Months of tension and turmoil on USC’s Board of Trustees prompted an emergency meeting Wednesday at the campus, with the university’s leadership a top item for discussion.
The meeting was called by board Chairman Rick Caruso, the billionaire mall developer who has been the target of growing criticism by a small but influential contingent of longtime trustees.
Those critics, who include fellow billionaires Ed Roski and Ming Hsieh, have suggested Caruso is not fit to lead the board because of his handling of a board dispute over the ouster of a popular dean.
A university administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity described the gathering as a way to quickly bring the clashing trustees together and “find a path forward.”
After four hours of meetings — which a spokeswoman described as “productive discussions” — the trustees emerged without making public statements or announcing changes to university leadership. The spokeswoman said trustees were focused on the future of the university.
The meeting comes as USC is attempting to move past a series of scandals and hire a new president. Longtime President C.L. Max Nikias was forced from his post last year in the wake of revelations about nearly three decades of alleged sexual abuse by a campus gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall.
Some of the trustees now opposing Caruso were strong supporters of Nikias and thought that out of respect for his accomplishments, he should have been permitted to remain president while trustees searched for a new leader.
The divisions between them and Caruso, who had pushed Nikias to resign, were reignited this fall during a board disagreement about the treatment of Marshall School of Business Dean James Ellis.
Interim President Wanda Austin cut short Ellis’ term in office, citing his response to harassment and discrimination complaints in the business school. USC has not made public the specific allegations. Sources have told The Times there were dozens of misconduct complaints against business school leadership, faculty and staff for racial and gender-based discrimination.
Ellis’ termination as dean created an uproar among wealthy donors, faculty and alumni, who wrote letters and staged protests demanding that trustees overturn Austin’s decision.
At a trustees meeting in December, board members overwhelmingly reaffirmed the dean’s removal.
Caruso said at the time that Ellis’ departure from the business school was “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.
But the meeting left some trustees angry at Caruso. Real estate mogul Roski chastised him in a letter the following week for what he saw as his disrespectful treatment during the board discussion of fellow trustee Hsieh, a supporter of Ellis who has given more than $85 million to USC.
“Rick, your behavior shocked the conscience,” wrote Roski, who urged Caruso to apologize to the board and Hsieh.
The Pasadena entrepreneur added his own objections in a letter to Caruso about Ellis’ removal.
“I believe you did all this to curry favor with and make yourself look good in the press — as the ‘champion’ of diversity,” Hsieh wrote, adding, “In effect, you’ve turned USC into your own arbitrary and capricious fiefdom, where you do what suits you without regard for the consequences.”
A flurry of letters from supporters and detractors of Caruso and the interim president continued this week. On Monday, a panel of USC business school alumni and donors jumped into the fray, demanding that trustees oust Caruso and put Austin, the provost and the university’s general counsel on leave.
“USC is on life support, requiring emergency surgery,” the letter from the business school’s Board of Leaders stated.
A group of professors who have pushed for wholesale changes in the university’s culture, Concerned Faculty of USC, also weighed in with a letter saying it was “irresponsible and counterproductive” to mount a public attempt to overrule Austin’s decision on the dean.
In the letter, the faculty group endorsed trustees’ efforts to reform the university and opined that a minority of benefactors had used the business school dean’s employment controversy “as a vehicle to obstruct the reform process underway.”
That prompted a trustee, Stanley Gold, who managed the late Roy Disney’s investment holdings, to issue his own letter Tuesday afternoon, deriding the professors as “know-nothing vigilantes.”