Since her arrival last August, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi has steered the university through one of the most tumultuous periods in the school’s history. As the California economy sinks to historic depths, funding for the state’s world-renowned University of California system has been slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars. This has trickled down to students in the form of tuition hikes, increased fees and the elimination of classes and sports programs. Through it all, the university has pushed forward with its efforts to train workers for the growing green-sector economy. We sat down with her recently to discuss those efforts.
Comstock’s: You have said that your objective for UC Davis is “nothing less than helping our regional community, from San Francisco to the Sierra foothills, rise to global leadership in clean energy.” How do you intend to accomplish that goal?
Katehi: UC Davis is known for its work in sustainability, and that involves a lot of things. It is about environment, it is about climate change, energy and health, nutrition and food safety. And in all of these areas the institution has created new knowledge, has educated students and has also very successfully translated basic knowledge into products and services. And so, I believe we are in a wonderful position to work with the corporations, startups, investors, state government and the communities in the region around us to participate in the development of an ecosystem that will help us take ideas out to the marketplace. In the process, especially as we work in partnerships with the region to bring companies here, we can become successful in producing new technologies in clean and green areas, in creating products that may address other market needs so it creates new markets. If we can participate in these processes, I can say the institution has been a successful partner in economic development in the region.
Comstock’s: You mentioned innovation and ideas that come from new companies, but getting ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace is always a challenge. What is UC Davis doing to grow in this area? What more should we — industry, government and academia — be doing?
Katehi: While we are investing heavily in discovery, we do not necessarily translate those ideas into products and services in an effective way, and the question is why? The answer is that it is not just about one entity in this process. An ecosystem has to be in place for this process to be effective, an ecosystem made out of centers of basic discovery like UC Davis and other partners, including the region itself, with its policies and incentives for attracting companies. It is the (venture capitalists) and the availability of capital for investments in these smaller companies. And of course it is the state itself with its own policies. All of these members in the team have to align in their goals and work together for this ecosystem to happen. Specifically, we need to minimize bureaucracy as we create intellectual property and as we assign intellectual property licensing to third parties. We need to look very critically at our (information technology) and software offices and make sure that we have those offices organized in a way that this transfer can happen effectively. There also needs to be some investment from the university and the region to create “incubators” that would provide an environment for these small companies to start effectively until they reach a given size or level of success on their own and can compete on their own. Local governments must also work with state government leaders, business leaders, entrepreneurs and businesses who are interested in investing in our region, to come together and try to develop one business plan for the region. Without one business plan that we all respect and support, we and the region will not be successful in leading this economic development, which I think has tremendous potential.
Comstock’s: Are you optimistic that what you just said about everyone coming together to form that singular vision can actually happen, particularly given the financial issues the state and local governments are now facing?
Katehi: A business plan does not imply money behind it immediately. When I speak about the business plan, I mean specifically the development of an agreement that we all have the same business goals about this region and a commitment that we will support these goals. For example, how are we going to go about bringing industry to this region? There are very specific ways of doing that.
Comstock’s: But are you optimistic?
Katehi: I am optimistic because there is broad agreement that such a plan is needed. Is it going to be easy? My guess is it’s going to take a lot of discussion and debate. But I think I have seen a great deal of agreement that such a plan is needed for the region. So that is very positive.
Comstock’s: Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson recently announced his green initiative, which seems right in line with your goals for the university. Both you and Graduate School of Management Dean Steven Currall are part of this effort. What do you see coming out of this for the Sacramento region?
Katehi: The green initiative is bigger than the business plan, as you can imagine. I think it’s a great thing with a lot of excitement around it. A lot of organizations will participate directly or indirectly, including UC Davis. I think it’s important that we have this activity underway because it can be leveraged as we try to develop a business development plan, which I see as a component of [the initiative], and I think it can happen in parallel or around the same time. I see the initiative as paving the way for the business plan.
Comstock’s: The past few years have been brutal on the UC system’s budget. What is the biggest challenge this year?
Katehi: The biggest challenge I have faced this year is to practically manage the budget cuts and at the same time focus on the university’s long-term goals. It is very difficult for people who do not know whether they will stay as employees in the next few months for them to focus on asking long-term questions. It is just very challenging trying to keep the institution focused on what is important for us right now, which is to develop the plans for our future, to understand how to participate in economic development, to understand what our strengths are and how to deepen those strengths, and then what our weaknesses are and how to eliminate those weaknesses. Staying focused on that is very difficult when you cut massively. Cutting is very negative for morale, but looking forward gives you hope. So trying to balance the two has been the biggest challenge. At the same time, having said that, this is the best time to plan forward and to ask: “What has not been working for us, and what are our strengths so we can build on them?” It is a very painful exercise, but it will keep us focused on those things we really need to develop, so we can move forward.