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USC names retired aerospace executive Wanda Austin as acting president, announces Nikias' departure

USC names retired aerospace executive Wanda Austin as acting president, announces Nikias' departure
USC trustee Wanda Austin, an alumna and former president of the Aerospace Corp., will serve as interim president while trustees complete a search for C.L. Max Nikias' successor. (USC)

USC appointed a retired aerospace executive as interim president and laid out a detailed plan for selecting a permanent leader Tuesday, ending speculation about whether outgoing President C.L. Max Nikias might remain in the post.

Nikias, embattled over his administration’s handling of a campus gynecologist accused of sexually abusing patients, relinquished his duties after a meeting of USC’s board. The trustees tapped one of their own, Wanda Austin, an alumna and former president of the Aerospace Corp., to temporarily run the university.

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The trustees also approved the formation of a search committee and the hiring of search firm Isaacson, Miller to coordinate the selection of a successor. A second search company, Heidrick & Struggles, will also advise trustees.

“Our goal is to complete this search within four to six months,” board Chairman Rick Caruso wrote in a letter Tuesday afternoon to students, faculty and alumni.

C.L. Max Nikias, the outgoing president of USC, was given the titles of president emeritus and life trustee, and “will continue to assist with the transition of the incoming president,” according to the trustees' statement.
C.L. Max Nikias, the outgoing president of USC, was given the titles of president emeritus and life trustee, and “will continue to assist with the transition of the incoming president,” according to the trustees' statement. (Los Angeles Times)

He called Austin, who received a doctorate in engineering from USC in 1988, a “professional of impeccable integrity and character” and said she was the ideal person to steer the school through a difficult time.

“She is deeply committed to USC, and I know that she plans to devote time in the coming weeks to listen to the views of faculty, staff, students, and our broader community on what is needed to successfully move us into our next chapter,” Caruso wrote.

Nikias was given the titles of president emeritus and life trustee and “will continue to assist with the transition of the incoming president,” Caruso wrote. In a separate statement, the board chair noted that the controversies that engulfed Nikias “have arisen from the unfortunate and unacceptable acts of others.”

“From our investigations, which are not yet completed, we have found absolutely no wrongdoing on Max’s part,” he wrote.

The moves represent the most concrete step yet by USC to recover from a series of scandals that culminated with allegations this spring against Dr. George Tyndall. In his letter, Caruso spoke of a broad cultural change needed at USC and said reforms would extend to the board.

Its 59 voting members are a wealthy and powerful group that includes billionaires and the elites of nearly every industry. But the board has come under criticism in recent months as being too large and deferring too many of its governing responsibilities to Nikias.

Caruso said the trustees were forming a committee to improve the body and wrote that “the Board of Trustees is organized in much the same way as it was thirty years ago. That needs to change.”

Since The Times first disclosed Tyndall’s troubled history at the student health clinic in May, university leaders have struggled to craft a way forward. Early on, Nikias issued a 20-page “action plan” that called for a broad rethinking of university ethics. Among the plans it floated was an online survey for employees to “weigh in on what our values and culture should be.”

Three days later and with hundreds of faculty members calling for his resignation, Nikias appeared to resign. In a May 25 letter to the USC community, Caruso said Nikias had “agreed to begin an orderly transition and commence the process of selecting a new president.”

Over the next two months, however, there was little public indication that the university was looking for a new leader. No search committee was formed, and Nikias continued to be seen arriving on campus in his chauffeured SUV.

Some faculty suspected trustees were contemplating keeping Nikias on. The 65-year-old president was beloved by some on the board for elevating USC’s academic profile and in securing large donations during eight years in office. The board’s esteem for Nikias could be seen in his compensation package, which topped $3 million in 2015 and made him one of the nation’s highest-paid academic leaders.

A petition last week signed by nearly 700 professors expressed dismay that there had been “no follow-up,” such as forming a search committee or naming an interim president.

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“We find ourselves in a state of turmoil and uncertainty,” the petition said. With new students arriving on campus Aug. 15, it stated, “President Nikias cannot be the one who stands up to greet new students at the Convocation.”

Law professor Ariela Gross, who helped draft the May letter calling for Nikias’ resignation, said she was pleased with the board’s decisions.

“We’re very glad to see the trustees heard the voices of the community at USC and have moved forward with a transition in the leadership,” said Gross, the John B. and Alice R. Sharp professor of law and history. “We look forward to working with the interim president and the search committee to find a great new president of USC.”

The person ultimately selected by the trustees will take the helm of an institution battered by allegations of misconduct by senior personnel and cover-ups by university leaders. The university fired its head football coach Steve Sarkisian in 2015 after he slurred his words and yelled a profanity at a booster event. He later sought treatment for alcoholism.

Then last summer, The Times revealed that Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito ran the USC medical school while using methamphetamine and other drugs, and partying with a circle of criminals and addicts. USC had kept him in his post despite years of complaints from faculty and staff about his performance and demeanor.

His successor in the job, Rohit Varma, was forced out in the fall after the newspaper learned the university had settled a sexual harassment suit against him by a female researcher.

Despite the succession of negative headlines, Nikias continued to have the board’s support. That began to crumble as Tyndall’s 27-year history at the student health clinic emerged. Numerous patients and staffers complained about the gynecologist, but he remained on staff until last year when an internal investigation found he had sexually harassed students.

Administrators reached a secret deal with Tyndall that allowed him to resign with a financial settlement. They did not inform the state medical board at the time or notify his patients of their findings.

Since publication of the story, more than 300 women have sued USC, alleging the university failed to protect them from sexual abuse. The LAPD has a team of detectives investigating possible sex crimes charges against Tyndall. He has insisted he never acting inappropriately toward patients. The medical board has launched its own inquiry as has the federal Department of Education.

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How much Nikias knew about the various scandals is not clear. The trustees hired a law firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, last year to examine the Puliafito matter. Their findings have not been released publicly. A separate internal investigation of Tyndall by law firm O’Melveny & Myers is underway. The university said Tuesday that O’Melveny lawyers have interviewed over 100 witnesses and collected 4.5 million documents.

Nikias said in his own statement that the university had become “a truly elite academic institution” during his tenure, and he took pride in the work he had done with others.

“I regret profoundly that those shared accomplishments have been overshadowed by recent events, but I am confident that the USC community will remain strong and resilient, and build on a very solid foundation to take USC to even greater heights,” Nikias wrote.

Caruso did not criticize the departing president by name Tuesday, but he wrote that “recent crises have resulted from systemic and cultural failures.”

“Both the behavior and the environment that allowed it to persist are inexcusable and will no longer be tolerated,” he wrote.

Since the Tyndall revelations, university leaders have taken pains to say they want to change USC’s culture to be more transparent. Caruso issued a statement last week thanking an employee whistleblower who alerted school officials to a $100,000 donation from a campaign account controlled by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. A lawyer for USC took the matter to the U.S. attorney’s office for criminal investigation. The supervisor has denied any wrongdoing.

USC is likely to have its pick of candidates, said Susan Resneck Pierce, a consultant who advises colleges and universities on governance and planning.

“I don’t think that this situation should affect the quality of the presidential pool they are looking at,” said Pierce, president emerita of University of Puget Sound. USC “has an exceptionally strong faculty and an exceptionally strong student body and the location. A lot of people want to be in California.

She said the one circumstance that may give applicants pause is the mountain of Tyndall-related lawsuits. A new president, she said, will not want “to spend the next three to five years dealing with litigation rather than doing the things that are much more satisfying and import in educational terms.”

5:55 p.m.: This article was updated with more details from Caruso’s statement and a statement by Nikias.

5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with more reaction, details.

4:05 p.m.: This article was updated with more background.

This article was originally posted at 3:45 p.m.

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