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USC students, grads and faculty say the only way to restore trust is to fire President Max Nikias

USC students, grads and faculty say the only way to restore trust is to fire President Max Nikias
USC President C.L. Max Nikias speaks Dec. 5, 2016. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The chorus of condemnation against USC is getting louder by the day. Students, recent graduates and faculty members have all launched crusades against an administration they see as indifferent to the well-being of its charges, unworthy of their trust and incapable of transparency when it is needed most.

I have watched with dismay as USC brass have again and again either covered for highly placed men engaged in despicable behavior, tried to whitewash their own inaction, or have stonewalled legitimate journalistic inquiries.

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This pattern, finally, is taking its toll.

Rini Sampath, 23, will always be a Trojan. She had a smile on her face the minute she stepped on campus and was still smiling when she graduated in 2016, having capped her college experience by being elected student body president.

Now, however, she is watching in horror and anger as her alma mater spirals into scandal, much of it self-inflicted. And she is counseling her little sister against applying to USC next year.

How can you blame her? Any sister would want to protect her sibling from an institution where a man like George Tyndall, the USC student health clinic gynecologist accused of sexually abusing young women, could practice unimpeded for decades.

"I don't want my sister to be in that environment at all," Sampath said Monday from Washington, where she works for a management consulting firm.

The only thing that would change her mind, she said, is the firing of USC President C.L. Max Nikias. "That's pretty much a no-brainer," said Sampath, who created an online petition calling for his removal. By Monday, it had garnered more than 1,500 signatures.

Hilary Schor, an English professor who began teaching at USC in 1986, was so distressed by the allegations that Tyndall had abused patients for three decades that she co-wrote a letter to USC's Board of Trustees asking that Nikias be fired.

"I am incredibly moved by how many faculty have spoken up," Schor said. She and colleagues reached out to a number of tenured faculty at USC's main campus, where many of the university's most distinguished scholars are based. She was "stunned," as she put it, at how many have signed on.

"We have former deans, former vice provosts, many chairs and former chairs," she said. "Frankly, many people who never sign things and haven't answered their university emails in years!"

For many of the 200 professors who signed the letter, the Tyndall scandal was a final straw.

Last year, The Times exposed the dean of the medical school, Carmen Puliafito, as a meth-abusing, hard-partying doctor who cavorted with criminals and other addicts. Next, it was Puliafito's successor, Rohit Varma, who left his post as after The Times found out that his sexual harassment of a colleague had cost the university $135,000.

Schor said she lost confidence in the president when she read last year that a Times reporter was rebuffed after delivering a letter to Nikias at his university-owned home in San Marino asking questions about the Puliafito scandal. Nikias returned the letter to the newspaper by courier, unopened, the metaphorical equivalent of a toddler covering his ears and shrieking "I can't hear you!"

The unopened letter was also accompanied by a letter from a USC spokeswoman charging that the Times reporter, Paul Pringle, had "crossed the line." (In the news business, we call this "doing our job.")

"That to me was the most telling moment," Schor said. "At that moment, Nikias forfeited our respect. I really feel that an administration whose central mission is not to know more has let us all down."

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Nikias, who avoided publicly commenting on the medical school scandals until it was no longer viable to remain silent, has penned two open letters to the USC community about Tyndall. The first was a masterpiece of deflection masquerading as concern. The second took a more appropriately apologetic tone, but the damage was already done.

"As the parent of two daughters who were undergraduates and graduate students at USC, I understand how vital it is for the university to do everything it can to care for the students who put their trust in us," he wrote in his initial missive.

Personalizing his dismay by invoking his daughters struck many not only as disingenuous but as inappropriate.

"The only way a sentence that begins, 'As the parent of two daughters' should end is 'that man should be driven out of town on a rail,' or 'I would like to strangle him with my own hands,'" Schor said.

Tessa Meurer, 21, who just graduated with a degree in neuroscience and has worked as a sexual assault prevention advocate on campus, is drafting a letter with colleagues demanding that USC devote more resources to services for survivors of sexual assault.

"I do look upon the patients of Dr. Tyndall as survivors," she said. "They could have had the full support of the university from the moment administrators found out about what was happening, but they didn't because administrators chose not to reveal it to students despite what it meant for their safety. I think President Nikias should be removed."

Lucy Condolora, 24, a 2016 graduate who works in Oregon for a company that provides wilderness therapy, said she's been disheartened by what she sees as the administration's double standards. A couple of years ago, when she was vice president of her sorority, USC cracked down on its fraternities after some troubling behavior.

"Nikias was punishing organizations of 200 young men for the behavior of one or two," Condolora said. And yet, Tyndall was able to continue practicing for years despite complaints. "That hypocrisy is overwhelming."

She, like so many others in the USC community, is dismayed by a lack of leadership or even response by the Board of Trustees, whose wealthy and illustrious members include people such as Jeanie Buss, Rick Caruso, Steven Spielberg, Ronald Tutor and Jane Harman.

"Their silence," Condolora said, "is deafening."

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Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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