UC Davis Pepper-Spraying Incident Prompts Lessons in Crisis Management

by Tim Akin

UC President Mark Yudof described the November 18 pepper spraying and arrest of student demonstrators on the campus Quad by UC Davis police as “appalling,” and he appointed a task force to review the action.

The incident drew worldwide attention, prompting several investigations and a state legislative hearing. After seated protesters refused to move, they were doused with pepper spray at close range. Two officers and the campus chief of police were placed on administrative leave.

Yudof said the UC task force will assign responsibility for the events and make “recommendations to me and to Chancellor Katehi regarding improvements to police procedures, command protocols and campus policies and oversight structures that will help ensure that the rights and safety of nonviolent protestors and the entire campus community are protected.”

For MBA students, the incident presented a learning opportunity on how to manage in difficult times. Following the pepper spraying, the Graduate School of Management held a community conversation at Gallagher Hall to talk about the incident.

That forum led to two workshops, at Davis and at the UC Davis Sacramento campus, both led by Visiting Professor Colin Biggs (pictured), a management consultancy expert focused on managing change in the public sector. Biggs was already teaching an elective course on Crisis Communication, so the incident quickly turned into a real-life case study that he applied in a business context.

Biggs asked students to assess the campus events, the university’s response and what it could have done differently. Biggs cited several high-profile corporate crises ranging from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, and the more recent BP oil spill to Enron and Toyota’s stuck accelerators. He said the business world has a long history of failing to read signs, failure of key personnel or outright deception that lead to crisis.

“Crisis avoidance and management involves above all having the right top management strategic mindset,” Biggs told students. “Although some crises result from external and uncontrollable triggers such as earthquakes or acts of terrorism, most result from a lack of adequate management and are made worse by ineffective leadership in the moment.”


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