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Rick Caruso is named chair of USC's trustees, vows swift investigation of gynecologist scandal

Rick Caruso is named chair of USC's trustees, vows swift investigation of gynecologist scandal
Developer Rick Caruso, seen at USC in 2012, has been named the chair of the university's board of trustees. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The University of Southern California’s board of trustees has elected mall magnate Rick Caruso to be the new chair of the board, giving fresh leadership as the university navigates a widening scandal involving a longtime campus gynecologist.

The move marks the latest effort by USC to address the case, which has sparked a criminal investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department and dozens of civil lawsuits. More than 400 people have contacted a hotline that the university established for patients to make reports about their experience with Dr. George Tyndall.

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In his first act as chairman, Caruso announced that the white-shoe L.A. law firm O’Melveny & Myers would conduct a “thorough and independent investigation” into the gynecologist’s conduct and “reporting failures” at the clinic. He set an ambitious timeline for the review, pledging it would conclude before students return for the fall semester.

The probe comes six days after USC President C.L. Max Nikias announced his resignation. Nikias, who had been president since 2010, had faced withering criticism in the wake of a Times investigation that found Tyndall had been the subject of numerous complaints of inappropriate comments and touching during his nearly three decades at USC. Tyndall has strongly denied ever mistreating patients.

William Tierney, a professor in USC’s Rossier School of Education who had denounced the university’s response to the Tyndall accusations, called Caruso’s election a “positive step.”

“I think he recognizes, as I’m sure the board does, that we need to move aggressively to not only solve the problems that hit us but to reaffirm the importance of USC moving forward rather than treading water,” Tierney said.

Caruso replaces Colorado energy mogul John Mork as board chair. Mork, a close friend of the president, had expressed “full confidence in President Nikias’ leadership, ethics, and values” just days before he stepped down.

It was Caruso, not Mork, who last week informed the university community of Nikias’ planned departure.

Caruso, a 1980 graduate whose private company owns The Grove and other iconic shopping complexes, has been the most visible of USC’s 59-member board of trustees since the scandal broke. Few other trustees have publicly spoken about the controversy.

In a letter to “members of the USC family” on Thursday, Caruso pledged to be transparent and vowed to institute more checks and balances in university affairs. He broadcast a special email address where alumni, staff and students could contact him, signaling his and other trustees’ accessibility. And he said trustees will also begin the process of selecting “a new world-class president for our university.

“This will be an orderly, seamless, painstaking and intelligent process,” Caruso said.

A Times investigation this month revealed that Tyndall had been the subject of repeated complaints during his time as the sole full-time gynecologist at the student health clinic. He continued to practice until 2016, when a clinic nurse reported him to the campus rape crisis center, the newspaper reported.

A university investigation determined that Tyndall sexually harassed patients with inappropriate pelvic exams and sexually suggestive remarks. He was allowed to resign quietly with a payout. His patients, who number in the tens of thousands, were not informed of the findings.

The attorney who will oversee the investigation into the Tyndall case is Apalla Chopra, an O'Melveny partner who is considered an expert in labor, education and employment law. She was part of the team that served as independent counsel to the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors after campus sexual violence issues surfaced in a since-discredited 2012 Rolling Stone report. Chopra was also hired earlier this year by Wynn Resorts to lead an investigation into Steve Wynn after the casino mogul faced a wave of sexual misconduct allegations.

A longtime trustee of USC, Caruso has been a prominent donor, and his family’s name graces the university’s center for Catholic students.

Caruso also served on the board of commissioners overseeing L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, and as president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the LAPD’s civilian oversight board.

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Former LAPD Chief William Bratton was among those who offered plaudits to Caruso in a USC news release issued Thursday.

“I can think of no person better suited to transition the culture of an institution in crisis, and lead its turnaround,” Bratton said. “USC is at a crossroads, and Rick will know how to find the way forward.”

Hours before Caruso’s announcement, USC Provost Michael Quick addressed donors at the Trojan Legacy Circle luncheon at USC’s Town & Gown venue.

Quick also expressed hope that the university can fix the problems exposed by Tyndall case and restore trust.

“This university has been through a lot of crises in the last 138 years,” he told the group. “We will weather this storm and emerge stronger, as we have with every crisis we have confronted.”

Quick acknowledged the pain and anger that the campus community feels.

“I remember times when my parents were hurt, pained, sad, exasperated, frustrated, angry and disappointed in me… because they knew that I failed to live up to, not their expectations, but my own expectations and my own potential,” he said. “I think a lot of us are going through that right now and rightly so. The great university of ours is better than what we have shown over the last year.”

5:10 p.m.: Updated with information about attorney handling investigation.

This article was originally published at 4:59 p.m.

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