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Why UC Davis spent $175,000 to scrub references to pepper-spray incident

The public university hired two firms to improve its reputation following a 2011 incident where campus police pepper-sprayed student protesters, documents reveal.

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University of California, Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, left, tries to address students gathered at the Occupy UC Davis encampment in Davis, Calif., in November 2011. New documents obtained by the Sacramento Bee reveal that UC Davis paid at least $175,000 to scrub online results relating to a pepper-spraying incident and improve the reputations of the chancellor and the university.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File

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Following a 2011 incident in which campus police pepper-sprayed students, the University of California, Davis paid two consulting firms at least $175,000 to clean up its online reputation, according to documents obtained by the Sacramento Bee.

The documents reveal that UC Davis paid to scrub online search results related to the incident and improve results users saw when searching for the university and its chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, the newspaper reports.

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In January 2013, the university signed a six-month contract with Maryland-based Nevins & Associates to create an "online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention" directed at the university and its chancellor. It cost $15,000 a month.

"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," the company's proposal said, promising "eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor."

Online reputation management is a growing industry that promises to help individuals and businesses manage what appears about them in Google and other search engines, partly by placing positive articles and statements in Google results to counteract negative results.

"Companies and people make mistakes, and it's our job to give them a second chance," Darius Fisher, president of Status Labs, says in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

The Texas-based firm has worked with Melissa Click, the University of Missouri professor who was later fired by Missouri after she was captured on video calling for "some muscle" to remove a student photographer during a campus protest.

But a university using public funds to hire a firm to clean up its image is highly unusual, says Brett Sokolow, head of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a firm that has advised many campuses on policies related to sexual assault, student conduct, and other issues. "I've never heard of another campus doing this, to be honest," he says in an email.

UC Davis's contracts came as the university embarked on a larger effort to improve its reputation and revamp its use of social media following criticism and calls for Chancellor Katehi's resignation, the Bee reports.

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In an incident that received widespread media coverage, campus police officers were shown on video firing pepper spray into a crowd of student protestors on November 18, 2011. 

Lt. John Pike, an officer shown in several videos calmly pepper-spraying protestors seated on a sidewalk, individually received more than 10,000 text messages and 17,000 emails that included threats and harassment, according to the documents obtained by the Bee.

The university confirmed to the newspaper that had it worked to manage its reputation, saying the payments to the two firms came from the public university's communications budget.

"We have worked to ensure that the reputation of the university, which the chancellor leads, is fairly portrayed," UC Davis spokeswoman Dana Topousis told the Bee. "We wanted to promote and advance the important teaching, research, and public service done by our students, faculty and staff, which is the core mission of our university."

In June 2014, UC Davis hired Sacramento-based ID Media Partners, known as IDMLOCO, for $82,500 to "design and execute a comprehensive search engine results management strategy," according to the documents. The company later received two other contracts focused around its communications strategy from UC Davis.

Mr. Fisher, of Status Labs, says his company has never worked with a university, though he wouldn't be surprised to learn that other universities had attempted to influence their search results.

"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," he says.

But Mr. Sokolow, who has advised schools such as the University of Virginia on its policies, says using public funds demands more disclosure. "I do think it's different, as public institutions must be careful custodians of public funds. Allocating public dollars to an effort like this should be carefully scrutinized," he says.

It's unclear what effect the efforts have had, as a search for "UC Davis pepper spray" on Google produces 136,000 results while "Katehi pepper spray" currently has 710.

Nearly five years later, Chancellor Katehi is once again under fire following question about her acceptance of seats on private corporate boards, including a seat on the board of for-profit DeVry Education Group, which is under scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission.

Students have been occupying the reception office outside her office since March 11 in a call for her resignation, the Bee reports.