Decision-Making Debacle at UC Davis

Consequences of bad decision making at UC Davis

Non-profit leaders often make implicit and explicit assumptions about the decision-making practices established and maintained in their organizations.

These assumptions, some conscious and some unconscious, often create inefficiency, reduce innovation and blind these leaders to the effective utilization of their human capital resources. These assumptions also occasionally lead to the destruction of trust that stakeholders have in their institution. Trust and commitment to mission are the main currency upon which these organizations function. Once lost, the road back from that event is quite daunting.

Never underestimate the lasting effects of leadership failure

On November 18, 2011 University of California, Davis Police pepper sprayed a peaceful gathering of students who were protesting tuition and fee hikes. This unprovoked act caused worldwide condemnation.

While the University apologized for this police action and commissioned a report on the incident, the damage incurred by the institution was done and will last for years. Both students and faculty are calling for the removal of the Chancellor and the Police Chief and an ill-conceived and poorly executed decision has had great cost to this prestigious institution.

In March 2012 a commission chaired by retired California State Supreme Court Justice, Cruz Reynoso, published their findings on the incident. Section One of their report entitled,“ Deficiencies in the Decision-Making Process and Substantive Mistakes at the Administrative Level”, details the many decision-making assumptions and mistakes made by the institution and its leaders including:

  • Stifling debate during the decision-making process

  • Ignoring data that conflicted with the conventional wisdom espoused by some of the less influential participants

  • Narrowing the decision-making process to a limited number of people

  • Not clarifying the decision-making responsibilities of the police and their civilian administrators

  • Failing to provide a common understanding of the decisions being considered and how they would be implemented

  • Maintaining an ineffective, consensus based decision-making process

  • Allowing fear of failure to cloud their operational judgment

Erosion of trust has a price

The actions taken that day in this very public setting brought disgrace to the University. Mark Yudoff, President of the University of California stated, “even a cursory reading of the report confirms what we have known from the start: Friday, November 18 was a bad day for the UC Davis community and for the entire UC system. We can and must do better. Free speech, including non-violent protest, is part of the DNA of this university and it must be protected with vigilance.“

Hindsight and how to affect change

If the UC Davis leadership team had taken a few moments that day to inventory and prioritize the decisions before them and then allowed stakeholders to advocate for appropriate decision-making responsibility and then proactively communicated those decisions to all of the affected parties, this crisis might have been averted.

To those who say, “ who has time to do this when were in the midst of a crisis”, we would reply that this process would have taken far less time to implement then the clean-up of this decision-making debacle.

On April 18, 2012, the Chief of the UC Davis Police announced her resignation. Given this individual’s decision-making and leadership failures this could hardly be viewed as a surprise. It was a very predictable and unintended consequence of bad decision-making. How much longer will the Chancellor of UC Davis remain in office?

Have you seen the results of poor decision making in your organization? What became clear for you?
And if your group has proactively addressed this issue to mitigate the unintended consequences of poor decisions, we’d love to hear from you.


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