Column: Dear Lady Trustees of USC: It’s time to speak up and hold Max Nikias accountable

In 2015, USC President C.L. Max Nikias, center, announced the addition of five new trustees to the USC board, from left: Tracy Sykes, David Bohnett, Jeanie Buss, Kathy Leventhal and Kris Popovich.
(Gus Ruelas / USC)

Dear Women of the USC Board of Trustees,

I am talking to you, Jeanie Buss. And you, Jane Harman. And you, Wallis Annenberg.

I am also talking to you, Miriam Adelson, Wanda Austin, Ramona Cappello, Suzanne Dworak-Peck, Tamara Hughes Gustavson, Suzanne Nora Johnson, Lydia Kennard, Kathy Leventhal, Carmen Nava, Shelly Nemirovski, Amy Ross, Heliane Steden, Tracy Sykes.

And of course, I am talking to you, Michele Dedeaux Engemann, because, sadly, it is your family name that will forever be associated with George Tyndall, the disgraced gynecologist who practiced at the Engemann Student Health Clinic on the USC campus.


All of you — many of whom have been contacted by The Times, none of whom has replied — must know that you have the power to change the course of the ugly scandals that are tarnishing the institution you govern.

You are vastly outnumbered by the men with whom you serve as voting members — 17 to 42 — which is pretty shameful, come to think of it.

But that’s a matter for another day.

Right now, you have the power to hold accountable the person who sets the tone at USC, President C.L. Max Nikias, who has shown again and again that he is a genius at raising money, but cannot be trusted to keep his students — particularly his young female students — safe.


No one is suggesting that Nikias knew that Tyndall, who worked at the health center for three decades, had been accused over the years of mistreating young patients. Just as no one is blaming Nikias for former medical school dean Carmen Puliafito’s use of meth. But critics are suggesting that Nikias leads a university that is incapable of policing its worst actors, and that when it is called on its failures, it obfuscates, hides and denies.

As you surely recall, the president of Michigan State University, Lou Anna Simon, did not personally know that Larry Nassar, the monstrous college osteopath who brutalized so many young women, was scarring a generation of America’s best gymnasts.

In fact, after the scandal broke wide open, Michigan State’s Board of Trustees gave Simon a unanimous vote of confidence. Similarly, your own board president, John Mork, announced Tuesday that the executive committee has “full confidence” in Nikias.

“We have zero tolerance for this conduct and will ensure that people are held accountable for actions that threaten the university student body and that do not reflect our culture of respect, care, and ethics,” wrote Mork.

Ladies, does supporting Max Nikias at all costs look like “accountability” to you?

Put yourselves in the place of the hundreds of young women who were visiting a gynecologist for the first time in their lives — at 17, 18 or 19. They expected to be treated with respect and sensitivity, and instead were manhandled and subjected to disgusting repartee.

In various lawsuits filed this week, Tyndall is alleged to have thrust his entire ungloved hand up to his wrist into one woman’s vagina (something that Nassar, who is expected to die in prison, routinely did to patients), pinched the breasts of another and asked one if she had ever swallowed semen.

USC graduate student Daniella Mohazab, who was 19 when she saw Tyndall in the fall of 2015, alleges in her lawsuit that Tyndall told her, “I think we’d better have some lube,” after penetrating her with his fingers.


Lucy Chi was a first-year graduate student in 2012 when she went to see Tyndall. In a federal complaint, she accuses Tyndall of moving his fingers in and out of her, saying he wanted to loosen up her vaginal muscles before inserting a speculum, and fondled her breasts.

For years, there were complaints and investigations that seemed to go nowhere. Why did USC not report Tyndall’s abuses to the California Medical Board in a timely fashion? Why was it more important for USC to protect itself than its most vulnerable students?

And who, ultimately, is responsible for a culture that puts self-preservation over transparency?

This, ladies, is where you can learn something from Michigan State’s disgrace. After its trustees gave that unanimous vote of confidence to President Simon, a single trustee broke ranks the next day.

“I don’t believe President Simon can survive the public outcry that has been generated by this tragedy,” the trustee said. “I believe our best recourse is for President Simon to resign immediately in order to let the healing process begin, first and foremost for the survivors, and secondarily for our university.”

Three days later, Simon resigned, not because she knew about Nassar’s crimes, but because so many of them occurred on her watch. That is what you call leadership. That is what you call accountability.

Ladies, with the eyes of a post #MeToo world upon you, is there not a single one of you brave enough, caring enough and strong enough to do the right thing and demand that Nikias resign?


Twitter: @AbcarianLAT