Advertisement

A string of scandals, but head still not rolling at USC

A string of scandals, but head still not rolling at USC
Dark times at USC. (Los Angeles Times)

So here we are again, with yet another good reason to point out that the word "scandal," by coincidence, begins with SC.

You need a score card, right?

Advertisement

The big-shot money-raising medical school dean with the drug issues, among other problems, and how he managed to keep his job despite complaints about reckless conduct.

USC's incomprehensible replacement of the dean with someone the university had previously disciplined for sexual harassment.

And now the gynecologist who stayed on the job for years despite complaints of sexual misconduct in the treatment of multiple students, six of whom have now sued in the wake of the latest news.

If there's anything more shocking than this series of exposes by a crack team of L.A. Times investigators, it's Tuesday's response from the governing body of USC — the board of trustees.

Board Chairman John Mork released a statement saying trustees are "troubled by the distressing reports" but still support USC President C.L. Max Nikias.

"The executive committee of the board has full confidence in President Nikias' leadership, ethics, and values and is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward," said the statement.

Raising two questions:

Second, what does Nikias have to do to get fired?

On the first point, the board of trustees is made up of 59 people, and if each and every single one of them has "full confidence" in Nikias, maybe it's time to put some of them out to pasture. Does nothing shock them?

Put some students on the board, some professors, some university employees, because I've heard from quite a few of them the last two years, and to a person, they don't have "full confidence" in anybody in a leadership position at USC.

About 200 faculty members have now signed a petition calling for Nikias to resign.

"I think the pattern is the most disturbing part … this pattern of not taking these matters seriously until they become public liabilities to the university," USC professor Joshua Goldstein, who signed the letter calling for Nikias to resign, told me Tuesday.

Advertisement

Meanwhile, more than 2,000 have done the same in a petition claiming that under Nikias, "cover-ups have spoiled the USC reputation and have hindered real change on campus to keep students safe."

"As an alumnus," one petition signer wrote last week, "I am sickened by USC's ongoing lack of accountability and commitment to the safety and well-being of their students."

The word "accountability" comes up a lot in the complaints, with good reason.

Nikias has claimed the scandals did not come to his attention until they were well underway. Even if Nikias is telling the truth, what does his ignorance say about his leadership?

If it takes a newspaper poking around to do the right thing, maybe it's time to consider another line of work. How can you continue to function when 200 of your professors sign their names to a vote of no confidence in which they express their "outrage and disappointment" over your failures?

We're not just talking about leadership skills, we're talking about values. As the professors' letter of complaint noted in the case of USC gynecologist George Tyndall, who has denied wrongdoing:

"Numerous students and nursing staff reported Dr. Tyndall's misconduct in the years between 2000 and 2014, yet Dr. Tyndall was suspended only in 2016…. After concluding that the charges … were true, the university allowed him to resign quietly. By failing to notify the state Medical Board, law enforcement, or patients, the university allowed Dr. Tyndall to keep his medical license, continue preying on women … and escape the consequences of his abuse. President Nikias writes that 'in hindsight,' it was wrong not to notify the board."

In the midst of the scandal involving the medical school dean last year, a source told me the problem was not Nikias, but USC's archaic governance structure. And this week, Nikias released a 20-page plan prepared at the request of trustees. It called for a new code of ethics and a commission on improving campus culture.

But what does any of that mean, and why the snail's pace?

Professor Paul Rosenbloom, who worked on the task force that drew up the reform plan, told me Tuesday that USC has a "federated system" that has created a lot of autonomy among individual units and "a culture in which the units have tried to keep problems within themselves as much as possible."

Rosenbloom told me he thinks there have been "quite a few mistakes of judgment" by administrators, but he's willing, for now, to give Nikias time to implement reforms.

"None of what I have seen has led me to believe there is wrongdoing at the highest levels of the university," Rosenbloom said.

With all due respect, I don't understand how USC can have some of the best minds in academia and leave other schools in the dust when it comes to fundraising — meeting multibillion-dollar goals ahead of schedule — but the Trojan hierarchy is inept when it comes to figuring out how to govern itself and deliver basic accountability and student protections.

"If you think about a private firm, or a different kind of corporation where news like this came out, the president would have stepped down a year ago," said Ariela Gross, co-director of USC's Center for Law, History & Culture.

"It's shocking that we're still talking about this structure issue. It is about … not taking responsibility, of not dealing with wrongdoers," Gross went on. "It's about moral leadership and this administration has lost the confidence and trust of the senior faculty because they don't have that moral leadership."

I have only two words to add.

Fight on.

Advertisement

Update:

Since this column was posted, I spoke to USC trustee and mall magnate Rick Caruso.

Caruso said in a brief interview that he is still trying collect all the facts regarding the gynecologist.

"I need to understand what happened, why it was never fully reported and why his conduct was able to continue for so many years," Caruso said. "I know enough to know I don't have all that I need to know."

As for the future of the president, he added: "Trustees believe Max Nikias, given the right circumstances, is the right person to lead this institution."

But the investigation "will go where it goes."

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

UPDATES:

3:30 p.m. Thursday: This article was updated to add comments from USC trustee Rick Caruso.

Advertisement
Advertisement