USC selects Carol Folt as new president as university tries to move past scandals
Carol L. Folt, the recently departed chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will be the next president of USC, a choice underscoring the university’s desire to turn the page on myriad scandals that have defined it in recent years.
Folt, whose appointment was approved by the board of trustees Wednesday, will become the first female president in USC’s 139-year history.
She was the unanimous selection of a search committee that interviewed about 100 candidates, including academics, business leaders and nonprofit executives, over the last seven months. Board Chairman Rick Caruso said she had been an early front-runner and praised her in a statement as “the right leader at the right time.”
“Dr. Folt stood out from the very beginning as a courageous and compassionate person who always places the well-being of students, faculty, staff and patients at the heart of all she does,” Caruso said.
When she starts the job July 1, Folt will take the helm of an institution buffeted by a succession of controversies, including the unfolding college admissions scandal, which saw USC employees and parents charged; drug use by the former dean of its prestigious medical school; and sexual assault allegations against a former campus gynecologist.
Folt acknowledged the challenges in a statement to the university community Wednesday, writing: “I assure you that we will meet these challenges together, directly, decisively and with honesty and candor. This is a moment of responsibility and opportunity, and we will seize them both.”
It was the accusations against the gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall, last year that cut short the tenure of university President C.L. Max Nikias. His eight-year term saw USC skyrocket in academic rankings and prestige, and the fundraising campaign he led brought more than $6 billion to USC.
Critics, however, said the university lost its way ethically in the Nikias era, and hundreds of faculty members called on him to resign last summer. He turned over his office to a trustee, retired aerospace executive Wanda Austin, who has served as interim president since August.
Folt’s considerable experience handling high-profile campus controversies was one of her selling points. She arrived at North Carolina in 2013 shortly after revelations of a long-running and vast academic fraud involving Tar Heel athletes and “no-show” classes. As chancellor, she commissioned an independent investigation by a former federal prosecutor, implemented scores of institutional reforms and dealt with an NCAA probe.
Her final year at Chapel Hill was marked by a conflict over a Confederate monument on campus. Many students deemed the statue known as Silent Sam racist and wanted it removed, but state law protects such monuments. Folt circumvented the law by arguing that the monument posed a danger to students and ordered it placed in storage last year. In January, she had the pedestal taken down the same day she announced that she planned to resign at the end of the academic year. The decision outraged some on the university’s governing body, and she was forced from the chancellor’s post at the end of January.
Caruso said that she briefed him on the brewing monument flap over breakfast at his home when she came to Los Angeles to interview for the USC job. After she decided to remove the pedestal, he said, she phoned him and offered to withdraw her candidacy because of criticism she anticipated in North Carolina. Caruso said he found her decision on the monument “incredibly brave” and told her, “I love you more today than I did yesterday.”
The search committee her from three finalists Feb. 28. USC declined to identify the other contenders.
In the eyes of some observers, Folt’s final act, in which she sided with students and against a memorial steeped in racism, allowed her to redefine a tenure that had previously received more mixed reviews.
In her six years at North Carolina, she was sometimes criticized as a weak leader who was pushed around by conservative Republican political appointees who govern the state university system.
“It is telling that Chancellor Folt suddenly found the courage to act once she was no longer beholden to the politics of self-preservation,” Jerry Wilson, a graduate student who had protested the monument, told the Washington Post in January.
USC on Wednesday emphasized her successes at Chapel Hill: a $4.25-billion fundraising campaign, strengthened sexual assault policies and rising diversity in the student body. They also touted her stewardship of North Carolina’s medical school, one of the top programs in the country, and her ability to attract federal research dollars. In 2017, the university brought in more than $1 billion in federal research money.
William Tierney, a professor in USC’s Rossier School of Education and an expert on university administration and governance, said he was happy that the trustees selected a person with experience leading a university.
“I’m pleased that we’ve hired someone who knows how to be president. We do need somebody who has dealt with the day-to-day life of being a president, and she comes with the added bonus of also having handled a variety of conflict that USC has unfortunately come to know,” Tierney said.
Folt, 67, signed a five-year contract that Caruso said compensated her at the same level as Nikias. The former president earned an annual base pay of more than $1 million. The board chairman said he expected Folt to serve for at least a decade.
In an interview shortly after meeting with trustees, Folt said she would be “digging deep” to understand the various scandals facing USC but felt focusing solely on them would be a mistake.
“People need to remember that if we put all our effort on the challenges, we take our eye off the future,” Folt said. “If you are consumed by [the scandals], you are shirking a major part of your duty.”
The USC job is a return to California for Folt. An environmental scientist raised in Ohio, she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC Santa Barbara and a doctorate from UC Davis. She joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1983 and rose to become provost and interim president before leaving for North Carolina.
In USC, Folt is returning to a private institution, governed not by political appointees but by some of the Pacific Rim’s most wealthy and powerful people. USC’s board members include real estate moguls, Hollywood insiders and industrial titans from China and India.
With its 47,000 students, USC is significantly larger than the University of North Carolina, which has an enrollment of about 30,000 students, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Folt’s appointment comes as USC is grappling with the federal charges of college admissions cheating in which the university played a central role.
Of the 32 parents named in the FBI affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, more than half stand accused of conspiring to bribe their way into USC.
The NCAA previously slammed the school for violations involving gifts and benefits given by agents to star football player Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo. The head coach of its vaunted football team was fired in 2015 after slurring his words and shouting a profanity at a booster event.
Nearly two years ago, The Times reported that former medical school Dean Carmen Puliafito used drugs and partied with a circle of criminals, and his successor resigned after The Times revealed that the university had paid a financial settlement to a medical school fellow who accused him of sexual harassment.
Over the last year, the campus has been roiled by allegations, also brought to light by The Times, that Tyndall — who spent 27 years at the student health clinic — abused and harassed hundreds of students. The administration reached a secret deal with the gynecologist that allowed him to leave the university with a financial payout and a clean record with the state medical board.
The university recently brokered an initial $215-million settlement with former patients, and experts say the final price tag will be much higher.
Sophomore Amber McKernan, a cognitive sciences major, had one piece of advice for the new president: “Listen to the students. They’re smart.”
She said the stereotype of USC as the University of Spoiled Children was frustrating and overwhelmingly false, and she said she hoped Folt would operate in a transparent way that lets others see the diverse, high-achieving school she has come to love.
“I just would want a new president to keep weeding out all the people that are misrepresenting the university as a whole,” she said.
Cruz Arroyo, a 25-year-old doctoral student in English, said he hopes the new president will acknowledge the recent spate of misconduct head-on.
“It’s exciting to hear that we have a new president, but when thinking about the changes we want to see at the university, it’s a group effort, a collective effort of the whole Trojan family,” he said.
It’s been “a wild ride” being a student at USC amid the recent controversies, he said. “It’s been difficult because, you know, I’m getting my degree here. I want my degree to not have all these scandals attached to it.”
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