The University of California’s student association has called for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi amid revelations that the university paid to remove images of a 2011 incident in which students were pepper-sprayed from the Internet.
It was disclosed that UC Davis paid $175,000 to remove photographs and references online of the 2011 episode. As documented by Rachel Gross of Slate, UC Davis payed a Maryland-based company, Nevins & Associates, $15,000 a month to clean up its reputation. The company agreed to remedy “the venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the chancellor” through “strategic placement of online content.” Other such contracts were awarded to several companies working to the same end.
In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement was percolating on college campuses; the movement was fueled by young people angered by the rising costs of college education, proposed cuts to university budgets, and perceived greed in the financial sector. Students associated with the movement staged sit-ins and protests. Police contend that the use of pepper spray was justified given the unruliness of students.
However, reporters from the Los Angeles Times note that in April 2012, a University of California report declared that the use of pepper spray violated school policy and that school leaders bungled the handling of the protests. The report, written by a task force appointed by Katehi, rebutted the claims made by campus police concerning the Occupy demonstrators.
The incident received widespread media coverage, and videos surfaced of police firing pepper spray into a crowd of students in November of 2011. The officer who sprayed students, Lt. John Pike, received over 17,000 emails that included threats and harassment in the wake of the incident. Consequently, UC Davis sought online monitoring expertise to cover up these images.
University officials released a statement defending their efforts as an important part of the institution’s overall communication strategy. “It is important that the excellent work underway at UC Davis with respect to educating the next generation of students, pursuing groundbreaking research, and providing important services to the states is not lost during a campus crisis, including the crisis that ensued following the extremely regrettable incident when police pepper-sprayed student protestors in 2011.”
Max Lewontin of The Christian Science Monitor reports that online reputation management is a growing industry that promises to help individuals and businesses manage what appears about them in search engines. In doing so, companies are tasked to replace positive articles and statements in Google results to counterbalance negative results.
“Companies and people make mistakes, and it’s our job to give them a second chance,” Darius Fisher, the president of Status Labs, a monitoring company. “Generally speaking though, most of our clients are companies and individuals who made an embarrassing mistake or received critical media coverage years ago and don’t want to be defined by this forever.”
The revelations only bolster the criticism already being hurled at Katehi. She has resisted calls for her resignation for accepting paid outside board positions, including one on the board of John Wiley & Sons, a textbook publisher, from 2012 to 2014.