Column: USC has lost its way. Here’s how the new president can put it back on track

Visitors tour the USC campus.

Hey, USC, here’s your chance.

With the announcement Wednesday that Carol L. Folt, the recently departed chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will take the helm at USC, it’s time to find a new way to think about the purpose, the role and the mission of a university in one of the great cities of the world.

But first, if this is the start of a new era, certain traditions have to come to an end.

The scandals of recent years, for which we all needed a scorecard, did not happen by accident. They happened because something has been rotten in the way the school has operated, led by imperious administrators and out-of-touch, politically motivated trustees.


I almost spit out my breakfast Tuesday when I read that the USC Board of Trustees had approved a tuition increase of 3.5% to $57,256.

Have any of them read a newspaper in the last two years?

I had to check the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April Fools’ Day.

USC, in the last week, has been at the center of the college entrance cheating scandal, and no one is surprised. A senior associate athletic director and two coaches were fired amid allegations that they received bribes to get “athletes” who weren’t really athletes into school.


Athletic director Lynn Swann said he was “blindsided” by news of the scandal, but isn’t that always the case at USC, whether a gynecologist has been accused of sexually abusing patients for years or the dean of the medical school is accused of using meth while seeing patients?

“The value of a USC degree keeps getting stronger,” USC Provost Michael Quick said this week in announcing the tuition increase.

If the man is that tone-deaf, he should be the first to go. I hate the word “optics,” which is so dreadfully overused, but it applies here. These are bad optics.

I’m not sure I’d even be shocked if USC fired Swann and replaced him with a Trojan alumnus by the name of O.J. Simpson.

USC is, of course, a private enterprise. But it has a public role, in part because it has been a great institution in many ways, and a vital part of what has been one of the most underserved communities in Greater Los Angeles.

It should be known not as the school wealthy parents allegedly got their kids into by paying $500,000 in bribes, but as the school at the forefront of researching and addressing the growing divide between haves and have-nots in a state that ranks as the fifth largest economy in the world but also has the nation’s highest rate of poverty.

It has to think of itself as more than a business. I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that things began to go awry in a big way at roughly the same time former President C.L. Max Nikias announced plans to raise billions of dollars and then took bows when USC topped its goals ahead of time.

Was money more important than integrity when the medical school dean, a pretty good fundraiser himself, was first reported to have problems?


Was improving the university’s national ranking and public image more important than protection of students when suspicions first arose about the gynecologist being a monster?

Throughout the scandals of recent years, I heard from faculty members who were outraged by the lack of leadership and from students who were fed up with all the distractions.

The new president needs to listen to these people, because they – not the administrators or trustees – are the core, the heart and soul of the institution. In fact, the new chief should take a hard look at the Daily Trojan editorial that was published this week:

“In recent years, it seems that USC is rocked by new revelations of a scandal or cover-up every other month. And like clockwork in the hours following the breaking news, students receive emails from University officials offering flimsy solutions and weak promises of change.”

Hear, hear. And the students weren’t done:

“USC lacks a cohesive system of oversight to ensure accountability at all levels… Scandal after scandal, USC consistently claims it isn’t at fault — even going so far as to pin itself as the victim in this most recent case — because it supposedly had no prior knowledge of these incidents. But this purported oblivion does not grant USC a clean slate just as the administration would like to have us believe. On the contrary, the University’s ignorance to egregious corruption reflects a gross, unforgivable negligence that further implicates USC for all of these scandals on its own.”

Kids after my own heart.

USC needs to immediately inspect the records of every single student who got admissions preference and take a hard look at the details. Did they play the sport they were recruited for? Did they have any connection to the entrance exam cheating scandal? Did donations from parents play a role in their admission?


And if problems are found, the students should be expelled and the parents reported to authorities.

“I hope that a new president will begin a faculty-led investigation of admissions and athletics that will be accountable to the entire community, make clear to everyone who knew what when, hold responsible those who did or should have known, and recommend structural changes to make sure something like this could never happen again,” said USC law professor Ariela Gross.

“USC must let the sun shine in,” she continued. “And we need to stop allowing important decisions to be driven by financial concerns; restoring faculty governance and oversight to athletics and admissions will put academic and ethical values back at the center of the university’s mission, rather than ratings and dollars.”

I second all of that. And I hope the new president has the strength to ignore those, no matter how wealthy or influential, who stand in the way of change.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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