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UC Davis spent $175,000 to suppress Google search results of pepper-spraying incident

Back in 2011, then-police officer Lt. John Pike and the University of California, Davis came to national attention when Davis was videoed and photographed aggressively pepper-spraying peaceful student protestors. The protests were part of general unrest directed at the University of California’s leadership, which had approved significant pay increase for administrators at the same time it furloughed professors and raised student tuition. Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi also came under fire for her actions both before and after the protest — scrutiny that’s going to resume now that we know UC Davis spent $175,000 attempting to scrub both its own online image and that of its chancellor.

The school contracted with multiple SEO firms trying to push down results that highlighted the school’s failure to address student concerns and the actions of its police officers during the November 18, 2011 protest, according to The Sacramento Bee. This, despite the fact that the university’s own investigation into the incident found that “Lieutenant Pike’s use of force in pepper spraying seated protesters was objectively unreasonable,” and that “the evidence does not provide an objective, factual basis for Lt. Pike’s purported belief that he was trapped, that any of his officers were trapped, or that the safety of their arrestees was at issue.”

The University contracted with reputation-management firms as part of “an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results for UC Davis and the Chancellor.”

This new report comes as Katehi is again under fire, this time for accepting questionable corporate board positions. She recently took (and then quit) a board position with DeVry, a for-profit company under federal investigation for possibly making fraudulent claims about job placement rates and expected earnings. She also served on the board of John Wiley & Sons, a textbook manufacturer who paid her $420,000 a year. The DeVry position was paid, which has led California legislators to ask why Katehi, who already earns a $424,300/year salary from UC Davis, has enough time to moonlight on multiple other corporate boards for equally large incomes.

One suspects UC Davis is about to get a lesson in the Streisand Effect — and as calls for Katehi to resign have mounted, there were few more potent ways to ensure that the events of 2011 would be refreshed in everyone’s mind than to try to pay a reputation firm to make the university’s behavior go away. A spokesperson for the university, Dana Topousis, claimed that the payments were only made in the service of portraying the university “fairly.” That’s corporate-speak for “We don’t like the way our own actions have made us look,” and “We’d really like this to go away.”

Sometimes that works. In the Internet age, it mostly doesn’t.

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