Newly released documents reveal that administrators at UC Davis spent at least $175,000 to scrub the Internet of photos of university police pepper spraying students during an Occupy movement demonstration on campus in 2011.
The documents suggest that that university administrators paid a public relations firm $15,000 per month to help clean up their online image after a 2011 incident in which a university police officer used pepper spray to remove students from a blocked-off pathway. The incident sparked a national conversation about the militarization of police and the appropriate use of pepper spray by law enforcement.
The images from the incident at UC Davis rapidly spread online and throughout mainstream media, sending administrators scrambling to save the university’s reputation. In 2013, they signed an agreement with public relations firm Nevins & Associates to clean up the university’s online image.
In a six-page proposal, Nevins & Associates specifically claims that they’d be able to repair damage done by the pepper spray incident in 2011: “Nevins & Associates is prepared to create and execute an online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention the University of California, Davis, and Chancellor Katehi have received related to the events that transpired in November 2011.”
The proposal claimed that negative online commentary about UC Davis and university chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi would slowly be removed from search engine results: “Online evidence and the venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the Chancellor are being filtered through the 24-hour news cycle, but it is at a tepid pace.”
Sacramento public affairs consultant Doug Elmets claims that this incident “is one more example of how out of touch the leadership at UC Davis is when it comes to their public perspective.”
Although UC Davis spokesperson Dana Topousis claims that their administrators “have worked to ensure that the reputation of the University, which the chancellor leads, is fairly portrayed,” Katehi has come under significant criticism for trying to erase an event in the school’s history that might make them susceptible to legitimate criticism.
Students have occupied the space outside of chancellor Katehi’s office since March 11 and plan to remain there until Katehi resigns. The student protesters have slept in the office for the past several weeks and have even arranged shifts, so that a group of students will always remain in the office even when others have to go to class.
Although UC President Janet Napolitano claims that she won’t ask Katehi to step down from her position as chancellor, it seems that between increasing media attention and increased pressure from students, she may be forced to consider the option.