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USC President C.L. Max Nikias to step down

USC President C.L. Max Nikias to step down
C.L. Max Nikias is leaving as president of the University of Southern California, a position he held since 2010. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

USC President C.L. Max Nikias, whose tenure was marked by a significant boost in the university's prestige and fundraising prowess but tarnished by a series of damaging scandals, is stepping down from his post, the university's Board of Trustees announced Friday.

The move comes after more than a week of uproar over the university's handling of a longtime campus gynecologist accused of misconduct toward female students. More than 300 people, most of them former female patients of Dr. George Tyndall, have since come forward to USC, many with allegations of mistreatment and sexual abuse that date back to the early 1990s.

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The revelations published by The Times heightened long-festering concerns about university leaders' ethics and management style and sparked calls for Nikias to resign.

"President Nikias and the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees have agreed to begin an orderly transition and commence the process of selecting a new president," Rick J. Caruso, a USC trustee, said in a letter to the campus Friday. "We recognize the need for change and are committed to a stable transition."

"There is nothing more sacred to this board than the well-being of our students," Caruso added in the letter. "We will be guided solely by what is in the best interest of this great university."

No time was given for when Nikias would be replaced.

A prolific fundraiser during his eight years as president, Nikias pushed USC to imagine itself as an elite global research university and to dramatically expand and renovate its South Los Angeles campus. He oversaw a major construction boom that transformed parts of the campus community and extended USC's ties to China and the Pacific Rim.

The departure of Nikias, an engineering professor whose ambition took him from a childhood in a Cypriot village to a post leading one of the nation's top private universities, was once considered unthinkable, and signifies the end of an era at USC.

The cornerstone of Nikias' legacy is a $6-billion campaign launched in 2011, then described as the largest such drive in academic history. The university collected gifts and pledges to surpass the goal about 18 months ahead of schedule, according to USC. For his "exceptional progress" in the $6-billion campaign, trustees awarded Nikias a one-time $1.5-million bonus three years ago, making him the third-highest paid college president in the nation that year.

Last year, the university opened a $700-million village at its main campus, with new dorms, stores and restaurants on the site of a former shopping center. The university added a school of dance named after philanthropist Glorya Kaufman and inaugurated a cross-disciplinary program underwritten by rapper Dr. Dre (a.k.a. Andre Young) and recording executive Jimmy Iovine.

It was unclear who would take over for Nikias. His successor will face steep challenges, primarily repairing rifts among faculty, alumni and students and restoring trust in the university's leadership.

The revelations about Tyndall came less than a year after Times disclosures about drug and alcohol abuse by Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito during his tenure as dean of the university's medical school, a period when he was leading a second life of partying with young criminals and addicts.

Puliafito's replacement as dean, Rohit Varma, resigned as The Times was about to publish a report on allegations that he sexually harassed a colleague in 2002. USC had paid the woman $135,000 as a result of her complaint. In announcing Varma's removal, the university cited "previously undisclosed information" but would not elaborate.

Student and faculty critics seized on these revelations, saying they showed USC management placed a lower priority on doing the right thing than on protecting the institution's public image.

Nikias attempted to quell these concerns. Last summer, USC hired a law firm to examine the Puliafito matter for an internal review whose findings have been kept tightly under wraps. In recent days, Nikias apologized to the women who were treated by Tyndall and proposed an elaborate plan designed to overhaul the campus' management culture.

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University officials maintain that Nikias first learned of misconduct allegations against Tyndall in the fall of 2017.

The Times reported that in a career spanning nearly three decades, Tyndall was the subject of repeated complaints from staff and patients about inappropriate comments and touching. The university barred him from treating patients only after a nurse, frustrated that her complaints had gone ignored, reported Tyndall to the campus rape crisis center.

An internal investigation concluded that Tyndall had sexually harassed students and performed pelvic exams that departed from current medical standards. Yet administrators and USC's general counsel struck a secret deal with Tyndall, allowing him to resign with a financial payout.

USC opted not to report Tyndall to the Medical Board of California when he resigned, nor were patients notified of the allegations against him. The university insisted it was under no legal obligation to report Tyndall to the medical board, but later acknowledged that "in hindsight," it should have. Administrators filed a belated complaint in March.

Revelations about Tyndall prompted scores of women to come forward and publicly recount their experiences in his exam room. At least 20 plaintiffs have filed civil lawsuits against USC and the physician, alleging they were abused or sexually assaulted and that complaints about his treatment were disregarded. The Los Angeles Police Department is now investigating some of the women's allegations.

Nikias faced a torrent of criticism after The Times' investigation was published, including online petitions from alumni demanding that USC's trustees fire him. Hundreds of prominent faculty members signed a searing public letter that declared Nikias had "lost the moral authority to lead," and the body representing the university's faculty overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for Nikias' resignation.

Nikias enjoyed the public backing of USC's Board of Trustees amid the furor. Earlier this week, John Mork, the chairman of the board and a longtime friend of Nikias, said the trustees' executive committee "has full confidence in President Nikias' leadership, ethics, and values and is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward."

Nikias was selected in 2010 to become USC's 11th president and from the outset, he announced a fundraising campaign aimed at doubling the endowment in 10 years.

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"We can move the needle and move this university into what I call the pantheon of undisputed elite universities," Nikias said at the time.

Steven B. Sample, his predecessor, was president for 19 years and helped catapult USC from 51st to 26th place in U.S. News & World Report's rankings of national research universities.

Under Nikias, fundraising has been key to USC's climb in academic rankings and research profile. The university now has about 450 employees dedicated full-time to raising money, and Nikias regularly hopscotched the globe to court alumni, parents and other potential donors, sometimes in the company of the school's marching band.

Nikias was considered an obvious choice to lead, but he told The Times in 2010 that he put in months of preparation for his 90-minute interview with the university's trustees.

"One thing I learned in my career is that you never, never take anything for granted," he said.

Born in Cyprus, Nikias earned his undergraduate degree in Greece before receiving his master's and doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

He obtained his U.S. citizenship in 1988, joined USC's faculty in 1991 and was engineering school dean from 2001 to 2005, during which time he helped garner more than $200 million in donations.

For all the success of the Nikias era, it was also dogged by a spate of embarrassing episodes, particularly in the school's big-ticket sports programs. Earlier this year, USC fired assistant basketball coach Tony Bland in connection with his arrest last September in an FBI bribery investigation.

In 2015, USC removed football head coach Steve Sarkisian after repeated reports of his excessive drinking and related boorish behavior. A Times investigation found that Sarkisian had similar problems in his previous job at the University of Washington, which USC either failed to examine or ignored.

Times staff writer Sarah Parvini contributed to this report.

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