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USC dean's ouster sparks protest, but interim president stands by her decision

USC dean's ouster sparks protest, but interim president stands by her decision
About 150 people gathered Friday to protest the ouster of USC's business school dean, James G. Ellis. (Alejandra Reyes-Velarde / Los Angeles Times)

The dispute over the ouster of a popular USC dean continued to roil the campus Friday as scores of students, professors and alumni protested at an afternoon rally and the university’s interim president renewed her defense of the decision to remove him.

Around the statue of Tommy Trojan, about 150 people, many wearing yellow shirts that read “I stand with Dean Ellis,” cheered on a series of speakers praising James Ellis, dean of the Marshall School of Business.

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“He’s the most ethical person I know,” said alumna Heather Kline, a 1993 graduate.

Ellis, 71, is being forced from the job he’s held for 11 years over what he has described as administrative dissatisfaction with the handling of harassment and discrimination complaints against business school faculty and staff.

Interim President Wanda Austin, tapped in August to oversee the university while it searches for a permanent leader, has presented the dean’s removal as part of a broader effort to reform USC’s culture. The university’s previous president, C.L. Max Nikias, was forced out in the wake of a scandal involving a campus gynecologist accused of abusing hundreds of patients.

After outside legal and human resources experts reviewed the business school’s record on harassment and discrimination, Austin informed Ellis last month that his term as dean would end in June, according to university correspondence and interviews. USC offered to pay out the three years remaining on his contract, the correspondence said.

In a statement after the campus protest, Austin said she supported the expression of views but indicated that she stood by her decision.

“We must have the appropriate processes and personnel in place to live up to the promises we are making,” she wrote. “This was not a hasty or rash decision. It was made after many meetings and discussions, along with reviews by several external, objective sources.”

USC has declined to release details about the nature and number of complaints at the business school, citing confidentiality concerns.

In a letter to USC trustees Friday, an attorney for Ellis demanded the university turn over documents related to his dismissal, including a law firm report into the business school’s history of harassment and discrimination complaints.

Lawyer Louis “Skip” Miller noted that in October, the month before the dean was informed of his removal, he received a $70,000 performance bonus.

“If there was a problem, why would the school re-appoint him and award the high bonus,” wrote Miller, who was retained by billionaire trustee Ming Hsieh to advocate for the dean.

At the rally, many shared anecdotes about the support Ellis provided.

Yasmin Scott-Halcromb, an alumna from Watts, recalled a conversation with Ellis in which she described herself as “a nobody.”

“You are a graduate of Marshall School of Business. You are somebody,” he replied, she recalled.

Ellis appeared to try to quell the unrest Friday in a letter to Marshall students, faculty and alumni.

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“I am hoping that we all can calm down, take a breath, and evaluate where we are,” Ellis wrote, noting that students were in the middle of exams.

“We are all on the same team,” he added.

The trustees are to discuss Ellis’ status at a meeting next week.

Times staff writers Harriet Ryan and Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.

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