USC’s aggressive recruiting of Chinese students faces challenge amid gynecologist scandal
USC has relied on bright young minds from across the Pacific to propel itself from prominent Southern California commuter school to international research university.
Aggressive recruitment of Chinese students has delivered high-quality students and tuition dollars to the university and given scholars from rural provinces access to top professors and the bright lights of Hollywood.
But the unique bond forged in recent decades between USC and the world’s most populous nation was shaken this week amid allegations of misconduct on the part of a longtime campus gynecologist.
A Times investigation quoted former colleagues alleging that Dr. George Tyndall targeted young women, especially those from China and other Asian countries, for exams that included inappropriate touching and lewd remarks about patients’ sex lives and bodies.
The Chinese government issued a pointed public statement late Wednesday expressing “serious concerns” about USC’s handling of Tyndall.
“We ask the USC authorities to deal with the case in a serious manner, conduct an immediate investigation and take concrete measures to protect the Chinese students and scholars on campus from being harmed,” said Gao Fei, a spokesperson for the Chinese Consulate General in Los Angeles. “The consulate has all along attached great importance to the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens overseas, including Chinese students and scholars.”
A university spokeswoman said in a statement Thursday that top USC administrators were in communication with consular officials and had “proactively reached out to others in the Chinese community locally and at USC.”
Tyndall was removed from the clinic in 2016 after a nurse reported him to the campus rape crisis center. An internal investigation determined that his pelvic exams were outside the scope of accepted medical practice and amounted to sexual harassment of patients.
USC reached a secret deal with him last summer that allowed him to resign with a financial payout. Administrators did not report him at the time to the state medical board, which investigates problem doctors. The university acknowledged this week that the failure was a mistake and said it had filed a belated complaint in March.
In earlier interviews, the 71-year-old physician denied that he acted improperly and said his pelvic exams were thorough and appropriate. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Tyndall told The Times he made special efforts to connect with students from China and other Asian countries. He kept a map of China and a bamboo plant in his office. He said he often showed patients a picture of his Filipina wife and waxed nostalgic about his medical training in Manila.
Clinic staff said many of these patients had limited English skills and didn’t complain about his inappropriate touching and comments.
“Some didn’t understand what he was saying. The ones who did were perfectly silent,” said one woman who worked with Tyndall for years.
“I can’t imagine how administrators could allow this to happen at USC, especially at the health center, because we depended on its resources so much and had to trust it,” said Viola Leqi He, a senior from Shanghai studying communications.
One USC student penned an anonymous essay Thursday on the website of ifeng News, a major news station in China, about Tyndall. Writing in Mandarin, the student said “the most frightening” aspect of The Times’ report were allegations that the physician mistreated Chinese and other international students.
“USC, you owe us an explanation,” the post concluded.
Kaidi Yuan, a 21-year-old junior, said that fellow Chinese students and incoming freshmen were expressing concerns about Tyndall on WeChat, a messaging app popular in China, but that there was a cultural hesitancy about speaking publicly. Many fear their visas could be rescinded for being critical of USC administrators, said Yuan, who hails from Wuhan, China.
The revelations about Tyndall come as USC is still rebuilding trust with its Chinese students and alumni frayed by the murders of two graduate students in 2012 and another in 2014. The slayings devastated the wider Chinese community and outraged many who felt the university was not doing enough to protect the safety of students navigating a new country.
Rosemead attorney Daniel Deng, who served as legal counsel when the parents of the students killed in 2012 filed a lawsuit against USC, said three alumnae — two in Beijing and one in Shanghai — contacted him this week about Tyndall.
The women said that the physician made them feel uncomfortable during their exams, but that they did not object at the time because they were unsure how American doctors practiced, Deng said. One student recalled Tyndall was “touching everything, holding her hand, saying that her skin is so beautiful,” the lawyer said.
“They’re still coping with the fact that this really happened to them — that what they thought was wrong at the time, really was wrong,” Deng said.
Faculty members were also reflecting on their responses to international students who had talked to them about the gynecologist, said Clayton Dube, who runs a university institute dedicated to U.S.-China relations.
He said male professors recalled Chinese students approaching them over the years asking if the exams performed at the clinic were normal. Dube said the male teachers felt they weren’t in a position to offer advice.
“It wouldn’t be surprising if for many Chinese international students it would be the first time they’ve had that sort of exam,” said Dube, executive director of the USC U.S.-China Institute. “While sexual education in China has improved, it’s not as good as it can be.”
Chinese students play an important role in USC’s bottom line. As international students, they are not eligible for most financial aid. Their families often must cover tuition and other expenses that can cost more than $80,000 a year.
Elites from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan now sit on the board of trustees, and administrators barnstorm Asia, putting on recruitment programs from Beijing to Mumbai. The pitch to prospective students and their parents includes spirited explanations of campus life and the concept of the “Trojan Family.”
One of those drawn to USC was Fan Yang, who arrived on campus Thursday from Shanghai to start an MBA program.
“I heard it’s like a family here, and I want to be a Trojan,” she said.
She said the accusations against Tyndall left her shocked and hoping administrators would present information about appropriate gynecological exams.
“I didn’t know things like that could happen here,” she said. “Sex in China is taboo, and people rarely talk about sexual abuse.”
Times staff writers Harriet Ryan, Frank Shyong and Sarah Parvini contributed to this report.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.