USC President Carol Folt’s daunting task: Fix a university battered by scandal
Carol L. Folt was inaugurated Friday morning as the University of Southern California’s 12th president, formally assuming one of the most daunting assignments in American higher education — fixing USC.
An outsider who previously ran the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Folt is the first woman to hold the post. She takes the helm as the private university is trying to recover from years of scandal that scarred its national reputation, cost hundreds of millions of dollars in court settlements and lost contributions and felled a seemingly invincible president.
“Today we are turning a page at USC,” Folt told hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni after a colorful procession across campus in academic regalia. “We are starting a new journey of exploration.”
USC’s governing board is betting that Folt, who weathered high-profile controversies in North Carolina, can change an institutional culture many have said became corrupt and money-centric as the university pursued ambitious growth.
Board Chairman Rick Caruso focused his remarks on redemption, which he said USC needs after a period in which the university abandoned humility.
“Something has been lost. We are here to get it back,” the billionaire mall developer said.
There were no mentions of former President C.L. Max Nikias during the hour and a half of speeches and musical performances, and Folt made only brief allusions to the scandals that forced out the once-powerful leader last year.
“I want to assure you that we will continue to tackle these problems until they are corrected,” she said.
She drew the biggest applause on topics unrelated to negative headlines: her commitment to immigrant students, a promise to make USC more affordable and plans to position the university as a leader against climate change.
Many faculty and students indicated they will be paying close attention to the vision Folt maps out.
“This is really a moment of decision for the university,” said classics and comparative literature professor Greg Thalmann, who has taught at USC for 32 years. “Either it is going to clean up its problems, go forward and become the institution it has the potential to become, or it is going to slide into mediocrity.”
In an apparent acknowledgment of the massive changes needed on campus, Folt retained the prestigious — and pricey — consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to help plan her tenure.
Since starting in July, she has moved rapidly to install key executives, including a new provost as well as administrators overseeing communications, human resources and student affairs. Her most significant decision came this month when she forced out athletic director Lynn Swann, a former sportscaster. Swann, a beloved Trojan football star of the 1970s, was regarded by many as unqualified, but had a close friendship with USC’s largest donor, B. Wayne Hughes.
USC’s decentralized fiscal system makes the top goal a constant search for cash. It’s contributed to USC’s successes and — mightily — to its failures.
She also worked behind the scenes to placate an acrimonious dispute at USC’s Marshall School of Business. After the interim president, Dr. Wanda Austin, forced out the school’s popular dean, Jim Ellis, three billionaire trustees and other prominent donors began squabbling publicly about whether his ouster was warranted. Folt helped recruit a star replacement, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School Dean Geoffrey Garrett, which mollified some quarters.
In a break with tradition, Folt is not living in the presidential mansion in San Marino, which has been home to USC leaders since the early 1980s. Instead, the university is renting her a house in Santa Monica with a listed rent of $35,000 a month.
Asked about her choice of residence, Folt said in an interview that like most college presidents, she needed a large space off-campus to entertain hundreds of people. She also cited earthquake safety concerns at the San Marino house.
“I am told it needs a current seismic evaluation,” she told The Times in a written statement. “While that evaluation is underway, I am living in Santa Monica.”
Folt has been highly visible on campus, especially to students. On move-in day in late August, she greeted scores of parents and freshmen in dormitories — something that trustee David Bohnett said he learned from a friend who was moving his daughter onto campus.
“That’s a story she won’t tell the trustees but it’s just who she is,” said Bohnett. “She is really all about the students and the faculty. Of course it’s not just that — she’s a very substantive leader — but with a lot of compassion and humanity.”
She is a frequent spectator at athletic competitions, takes selfies with students she passes on the quad, chronicles her days via Instagram and has regular lunches with student groups. During the inauguration ceremony, she left the stage in front of Doheny Memorial Library to wade into the raucous student section.
Skye Parral, president of Graduate Student Government, said that Folt impressed her at these meals by encouraging students to ask about any topic.
“She will open up the floor for questions and answers,” said Parral, a doctoral student in psychology. “We haven’t had that before.”
In yet another sign of upheaval at USC, two top administrators announced Tuesday that they were leaving their posts.
An environmental scientist raised in Ohio, Folt graduated from UC Santa Barbara before earning a doctorate from UC Davis. She began teaching at Dartmouth in 1983 and ascended to provost and interim president at the Ivy League university before leaving for Chapel Hill.
She assumed the job of UNC chancellor at a time the school was reeling from revelations of academic fraud involving student athletes and “no-show” classes. Folt was left to deal with the fallout. She commissioned an investigation by a former federal prosecutor, instituted reforms to protect academic integrity and dealt with an NCAA probe.
Her handling of a subsequent quagmire drew less praise. In 2018, protesters demanded the removal from UNC grounds of a Confederate statue known as Silent Sam. After the protesters tore down the memorial, Folt and the public school’s trustees suggested building an on-campus facility for the monument, a plan that angered both those for and against the display of Silent Sam, and was ultimately scrapped.
As one of her final acts, she ordered the remaining pedestal removed, arguing that it posed a danger to student safety. In the face of heavy criticism from some board members, she was forced to step down.
By then, she was already pursuing the USC job.
Her speech Friday morning was briefly interrupted by a handful of protesters chanting: “Who do you respect? Who do you serve?”
She paused, told the crowd free speech was important on campus and then continued with her remarks.
It’s a post that will put Charles F. Zukoski directly over several ongoing quagmires, including the college admissions scandal, a fiscal crisis at the school of social work and turmoil following the ouster of the business school dean.
At USC, Folt will oversee the education of 47,000 students as well as a $1.7-billion medical enterprise that includes hospitals and clinics throughout the region. The university is the largest private employer in Los Angeles.
Folt will also be responsible for cleaning up many of the messes that occurred under the stewardship of her predecessor, Nikias. The college admissions scandal, which was centered in USC’s athletic department, will continue to play out in federal court. In her speech Friday, Folt announced an “overhaul” of admissions led by USC’s new provost.
There are also some 700 civil lawsuits against USC pending in state Superior Court over the alleged sexual abuse of students by former campus gynecologist George Tyndall. In addition, the university brokered a $215-million federal class action settlement last year to compensate all of Tyndall’s former patients. Tyndall, who has denied wrongdoing, awaits trial on criminal charges.
It was the revelation of Tyndall’s allegedly inappropriate conduct — and how USC mishandled it — that turned the traditionally passive faculty into an outspoken and well-organized resistance. Hundreds demanded Nikias’ resignation, and eventually got it.
Since then, professors have grown even more emboldened. Concerned Faculty of USC, a group formed last year, is advocating for faculty oversight of student health, admissions and other facets of the university. Folt has spoken with leaders of Concerned Faculty, but some have grumbled about her lack of response to their proposals and concerns. Among faculty demands is the release of reports commissioned by the trustees into the college admission scandal and a former medical school dean who was abusing methamphetamine and other drugs while overseeing doctor training and treating patients.
On a rainy day in late November, the billionaire chairman of USC’s board of trustees sat in the front row of a classroom as one female student after another described how the university had failed women.
The misdeeds — and the accompanying damage to USC’s reputation — have been at times difficult to bear, said Corii Berg, the president of the alumni association and the general counsel of Lionsgate, the film and TV studio.
“It has been humbling, there’s no question,” Berg said. “We can’t ignore what has transpired, and I think we have to learn from it.”
In conversations with Folt and in meetings, Berg said he found her smart and refreshingly unscripted.
“She speaks from a very big heart, and I don’t find that very often in leaders and executives,” he said. “I think she’s the perfect leader to write USC’s next great chapter.”
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