I never expected to be a guest at the farewell party for USC President C.L. Max Nikias, who agreed to step down in May after the university was hammered by sex and drug scandals that occurred on his watch.
But I did expect there would at least be a farewell.
After all, on May 25, billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who is now president of the USC Board of Trustees, announced that Nikias and the board’s executive committee had agreed to begin “an orderly transition and commence the process of selecting a new president.”
Caruso vowed the process would be “swift and thorough.”
Most people read that to mean that Nikias, whose fundraising prowess over an eight-year tenure helped vault the school into the top ranks of American universities, had agreed to resign.
More than two months have passed.
There is a growing concern, particularly among faculty members, that Nikias has not left the building.
Some have fretted that a faction of his supporters on the Board of Trustees has come to regret what one professor described as a “rush to judgment” that led to Nikias agreeing to leave. Others worry that when the fall semester starts at the end of this month, Nikias will address the class of 2022 at the annual gathering that signals the start of the academic year — not a good look for the beleaguered campus.
“After all these scandals, he wants to be the one to welcome students to campus in a few weeks?” said poet and novelist Carol Muske-Dukes, a professor of literature and creative writing. “Utterly mind-boggling.”
A group of professors who called on Nikias to step aside in May echoed her concerns in a letter to the Board of Trustees this week.
“We find ourselves in a state of turmoil and uncertainty,” they wrote. “President Nikias cannot be the one who stands up to greet the new students at the Convocation. If he is, we face the prospect of student protests and walkouts, parent outrage, and a broad public perception that we have gone back on our commitment to accountability and transparency, as the world outside USC believes he has already resigned.”
In a letter to USC faculty, Academic Senate President Yaniv Bar-Cohen urged teachers to individually contact the Board of Trustees. “There remains too much uncertainty regarding this transition,” Bar-Cohen wrote. “One particular area of concern is the disposition of President Nikias.”
So what exactly is the disposition of President Nikias?
Officially, he is on vacation. Tuesday, however, he met with a small group of professors to discuss the future, and to get a sense of how they were feeling.
Education professor William Tierney, an expert on higher education policy and university governance, was among them. He said the meeting was cordial and Nikias upbeat, but it was not clear what the transition timeline would be.
“In a normal world,” Tierney said, “you would have a search up and running by now.”
It hasn’t always been easy getting answers out of USC. Its penchant for secrecy can be alarming.
Trustees routinely ignore requests for comment by reporters, or say they have been instructed not to talk. The membership of the board’s executive committee is — preposterously — a secret.
I emailed Caruso twice to try to get a sense of what the search process looks like and whether Nikias will sever ties with USC or stick around in some capacity. (It is generally assumed that Nikias, as a tenured engineering professor, will be welcome to stay at USC as long as he likes, Tierney said.)
In the absence of a response from Caruso, I decided to reread his May 25 letter, which was exactly the balm that students, faculty and alumni craved at that painful moment. Caruso acknowledged the harm inflicted by Tyndall, and the frustration and anger it had caused. Nikias, he wrote, had agreed to step down. In his letter, he promised the one thing that matters most when it comes to healing a badly bruised institution: transparency.
And yet transparency is something that is sorely missing right now. Nobody seems to know what’s going on. Without hard facts, rumors swirl: Nikias wants to rescind his resignation, a faction of the board of trustees is moving to oust Caruso. “It’s like a murder mystery,” Tierney joked.
To my surprise, Caruso called Tuesday evening. He was in the Pacific Northwest, driving a boat to British Columbia, and he said he was going the wrong way. We joked about the metaphorical implications of that.
USC has got to do better when it comes to confronting improprieties and misconduct that undermine its hard-won reputation as a top-tier university.
I understand the impulse to close ranks, but a huge community is depending on USC to put things right, and to do so in an ethical and righteous manner.
Last year, Nikias badly mishandled Times inquiries into the sordid behavior of Carmen Puliafito, former dean of USC’s Keck Medical School. Instead of responding in a straightforward manner to questions about Puliafito’s documented drug and alcohol use, Nikias refused to acknowledge the scandal.
And now, the school is groaning under the weight of lawsuits from more than 300 patients of former school gynecologist George Tyndall, whom they have accused of sexually abusing and verbally harassing them. For years, their complaints were ignored.
No one is suggesting that Nikias knew about the abuses taking place in the campus clinic — which began long before he became USC provost in 2005 — but he must be called to account for the fact that such egregious behavior flourished on his watch. (Tyndall has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.)
“Max has been a remarkably successful president who had some blind spots that got us to where we are,” Tierney said when we spoke Tuesday. In May, in an essay published in The Times, he applauded Nikias’ decision to resign: “President Nikias relied on a small circle of confidants and, as his troubles rose, the circle grew smaller. The university’s Board of Trustees, mostly captains of industry, seemed awed by his fundraising ability. They ceded power to their fundraising juggernaut…. The Academic Senate sat passively by as problems unfolded.”
Maybe the haze swirling around the future of USC will lift a bit on Aug. 7, when the Board of Trustees is slated to meet.
Caruso, who has spent the summer talking to faculty, students, staff and alumni, said he would recommend a recruitment firm at the meeting. He will also ask the board to vote on the formation of a presidential search committee.
“Here’s what I will tell you,” he told me. “My goal is to have a new president announced in four to six months.”
In the meantime, said USC spokeswoman Brenda Maceo, Nikias is on vacation. Chief Financial Officer Jim Staten is currently acting president. Provost Michael Quick will take the reins as acting president when he returns from vacation on Monday.
And what will happen when Nikias returns from vacation?
“That is all TBD,” she replied.