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USC trustees back president’s ouster of business school dean over handling of harassment cases

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

USC’s trustees on Wednesday upheld the ouster of the business school dean over his handling of harassment and discrimination complaints, countering major donors and others who demanded that the university retain him.

The decision represents an important show of support to USC’s interim president, Wanda Austin, who argued that the move was necessary to repair campus culture after a series of embarrassing scandals.

This fall, Austin informed James Ellis, dean of the Marshall School of Business, that he would be replaced at the end of the academic year, three years before his term expired. Ellis, a popular dean, had raised the business school’s prestige and national ranking.

Austin’s decision came after the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity, which handles harassment and discrimination cases, prepared a report on the history of complaints at the business school and after USC consulted outside lawyers and human resources experts to evaluate Ellis’ response.

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At the trustees’ meeting on campus Wednesday, Austin gave a presentation about how she arrived at her decision.

Administrators have not publicly revealed what prompted Austin to remove Ellis, sparking anger from some who say he’s being unfairly treated. Two sources close to the university who were not authorized to disclose confidential matters said the administration’s investigation included reviewing dozens of misconduct complaints filed over the last 10 years against business school leadership, faculty and staff. Those complaints included allegations of racial and gender discrimination and hostile workplace conditions, the sources said. The specific details of the complaints or how they were adjudicated are unclear.

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Interim President Wanda Austin argued that the removal of Dean James Ellis was part of a move to repair campus culture after a series of embarrassing scandals.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The trustees “discussed the issue at length” and voted “overwhelmingly” in support of Austin’s removing Ellis from the post, according to a statement from the board. Less than half a dozen of USC’s 57 trustees voted in opposition, the university sources said.

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Ellis did not return messages seeking comment. His attorney, Louis “Skip” Miller, said the trustees’ vote was disappointing for a man who had dedicated his career to the business school.

“He is the one that put that school on the map, built it up,” Miller said. He questioned the sources’ description of the allegation, saying, “It sounds like somebody out there is badmouthing Jim Ellis…. None of that has been brought to his or my attention.”

After the meeting, board Chairman Rick Caruso said he recognized “so many great things Dean Ellis has done for the school.” His departure, Caruso said, “is part of where the university is today in terms of acknowledging a proper culture that needs to be embraced and practiced on campus.”

“Change is difficult,” Caruso told The Times.

About three dozen students, faculty and alumni staged a protest Wednesday morning in front of Bovard Administration Building, where the trustees were meeting. Lloyd Greif, a Marshall graduate and financier who was among the first to speak out on Ellis’ behalf, approached some trustees as they crossed the plaza in front of protesters, urging them to speak up for the dean. He said of the outcome, “It is a very sad day for USC.”

“They are losing a good man. They are throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” said Greif, who has donated more than $5 million to USC.

Victoria Morgan, a professional golfer who graduated in 2016, said she attended the morning rally as a testament to Ellis’ character and his dedication to helping students.

“He’s a man of great integrity. I can’t imagine he’d do anything to warrant this,” Morgan said.

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Austin, a retired aerospace executive, was appointed as interim president in August after the university’s former president, C.L. Max Nikias, was forced out over his handling of Dr. George Tyndall. The Times revealed in May that the longtime campus gynecologist was allowed to treat students for 27 years despite repeated complaints about inappropriate touching and remarks allegedly made during exams.

The trustees gave Austin a mandate to begin improving management oversight and transparency.

Asked this month about her decision to remove Ellis, she said that making tough decisions was “the whole reason I am here.”

Austin told the dean USC would pay out his salary for the remaining three years in his term. Ellis had a compensation package worth more than $630,000 in 2017, according to publicly filed university tax documents. As a tenured professor, he will remain a member of the faculty.

Word quickly spread among alumni and faculty about Ellis’ removal. Many were outraged and met privately with Austin, Caruso and other university leaders. The Academic Senate, the body that represents USC faculty, issued a unanimous condemnation of the lack of “shared governance and transparency” in how Ellis’ removal was carried out.

“I think the faculty was quite frankly ignored,” said business school professor Patrick Henry. “Clearly this president doesn’t care what the faculty think. She’s made this decision in a phone booth.”

Trustee Ming Hsieh, a Pasadena entrepreneur who opposed Ellis’ termination, retained Miller, Ellis’ attorney, to advocate for him with the board. Hsieh said Wednesday afternoon that he was shocked by the vote.

He said he read thousands of pages of USC records about Ellis, including the 2016 review that led to his reappointment as dean, the Office of Equity and Diversity report and a more recent report by the law firm Cooley LLP that examined harassment and discrimination cases in the business school.

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“There was no evidence or conclusion from any documents I read that there was racial, sexual or aging discrimination at the Marshall School or by Dean Ellis or his senior administrators,” said Hsieh, who has given more than $85 million to USC.

He said the only administrative direction the dean had been given when he was appointed two years ago concerned improving the school’s ranking and faculty hiring.

“Dean Ellis did everything he was required to do. He did it. He deserved dignity,” Hsieh said.

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

matt.hamilton@latimes.com


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