually we will be able to make a bigger investment in the quality of our education and in the processes that help us create new knowledge, and become effective in translating that knowledge into products and services so we’ll be more effective in participating in economic development. The financial challenges will help us think differently, will help us think creatively.
The only challenge in all of this will be for us to stay focused on those goals rather than becoming demoralized by what we perceive as a devastating reality.
So, while we take the steps that are necessary to secure the financial health of the institution, we will try to focus on the things that will make us better. Institutions that fail to take advantage of this opportunity will not be at the top among the public research institutions in the future.
Linda Katehi gets a tour of the campus from student leaders on her May visit to campus. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)
The budget crisis, of course, means higher fees, albeit with more financial aid, including the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan. Still, what do you say to students and their families about the fee increases, and how can you ensure that the UC Davis experience for these students is all that it should be?
We all understand how difficult it is for families to bear the cost of higher education. It’s an education that cannot be afforded by many, and this is something we need to keep in mind. So, I don’t believe public institutions can rely too much on raising fees to develop the resources they need to provide the high quality.
Creating the necessary resources without raising fees is very challenging considering that the state is substantially cutting funding to public institutions of higher education through draconian measures.
I am not implying that there is no solution to this problem. We need to step back and ask ourselves: What kind of programs will be important to our student education and to the quality of the institution, and how can we provide these programs at a lesser cost?
There should be ways to accomplish both high quality and access, if we take advantage of online education, and take advantage of technologies that can allow students to learn faster and more effectively.
Speaking of students, what are some of the most important things you learned as the parent of two college students? [Erik Tseregounis, 25, a graduate of the University of Michigan, where he now works as a microbiologist in the medical school; and Helena Tseregounis, 22, who graduated with an English degree from Indiana University and now attends law school at the University of Chicago.]
First of all, it was important to me as a parent, that the campus was safe. That my kids had access to high quality education that would allow them to develop their own careers in ways that could bring satisfaction and quality of life to them and their families. Obviously we all have to reconsider what that means in today’s environment. It used to be that we expected better lives for our children, better lives than we had, but I’m afraid this trend may not continue at that same rate.
I also learned of the importance of research opportunities for undergraduates. Both my children benefited from having mentors — faculty or TAs — who valued research and scholarship, and who provided my children guidance about graduate school options.
Of course, I was concerned about cost. I know why families worry, and I can see why students are skeptical. We as a society, especially in the U.S., need to rethink the importance of higher education and the need of the states and the public to fund their own institutions. I was reading, in fact, today in the newspapers here in Greece that Europe is investing heavily in higher education; we cannot afford in the U.S. to remain behind.
The UC system is a wonderful resource. If it is lost, it will be impossible to replace, and the state of California will lose an investment that has been the result of the serious commitment and sacrifice of many generations. The students who are shut out will be the same ones who could have moved the state forward in terms of economic development.
This discussion needs to be alive, it needs to intensify and it needs to happen in a public way.
The budget crisis is hitting our employees, too, with furlough days and pay cuts, as well as layoffs and reorganizations. Do you have a strategy for easing the anxiety among our employees and for keeping our campus community thinking positively?
As decisions are made, our employees want to be informed and they need to participate. They need to understand why decisions are made, how the priorities are viewed and how the tradeoffs take place, because obviously we will have many tradeoffs to consider. I think participation and transparency will be absolutely critical.
If we manage to go through this first year of major cuts and take advantage of retirements — by appropriately retraining and reassigning staff into these positions — we will not have to hire as many replacements while we address our institutional needs. This way we will be able to minimize layoffs.
For budget conversations and other conversations with students and parents, faculty and staff and alumni — conversations on any subject — what is your style of communicating and staying in touch with the campus?
It will be important for me to have open communication, which I was planning to do regardless of the financial difficulties. But, of course, this environment makes communication even more important.
There will be a variety of different ways of listening to the concerns of the community, and listening to their creative ideas that will help us in one way or another find solutions to critical problems.
I will visit all of the schools and colleges, and I will talk with staff, faculty and students in various forums, including town hall meetings. We will try to take advantage of the Web, where we can present a lot of information and take comments and feedback in real time.
Davis is a genuine college town — something that is a point of pride for the campus and the community, but sometimes these relations have been strained. How do you plan to balance the needs of the university with the expectations of the community?
What I plan to do is to work very closely with the Davis community. I plan to do the same with the Sacramento community. Their feedback will be critical to us, because the Davis and Sacramento communities are important constituencies for UC Davis. I want to understand their expectations, their aspirations, and help them understand how far the university can go in meeting those.
We know you are an accomplished engineer, that your work focuses on electronic circuit design, and that you hold 16 U.S. patents and have applied for six more. Can you describe your work in layman’s terms? Where might we see your patents at work?
I’m working on components for wireless communications. These can be circuits that you are using in a cell phone or circuits you are using in radar. I do research on antennas, and I design circuits that allow the signals to be transmitted or received, and also allow the signals to be processed, so you can extract information.
Besides being a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois, you held a joint appointment in the Program of Gender and Women’s Studies. What was your specific role in that program and where did that interest come from?
My interest came, of course, from my own personal experiences. Women in higher education still face challenges, especially in fields like engineering, math and science. There are not as many women faculty and there are not as many female students, especially in engineering, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. And, then, after they leave their institutions, they often find themselves in professional communities with very little gender diversity. These environments create tremendous difficulties for those individuals in terms of accomplishing their career goals.
I became very interested in understanding these issues of diversity and then trying to find ways to improve the environment and the conditions where women professionals can become successful. When I went to the University of Illinois, I found an excellent program there and I became very interested in their activities. Together we created a new lecture series where we would bring in female faculty from around the U.S. to talk about gender issues and about the status of women in higher education. We created a new program where we would give seed funds to groups on campus to work with students in an effort to study and address various aspects of women’s issues. I hope I can do the same at UC Davis.
You have talked about being one of only two women in your college class of 190, and not being welcomed, and about being one of only three women on the engineering faculty at the University of Michigan. How have you persevered, and how does this affect your perspective as an administrator?
When I think back, I believe what kept me going was my own interest in meeting my own goals. The hardest time I had in my career was when I was a faculty member at the University of Michigan (in the mid-1980s). I became very disillusioned for a long time. What I wanted to do was just give it up and leave. But obviously I didn’t want to fail either. And, I thought, if I were to let this go, I would let myself down and then I would let down everybody else who believed in me.
One of my former students just sent me an e-mail congratulating me for my position at UC Davis and saying, “I understand that there are some difficulties as you go there. And I need to remind you that you taught us all that it’s very easy to go to the next step, but it requires a lot of commitment to address the challenges.”
In fact, she reminded me of those years at Michigan. But I would say that the challenges I had there as a faculty member helped me form my character in such a way that I can now focus on the things that I have committed myself to. When I make a commitment, I don’t let my colleagues, family or my friends down. When I make a commitment, I do the best I can to make it come through.
What is the role that philanthropy fulfills at a university with such a profound global impact as UC Davis?
Philanthropy is extremely important for public universities, especially now, as we see the states moving away from their commitment to their own institutions. It is important that our own alumni are asked to contribute.
My husband [Spyros Tseregounis] and I are alumni of UCLA, and we have made a long-term commitment to help our alma mater by establishing an endowment to fund student scholarships. We strongly believe that public institutions must have the ability to provide access to students. And unless the alumni come back to do this, especially those who benefited from the philanthropy, from the generosity of others, the institutions will not be able to meet their own commitments to the public.
It is critical to be able to connect with our own alumni, to be able to explain to them our needs, but also help them participate in thinking about the future of the institution in ways that make them excited. More now than ever, and for the future, philanthropy and private giving will be absolutely critical for the well-being of public institutions.
UC Davis also includes a prestigious medical center and health system, and the brand-new Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing with a bold vision. How can we maintain this momentum during these tight budget times?
The health system at UC Davis — and, of course, that includes the new nursing school — will be absolutely critical pillars for the institution moving forward. The next 100 years will focus on health care and on medicine, all aspects of it, from health care services, to diagnostics and treatment to prevention. As a result, the U.S. economy and the state economy will, in fact, be based on the health care industry and also on bioscience and biotech industries.
It is critical for UC Davis to take advantage of the excellence that has been developed in the health system, and to connect this excellence with the university’s very strong traditions in veterinary medicine and engineering and also in agriculture, among others. We can therefore capitalize on our fine work in comparative medicine, and also become known for our ability to translate knowledge into products and services.
UC Davis has many intellectual strengths, but the health system is a major pillar that we need to utilize effectively to connect with the other strengths of the institution. In the next few years, this effort will create one major direction of impact for the institution.
As state support declines, and you go about setting priorities here at UC Davis, what can you tell me about the UC Davis of the future?
If the financial situation remains, we’ll look a little smaller. This does not necessarily mean reduced student numbers; it means we’ll be a little leaner. At the same time we’ll be a lot more aggressive, a lot more creative.
If I could somehow sketch the UC Davis of the future, we will be a place where there is a lot of creativity, where people feel free to practice new ideas, they feel that the environment is supportive in taking risks, but also where there is a serious commitment to transforming abstract ideas and concepts into products, processes and services that improve quality of life.
If we manage to create this name for ourselves, I can tell you that UC Davis will become a leader in higher education both nationally and internationally.