Column: Congratulations, USC trustees. Your common sense has triumphed over bullying and hyperbole

About 150 people gathered Friday to protest the ouster of USC's business school dean, James G. Ellis.
(Alejandra Reyes-Velarde / Los Angeles Times)

Stop fighting on, USC business school grads and deep-pocketed donors.

You’re losing.

And you’re making things worse for the university you profess to love.

Instead of supporting an important personnel move by USC Interim President Wanda Austin, who was brought in to rebuild the tarnished reputation of a scandal-ridden place, a group of university trustees, professors, graduates and students have been throwing a tantrum.

They did not agree with Austin’s decision to relieve the beloved dean of the Marshall School of Business, James Ellis, of his title at the end of the year.

Austin’s decision was not made willy-nilly.

It was made after the university office that handles harassment and discrimination cases prepared a report on the business school’s history of complaints, and after an outside law firm and human resources experts weighed in.


On Dec. 3, Austin sent a letter to the business school community announcing that Ellis would step down.

Led by investment banker and USC mega-donor Lloyd Greif, the howling began immediately. He and his allies huffed and they puffed. They wrote letters. Started petitions. Yelled about transparency. They said the interim president had no business making such a momentous decision. They stamped their feet at an on-campus demonstration, complete with a bullhorn and professionally printed signs and T-shirts.

But on Wednesday, they faced defeat.

The Board of Trustees — to its everlasting credit — voted to support Austin’s decision. My colleagues Matt Hamilton and Harriet Ryan reported that fewer than half a dozen of USC’s 57 trustees opposed the decision to oust the dean.

Congratulations, President Austin. As the first woman to lead USC, you give us hope that the boy’s club can be dismantled and replaced with something better.


Patriarchy protects itself.

It finds all kinds of ways to turn the tables on real victims, even unknowable victims as we have here in the case of the Marshall School of Business. Thus, a perfectly reasonable step in the rehabilitation of a university — i.e., getting a fresh start with a new business school dean — has been portrayed as an assault on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


The report from outside counsel, known as the Cooley report, has been denigrated by Greif as “weak,” “garbage in and garbage out” and “junk.”

“Is it any wonder I have made reference to the Cooley study as being reminiscent of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s imaginary list of 205 Communists in the U.S. State Department, a since-debunked list that nevertheless ruined countless lives just like this opaque document is ruining Jim’s?”

Hyperbole like this has no place in the discussion.

Ellis is not a victim of McCarthy-like tactics. What cosseted world do you have to be living in to accuse USC of ruining this man’s life?

When he steps down at the end of the year, Dean Ellis, who lives in a gated mansion in San Marino, will not be kicked to the curb. His total compensation was worth more than $630,000 in 2017, and his current salary will be paid for the remaining three years of his term. He will remain a salaried, tenured member of the business school faculty.

That is hardly the profile of a “ruined” man.

But it wasn’t enough to scream “McCarthyism.” Greif also questioned the authority of Austin to take such a bold step.

“Wanda was given an interim position to keep the ship afloat (not sink it) while a search for a trained and experienced university president was underway,” he wrote. “Temporary employees should not be making decisions with long-term consequences…. In this case, the very decision is suspect.”

Not really. Rick Caruso, chairman of USC’s Board of Trustees, supported Austin’s move, and we now know that most of the other trustees did too.

Ultimately, do you know who will benefit from this move? Women and people of color, most likely.

Also, by taking this issue off the table, Austin probably did a huge favor for her successor. By the time the university names its next president, the business school, along with the medical school and the campus health clinic, will be starting new — and, it’s hoped, better — chapters.


Here’s the thing about a man like Dean Ellis.

It is possible to simultaneously be a wonderful human being, an inspiration to your students, a prodigious fundraiser and the wrong man to lead a major USC professional school into the post-#MeToo world.

No one has publicly accused Ellis of personal misconduct. His removal was based on the cumulative record of harassment and discrimination cases at the business school over a decade. “The vast majority of these cases were never brought to my attention,” he told his Marshall colleagues in a letter.

His supporters find that exculpatory.

I find it damning.

A place like USC has got to make it clear, from the top down, that all harassment and discrimination reports must be handled with sensitivity and rigor. Every single case should be brought to the dean’s attention. If they’re not, how would he or she ever know what’s going on?

Here’s another thing: Over the last couple of years, the USC medical school dean was exposed as an illegal drug user who partied with criminals, the school gynecologist is alleged to have sexually abused students for decades, and longtime USC President C.L. Max Nikias was forced out after the scandals triggered waves of outrage.

USC has exactly zero room for error when it comes to how it handles complaints about its administrators, faculty and staff.


Austin has acted in the best interest of the university’s health and welfare.

Her detractors should accept that sometimes, a shake-up is needed at the top to improve things at the bottom.

USC Interim President Wanda Austin took the bold step of removing James Ellis, the dean of the Marshall USC Business School. Trustees backed her up.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT