Anger, questions at USC after second medical school dean departs over inappropriate behavior

The exit of a second dean at USC’s Keck School of Medicine over inappropriate behavior brought shock and outrage to the campus Friday and demands that university leadership explain what went wrong.

A number of physicians, researchers and scholars at the Keck School of Medicine said they were stunned to learn that Dr. Rohit Varma, who was removed Thursday as dean, had been disciplined 14 years ago after a sexual harassment and retaliation complaint by a woman fellow he supervised.

Varma’s departure came a little more than a year and a half after Dr. Carmen Puliafito stepped down. Puliafito was the subject of a Times investigation that found he regularly abused methamphetamine and other drugs and associated with addicts and prostitutes.

A Keck administrator described the school as “completely in shock” over the Varma revelations. She said many on campus learned of the dean’s departure from colleagues who whispered the news or forwarded a link of The Times' story on the resignation.

“It’s sad because a bulk of the folks who work here do great stuff, but this has sullied that,” said the administrator, who like others requested anonymity because USC has asked employees not to speak publicly on the matter.

In a letter to colleagues Thursday, Varma wrote that he “felt it was in the best interest of the school for me to step down at this time.”

In a statement to The Times released Friday, Varma added: “While I am disappointed that I will no longer be serving as dean of the Keck School of Medicine, I am proud of the many accomplishments I have made together with students, residents, the staff and faculty of both the Keck School and the USC Roski Eye Institute and look forward to continuing my work at USC as a member of the faculty.’’

USC disciplined Varma in 2003 after allegations that he sexually harassed the young researcher while he was a junior professor, according to confidential personnel records reviewed by The Times and interviews with people familiar with the university investigation.

As The Times was preparing to publish a story disclosing the case, USC announced Thursday afternoon that Varma was no longer dean.

USC Provost Michael Quick said in a letter to the campus community Friday that Dr. Laura Mosqueda, Keck’s chair of family medicine, would serve as interim dean while the university searched for Varma’s permanent successor.

Quick acknowledged the widespread anger over the latest black eye to Keck. “I understand how upsetting this situation is to all of us, but we felt it was in the best interest of the faculty, staff, and students for all of us to move in this direction,” he wrote in a Thursday letter.

At a packed town hall meeting in Mayer Auditorium on Friday, university administrators heard from a large crowd of angry Keck medical students, many in scrubs and white doctor coats.

“I really want to talk about the culture that’s being propagated at the highest levels of USC leadership, and it seems to be a culture that values money above all else, especially ethics,” said one male student, according to a recording of the meeting reviewed by The Times.

Both former deans were known as financial rainmakers for USC. Puliafito claimed to have raised $1 billion while leading Keck — a number USC now disputes. The National Institutes of Health sent more than $60 million in grants to USC for Varma’s projects, according to federal databases.

The deans present at the meeting tried to allay fears that the scandals could affect the medical school’s reputation or the careers of the students. One administrator told the students they would be given written talking points to use during residency interviews “so you feel like you’ll have a little security in your back pocket.”

A female student demanded action by USC President C.L. Max Nikias and the university’s Board of Trustees.

“We need to have the freaking trustees, we need to have Nikias, we need to have Quick in here, and we need them to apologize,” she said.

In July, The Times published a lengthy story that detailed the 66-year-old Puliafito’s partying with much-younger drug abusers while he was dean. He resigned as dean in March 2016, but USC allowed him to remain on faculty and continue to treat patients.

University leaders later said they were unaware of Puliafito’s drug use, although Varma told a gathering of students that his predecessor’s excessive drinking was known to administrators. After The Times’ investigation was published, USC barred Puliafito from campus and began the process to fire him. He is under investigation by the Medical Board of California.

A committee headed by Quick selected Varma as Puliafito’s replacement last year from a pool of more than 140 applicants from across the nation, according to USC. The candidates included academics from top universities. After winnowing the field to 15, USC interviewed the candidates and chose Varma.

On Tuesday, The Times informed USC of the newspaper’s findings on the sexual harassment case involving Varma and asked the university for comment. USC on Wednesday told The Times the incident had been addressed nearly 15 years ago and that it remained confident in Varma’s leadership. In meetings with faculty members Wednesday, Varma told colleagues he had the support of USC leadership, according to two Keck employees knowledgeable of the conversations.

Less than 24 hours later, USC reversed course and said Varma was out, citing The Times' reporting and “previously undisclosed information.”

A university spokesman said Friday that “USC’s investigation led to new disclosures of employment incidents that caused it to lose confidence in [Varma’s] ability to lead.” He declined to elaborate.

Senior faculty members at Keck said they were stunned by the developments over the last two days.

Some feared for school’s reputation. “It’s not that we’ve lost [Puliafito and Varma], but that these individuals were ever appointed,” another faculty member said.

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

paul.pringle@latimes.com

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

8:20 p.m.: This article was updated with minor editing changes throughout.

This article was originally published at 7:40 p.m.

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