Monday, November 21, 2011

The UC-Davis Pepper-Spray Case as Illustrative of Problems with the Leadership of Health Care

The aggressive actions by University of California-Davis police against unarmed, peaceful student protesters turn out to be the latest illustration of the problems with leadership and governance we discuss on Health Care Renewal

The University of California - Davis Pepper Spray Incident

To summarize the current episode, I start with quotes about its background from Reuters,
Student protesters at Davis had set up an encampment in the university's quad area earlier this month as part of the nationwide Occupy movement against economic inequality and excesses of the financial system.

Their demonstrations, which had been endorsed by a faculty association, included protests against tuition increases and what they viewed as police brutality on University of California campuses in response to recent protests.

The students had set up roughly 25 tents in a quad area, but they had been asked not to stay overnight and were told they would not be able to stay during the weekend, due to a lack of university resources, [university Chancellor Linda] Katehi said.

Some protesters took their tents down voluntarily while others stayed.

The pepper spray incident appeared to take place on Friday afternoon, when campus police moved in to forcibly evict the protesters.

Then, as per the (London, UK) Independent,
A police officer saunters up to a group of young protestors who are sat in a line on the ground, with their arms linked. Then he removes a canister of pepper spray from his belt, with a flourish, before casually proceeding to unload its contents into their faces.

The demonstrators remain silent and motionless, with their heads bowed. So the policeman carries on, methodically covering them, from point blank range. By the time he’s finished, their heads and faces are covered in a thick layer of the toxic red liquid.

The actual video is below:

The UC-Davis Chancellor's Defense of the Police Actions

The Independent's coverage emphasized that initially the leadership of the campus police defended the use of pepper spray on apparently unarmed, peaceful students:
Annette Spicuzza, the head of the UC Davis Campus Police, who were responsible for Friday’s incident .... told reporters that her officers had been 'forced' to use the pepper spray, after demonstrators surrounded them. Lt Pike gave his victims sufficient warning of the impending attack, she added, and emptied the canister with a sweeping motion, in keeping with official procedures.

'When you are encircled by 200 individuals, I don’t know if I want to say ‘afraid,’ but I think they were quite concerned about their safety,' she said, regarding the circumstances her officers faced. 'There was no way out of that circle... It's a very volatile situation.'

That coverage also made clear that the directive to clear the demonstrators came from the top:
Linda Katehi, the Chancellor of UC Davis ... had asked the police to clear demonstrators from her campus, a couple of hours north of San Francisco. In the aftermath of the incident, she had initially joined Spicuzza in defending the force's methods, saying that they had 'no option' but to adopt a hard line.

Ms Katehi later backed off, but only after her first response
sparked immediate outrage, and within hours, the university’s Faculty Association, representing Ms Katehi’s employees, issued a statement called for her resignation, saying that her authorisation of 'excessive' force had amounted to a 'gross failure of leadership.'

Nathan Brown, an assistant English professor who witnessed the incident, wrote in an open letter: 'Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood... You are responsible.'

Other comments likened the police actions to something "coming from some riot-control unit in China, or in Syria," [James Fallows in the Atlantic] called them indicative of "a police state in its pure form," [Glenn Greenwald in Salon], or otherwise denounced them as "outrageous" or "awful." (Clark McPhail, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois, and Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, respectively, via Inside Higher Ed.)

This aggressive, violent response to peaceful protest seems to be the latest example of the arrogance of some current leaders of our important organizations.

Our Previous Discussion of the Chancellor in Health Care Renewal

This case appears directly related to the problems in leadership and governance we discuss on Health Care Renewal Ms Katehi has the distinction of having been already written up twice on Health Care Renewal for questions about her leadership.

On her arrival at UC-Davis in 2009, she promised to "help UC Davis to become more aggressive in taking new biotechnology and agriculture products to market." This indicates at best ignorance of, at worst hostility to the fundamental university mission, which is hardly developing and particularly marketing products, but discovering and disseminating knowledge (see this post).

At that time, I called this an example of "how the leaders of academic institutions seem to be forgetting or radically deconstructing their academic missions."

In 2011, Ms Katehi defended the payment to the medical center CEO, whom she called a "great CEO,' of nearly a million dollars yearly in compensation. However, that CEO was part of a group of top university leaders demanding large increases in their pensions at a time when the university was under great financial distress. For that, some called them not great leaders, but greedy and "despicable." Thus, Ms Katehi seemed to stand up for top leaders' privilege and exceptionalism, including their entitlement to huge compensation whatever the circumstance, even in a time of financial travail (see this post).

I could not have predicted that Chancellor Katehi would preside over the pepper spraying unarmed students for peaceful, legitimate protest. However, it is not surprising that a leader who does not understand the fundamental academic mission and who supports executive privilege and exceptionalism would foster an authoritarian climate in which such an incident could happen.

This example clearly illustrates the issues we have been discussing on Health Care Renewal for a long time. In particular, leaders who are more dedicated to their own and their fellow executives' privilege and exceptionalism than their organizations' missions are likely to end up promoting actions that threaten those  missions.

The Moral of the Story

Instead, as we have been preaching endlessly,... health care organizations need leaders that uphold the core values of health care, and focus on and are accountable for the mission, not on secondary responsibilities that conflict with these values and their mission, and not on self-enrichment. Leaders ought to be rewarded reasonably, but not lavishly, for doing what ultimately improves patient care, or when applicable, good education and good research. On the other hand, those who authorize, direct and implement bad behavior ought to suffer negative consequences sufficient to deter future bad behavior.

If we do not fix the severe problems affecting the leadership and governance of health care, and do not increase accountability, integrity and transparency of health care leadership and governance, we will be as much to blame as the leaders when the system collapses.

You heard it here first on Health Care Renewal .

Keep your eye on Health Care Renewal for continued discussion of parallels between problems in health care and in the larger political economy.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for featuring this. I've followed your blog for several years, as well as one economic in nature and one political in nature. Hubby is a great sports fan, as well as a 'chronic consumer' of healthcare. When we come together to discuss topics of interest, it's amazing to find so many similarities among the healthcare, academia and sports arenas. They seem to be mirror images in the nature and degree of dysfunctionality.

(If you haven't viewed the Davis students' 'walk of shame' response--it's worth a view.


Anonymous said...

Makes the Penn State Board of Trustees look good.