Ralph J. Hexter held a news conference last Thursday afternoon (April 28) about his taking on the role of acting chancellor. The questions in this transcript are paraphrased, but Hexter’s remarks are complete.
Dana Topousis, interim director, Office of Strategic Communications: I’m here to introduce you to our acting chancellor, Ralph Hexter, and he’ll give you some brief remarks and answer all your questions. I just want to point out three things you may not know about our Acting Chancellor Hexter. He serves as distinguished professor of classics and comparative literature. Just last week he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And he’s a founding member of the LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Ed. So without further ado, I’m going to turn it over to our Acting Chancellor Hexter.
Ralph Hexter: Thank you, Dana, and thank you for coming here today. This is a very unexpected development, I have to say. In many, many ways, it’s with a very heavy heart that I take on the duties of acting chancellor in such circumstances. The thing that I want to emphasize, and I have been emphasizing to faculty, staff and students, and will continue to do so, is that we’ve developed such momentum here in realizing the tremendous vision for UC Davis that Chancellor Katehi inspired in us. And I’m committed and everyone I’m working with is committed to seeing that we follow on that pathway and we continue to grow this university and make sure the world recognizes how great a university UC Davis is. So I think that I’m very much willing to take any and all questions.
Question about important matters awaiting action on the chancellor’s desk, including the student body’s recent vote to approve a fee to support the school newspaper (chancellor approval is required on top of the student body’s approval).
I’ve gathered with the collective staffs of my provost’s office and the chancellor’s office today, and we started doing some triage, just understanding the many buckets that we have to do. I will be appointing an acting provost so that I can turn my attention to all the duties that a chancellor has to do, to work with the students and to take up all those issues. There are number of issues on the desk, and I’m looking forward to, and I know that the staff will make sure that I attend to them in a timely fashion. But I think everyone understands that it will take at least a few days for me to get fully up to speed.
I certainly want transparency to be one of the watchwords of all I do. — Ralph J. Hexter, acting chancellor
Question: Clearly there’s been a lot of frustration and confusion on campus. Today, in coming out to speak, are you trying to be very transparent and to ease some of the students’ concerns?
Well, I certainly want transparency to be one of the watchwords of all I do. In terms of the confusion and frustration, perhaps, of not knowing, quite honestly since I didn’t know myself ’til yesterday evening that I would be doing this, it would have been hard to say anything about that before. But I certainly want to be forthcoming and to make myself available to students, to the press, whenever it’s possible.
Question: Students seem to be very distrustful now of all authority figures on campus, having spoken with many of the protesters. How do you plan to regain their trust here?
I think that questioning authority and distrust in authority is something that’s much more widespread than just our campus and just today. That actually seems to be one of the elements of the moment. We see it in our politics — I won’t elucidate that, I won’t elaborate — but that seems to be something we’re seeing everywhere. All I know how to do is to explain what I’m trying to do and what the institution is trying to do as clearly as I can, and I hope that those who are listening to those explanations will take them in good faith — can’t do anything about it if they won’t — and know us by our deeds. So we’ll follow through, and I hope that they will, again, as I said, listen to them and be prepared to weigh them.
Question: What will happen with the search for a new athletics director? Will it be put on hold? Is someone going to be named?
So, I know that the AD search has reached a point, there are finalists, and I’ve begun to immerse myself in all of the material. I’ve committed to several people I’ve spoken to that I will work very hard on that, familiarize myself with the finalists, with the input that we have from the committee, with stakeholders’ opinions, so we will move to a decision as quickly as we possibly can.
Question: Will it be your call?
Of course it will be my call.
Question: How long do you an anticipate serving as the acting chancellor?
This is something I have no way of knowing. The president asked me to step up and take these duties on; in fact, it was more, “You’re the provost, this falls to you.” And so it’s entirely up to the president. We know that she said the investigation she expects to be complete within 90 days, so I serve at her pleasure and I will serve as long as she wants me to serve.
Question: Are you the next person in line, is that the hierarchy? Or, were you chosen for a particular reason?
I’m the next person in line. I’m the No. 2 to the chancellor. When the chancellor is away, if I’m here, then I’m usually, I am the acting chancellor even in her absence.
One thing that is somewhat unusual for a provost is I’ve been a college president (at Hampshire College in Massachusetts). ... I hope that I’ll once again prove how fast a learner I am. I seem to have shown that before. — Ralph J. Hexter, acting chancellor
Question: How much of the day-to-day operations and the bigger picture items have you been involved with in that capacity? How ready are you to step up?
So there are many things that I know about because we work on them together. There are frankly some areas that I know less well because the chancellor’s had her area and I’ve had mine. One thing that is somewhat unusual for a provost is I’ve been a college president. Before I came here, I was the president of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. That said, of course, a liberal arts college is very different from a research university, but I hope that I’ll once again prove how fast a learner I am. I seem to have shown that before. Thanks.
Question: Biggest challenge? First task?
So the first task I have right now is communicating with all the members of our community and also our stakeholders, not right here on campus, I’m thinking of our alumni, our many donors, and I think the thing that I’m doing with them is absolutely convincing them that though this is an unexpected interruption to the path we were on, we will minimize that and we will keep our momentum going.
Question: Can you describe your conversation with President Napolitano, about your becoming the acting chancellor? What was your initial reaction? I mean, this was just last night and here you are today, did it come as a surprise?
There’ve been so many discussions and questions about the future path that I would be less than honest were I to say that the thought hadn’t crossed my mind, that at some point I would, under certain circumstances, have to step up and be acting chancellor. I did not expect it precisely at this moment. I’ve spoken to the president on a number of occasions in a number of different capacities. Not more than a month ago I was in her office with the leadership team as part of our annual budget meeting. So I know Janet Napolitano and she knows me. So she just told me the decision in terms of a preview of the statement that she made, and she made it clear that she hoped I would realize that it was my duty to become acting chancellor.
Question: Had she talked about it with you before?
No, no, yesterday was the first time.
Question: Did the president’s action regarding Chancellor Katehi surprise you?
I am not privy to all of the materials that she has or the discussions that she’s had, so I was in many ways disappointed that this was this, but I didn’t really think of [interrupted by reporter].
Question: So, you’re disappointed by the action?
Well, I’m very sorry that our chancellor has had to step down. I think Linda Katehi is a fantastic leader, has developed such a vision [interrupted by reporter].
Question: Do you disagree with the president?
No, I didn’t say that. … As I said, I don’t have the materials that she does. I understood why she feels that this is a decision she has to make. And, again, in my discussions with the chancellor, I think that the chancellor is herself, at this point, clear that only an investigation will — as she expects it will — clear her name.
Question: Does the chancellor have a role with you during this three-month period?
Question: Working as closely as you did with Chancellor Katehi, do you feel that this is warranted based on what you’ve seen personally in her work, in the way that she’s conducted herself?
So, as I read the material and the statement and other material that has been made available, it’s clear that the president, with the support of the regents, believes that there is documentation that warrants this investigation. I have not seen the documents.
I think that we’re never afraid of light being shone on what we’re doing, and, again, we’re public servants. If there are things that were not according to policy, let’s find out about them and correct them. — Ralph J. Hexter, acting chancellor
I think that investigation always is a good thing because you bring things to light and, you know, if there are things that are wrong, you want to correct them. I would not expect for them to be systemic wrongs, and I also understand that the complex ways of the university, like government itself, is often hard to understand. But I think that we’re never afraid of light being shone on what we’re doing, and, again, we’re public servants. If there are things that were not according to policy, let’s find out about them and correct them.
Question: You were in the middle of describing Ms. Katehi. Would you mind continuing that thought? What do you think of her?
I think Chancellor Katehi is a tremendous leader. She’s the reason I came to UC Davis. She has lifted up the university. This is a great university. And I think one of her great skills was to send a message both internally and abroad that we have so much to be proud of. And so I’m very excited by her realization that we have to get our message about what we do — in One Health, in food, in so many areas — out in the world. So I’ve found it extremely inspiring to work with her.
Question: Do you think some of the protesters took it too far and perhaps damaged her image, one that you respected?
You know, the protesters occupied a lot of — if it’s not anachronistic to say this — print space, time. I certainly attend to their message. I think the issue of the privatization of the university is a real issue that we need to examine and consider, because as public support has diminished, of course we have to turn to other sources. But I never thought of them as representing all of the students. I know that there was a tremendous number of supporters who by nature are more silent. So, what I do know, is that the occupation itself caused a tremendous amount of stress to the chancellor, but above all, to the staff who work here. So I’m very grateful that we managed to have them leave of their own accord. So that was a good solution.
Question: You referred to yourself as a public servant. I know that many of the protesters were calling for the position of chancellor to be an elected position. Do you think that there’s any argument for that, for changing the way that the position of chancellor is filled?
No, I don’t. I think that one of the things that I’ve learned by a career in universities and research universities and other colleges, and being chair, dean, president, provost, is that no one person can have an inkling of the complexity of the issues that are dealt with on a campus like UC Davis. And so I think it’s actually quite simplistic to imagine that anyone could vote this. You need to have people giving their voice and opinions. And, I have to say, to judge on the way we vet candidates, and we include students in committees, every committee of this nature has a student voice on it, probably one undergraduate and one graduate — they’re part of the voices, and they recommend, but it’s only someone who has a chance of seeing how the myriad parts work together that we can make a good judgment.
Question: If Chancellor Katehi violated policy, should she be fired, in your opinion, if she violated all the policies that the president set forth in her letter?
I’m going to leave that to the president.
Question: Do you anticipate that the result of the investigation will be either a clean bill of health for Chancellor Katehi or her dismissal?
The investigation is being carried on by the Office of the President. We on campus have nothing to do with it, so it’s not clear to me how the president will present or use the results. I’m going to assume that the audience for the results … will be the regents, because it’s the president who makes this decision, but it’s certainly the regents she has to share it with, if she wants to, as I’m sure she does, have them understand what action she takes. And I’ll also add, that, in the end, these are personnel actions, so, as a result, there’s a lot of care taken into what is shared.
Question: Were students made aware of today’s press conference?
[Topousis responded affirmatively. Her office distributed a news conference advisory to media, including student media at UC Davis and elsewhere, at about 1:15 p.m. the day of the press conference. The California Aggie student newspaper, for one, posted a story and photo from the news conference at about 4:30 p.m.]
Question: Have you had the opportunity to meet with any of the protesters who occupied the lobby of the chancellor’s office, since you became acting chancellor?
Since 8:30 last night, no. I am going to be meeting with ASUCD representatives later, and I’m certainly eager to meet with students. I’m sure that going into next week that we’ll be having many more meetings, and I’m open to meeting any and all people.
Question: Regarding the LGBT association that you created, can you speak to when, where and why?
In the early 2000s when I was a dean at UC Berkeley, I was certainly aware that there was effectively a glass ceiling and made it very, very difficult for LGBT administrators to reach the position of president. And one of the things I was very proud of when I took the presidency at Hampshire College was that the college was very, very willing to make that a point of pride nationally. And that led to several of us discovering that at that point there were about 12 to 14 self-identified lesbian or gay presidents. After meeting for a few years informally, we formed this association in order to give more visibility and to help spread the message to boards who were selecting leaders that you wouldn’t be the first. And we’re very proud that there are over 70 now, presidents who are members of our group.
Question: How long have you been at UC Davis, and did Dr. Katehi hire you?
Dr. Katehi did hire me. I came here on January 1, 2011.
Question: Was the chancellor ever asked to resign yesterday or the day before?
I don’t know about the communications between the president and the chancellor.
Question: The students have a resolution that they plan to vote on tonight. Do you think student government decisions or agreements will have any impact on the regents or the investigation or anything?
I really can’t speculate about that.
Question: Are any of your relatives on staff?
Question: Did the president indicate to you that it might be longer than 90 days?
We didn’t discuss a timeline. It’s clear that we’d take this in stages. At the moment, the chancellor is on leave and so an acting chancellor is needed. We don’t know what the future brings
We can talk about my travel plans some other time.
[There being no further questions, Acting Chancellor Hexter concluded the news conference.]
Thank you very much. Looking forward to seeing you again. Bye.