Column

Yet another USC scandal requires blunt talk about money culture and values on campus

I don’t want to make too much of the fact that the word “scandal” begins with SC, but the current midsummer drama at the University of Southern California is certainly not the first in recent years.

The administration’s disastrous handling of former medical school dean Carmen Puliafito, who remained on the faculty after reports of drug use with criminals and addicts, drew this observation from a USC physician who asked that I not reveal his name:

“This reminds me of the Steve Sarkisian fiasco.”

That’s a reference to the former Trojan football coach, who was dumped in 2015 after a loss to his former school, the University of Washington.

Either USC didn’t do its homework before hiring Sarkisian in 2013, or it did, but ignored its own findings. Once at the helm in L.A., Sarkisian was kept on the job despite slurring words, denigrating an opponent and using foul language at a booster event. He later skipped practice and was placed on leave and eventually fired after an L.A. Times investigation about his alcohol use in his previous coaching job.

The SC athletic director at the time, former Trojan quarterback Pat Haden, was second-guessed by some for his handling of the Sarkisian affair. And The Times reported that while raking in $2.5 million annually at SC, Haden made about a half million dollars a year for seven corporate boards and charitable foundations, despite acknowledging he put in “very little” time in those roles. Haden resigned last year with quite a few achievements but a mixed legacy.

Haden, by the way, had been hired in 2010 to restore USC’s badly tarnished athletic reputation. The NCAA had just dropped a hammer on the school for violations involving gifts and benefits given by agents to star football player Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo. In the NCAA crackdown, which followed an investigation begun in 2006, the NCAA cited USC’s “lack of institutional control.”

Throughout this storm of dark clouds, there’s been a constant at USC. Dating back to the NCAA investigation, all the way up through Puliafito, C.L. Max Nikias was a central figure in the institutional control of USC. I don’t know the extent of his involvement in each controversy, and my requests for interviews have not been granted. But Nikias was USC provost from 2005 until 2010, and he’s been president ever since.

Nikias, by some measures, has been a huge success at USC, raising the profile of an already-elite school and achieving his goal of raising a staggering $6 billion in donations. The money is being used to pad the school’s endowment fund, erect new buildings and research centers, and pump up the financial aid pool.

But you have to wonder if the price of success is too steep.

Puliafito was a prolific fundraiser and talent recruiter himself, which is enough to raise suspicion about how the renowned eye surgeon stayed on the job — as teacher and doctor — more than a year after he stepped down as dean in the wake of an incident in a Pasadena hotel where a female companion overdosed in Puliafito’s presence and had to be hospitalized.

A Times investigation — by Paul Pringle, Harriet Ryan, Adam Elmahrek, Matt Hamilton and Sarah Parvini — turned up solid evidence of Puliafito partying on several occasions with a circle of criminals and drug addicts in hotels, apartments and even the dean’s USC office.

Like I said in my column last week, as disturbing as that is, I’m more disturbed by the non-actions of Nikias and Provost Michael Quick, who were asked by Times reporters numerous times over the last 15 months to discuss Puliafito. At one point, reporters were turned away from Nikias’ office and told the president would not be discussing this matter.

Given his mummy act, we don’t know what Nikias knew.

We don’t know if he read the emails from The Times, one of which included a link to a 911 call about the woman who overdosed in the hotel room. We don’t know if he got word of an anonymous complaint to his staff about Puliafito.

If Nikias was in the dark, despite repeated requests for an interview about a troubling matter involving a high-profile doctor who was still seeing patients, that doesn’t speak well for his judgment or leadership.

In any case, USC employees, students and alums are owed answers, not a series of carefully massaged statements.

Four days after the story broke last week, Provost Quick said the university had seen “extremely troubling” information about Puliafito and it was “the first time we saw such information firsthand.” Nikias released a statement saying he was “outraged and disgusted.”

Not since Capt. Renault in “Casablanca” has anyone been so shocked, shocked, shocked by what’s going on right under their noses.

Nikias said last week that the university has to examine “ways in which we could have recognized the severity of the situation sooner.”

I’ve got two tips on that:

First, open your eyes.

Second, think about something other than money, prestige and football championships.

Now, of course, Nikias and company are dead serious about getting to the bottom of the Puliafito matter. So serious that they have hired a former prosecutor to investigate.

Lovely, except that the lawyer is a former USC teacher who later represented the university in a wrongful death suit. Her law firm’s managing partner is a USC grad and former chair of its board of councilors, and the firm was cited by USC for its fundraising efforts by former Trojans.

More than one reader sent me a fox-in-the-henhouse email.

USC faculty members I’ve been in touch with are incensed that a doctor was allowed to take patients for more than a year after his drug-fueled behavior was reported to the university, and they’re not buying the administration’s claims of ignorance. They tell me the trust of faculty and students has been eroded.

One parent of a USC student said he was “appalled … by the lack of honesty and character and integrity within USC’s leadership team.” Another parent told me she wanted USC trustees to take a hard look at “the true values of the university.”

I asked one USC physician if he thought Nikias would keep his job.

“I hope not,” he said. “But money wins out.”

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

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