USC medical school dean out amid revelations of sexual harassment claim, $135,000 settlement with researcher
USC announced Thursday that the head of its medical school was out. (Oct. 6, 2017)
After the dean of USC’s medical school resigned last year amid long-running complaints about his drinking and boorish treatment of colleagues, university leaders assured students and faculty that his successor would be worthy of respect.
The man USC chose, however, had a black mark on his own personnel record: A finding by the university 15 years ago that he had behaved inappropriately toward a female medical school fellow.
USC formally disciplined the dean, Dr. Rohit Varma, in 2003 following allegations that he sexually harassed the young researcher while he was a junior professor supervising her work, according to confidential personnel records reviewed by The Times and interviews with people familiar with the university investigation.
As The Times was preparing to publish a story disclosing the case, USC announced Thursday afternoon that Varma was no longer dean.
“Based on previously undisclosed information brought to the university in recent days, USC leadership has lost confidence in Dr. Rohit Varma’s ability to lead our medical school. As of today, he is no longer dean of the Keck School of Medicine,” USC Provost Michael Quick said in a statement.
Late Thursday, Quick added that the undisclosed information included details provided by “Los Angeles Times and the university’s own inquiry into the matter.”
On Wednesday, prior to that inquiry, USC had told The Times it considered the matter resolved and that it remained confident in Varma.
“The behavior you exhibited is inappropriate and unacceptable in the workplace, reflects poor judgment, is contrary to the University’s standards of conduct, and will not be tolerated at the University of Southern California,” a USC official wrote in a 2003 letter of reprimand.
Despite this, USC soon promoted Varma to full professor. He was elevated three years ago to chair of the ophthalmology department by Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the former dean whose drug use and association with criminals The Times revealed this summer.
The sexual harassment allegation is well known in the upper echelons of the university, but not among many of the students and staff. The Times learned of it after publishing the July report about Puliafito. Current and former faculty members contacted the newspaper to express concern that Varma was overseeing the medical school given the harassment finding.
Candidates from top U.S. universities were in the running for the dean’s position, raising questions about why USC elected to follow Puliafito’s troubled tenure with the appointment of a faculty member previously found to have committed misconduct.
Varma did not respond to messages seeking comment.
At the January ceremony formally installing Varma as dean, USC administrators lauded his groundbreaking research on eye problems in minorities. A news release noted that he was “one of the leading recipients of research funding from the National Institutes of Health,” delivering tens of millions of dollars in grant money to the school.
“Healing, passion and hope — these words speak to the character of our new dean,” USC President C.L. Max Nikias told the standing-room-only crowd.
The harassment complaint sprang from a 2002 ophthalmology conference. At the time, Varma was a 40-year-old rising star in ophthalmology with an inspirational backstory. Raised in India, he had volunteered at a leper colony during medical school and worked alongside Mother Teresa, according to a USC press release. He had come to USC in 1993 and carved out a niche researching the prevalence of eye problems in minorities — a field of study the federal government was eager to fund.
A young international student working for Varma on one of those research projects — an NIH-funded study of eye disease in Latinos — accompanied him to the conference.
The woman later told USC investigators that when they arrived at the conference hotel, Varma told the woman he had booked a single room and expected her to share a bed with him, according to two sources familiar with USC’s investigation. She told the investigators that when she questioned the arrangement, Varma claimed the grant money would only cover one room, the sources said.
She said that when she protested further, he took her cellphone away and threatened to have her visa revoked, according to the sources. The woman told investigators that she had no money to pay for her own room and ended up sleeping on a cot in Varma’s room, the sources said.
She reported the incident to USC, and the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity launched an investigation of Varma for sexual harassment and retaliation. Investigators found evidence to support her claims, according to confidential university records reviewed by The Times.
“It has been determined that there is sufficient basis to conclude that inappropriate behavior has occurred,” then-Keck medical school Dean Stephen Ryan wrote to Varma in a March 2003 letter. “Further inappropriate behavior will result in your dismissal.”
As punishment, Varma was denied an expected promotion to full professor and his salary was reduced by $30,000, according to the letter. (He was making about $280,000, according to a disclosure he filed in his divorce case later that year.) He also was ordered to undergo counseling about sexual harassment, the letter stated.
“In addition, you should avoid all one-on-one encounters with [the researcher]. Contact with [her] shall be limited to that which is necessary to perform your job,” Ryan told him in the letter.
Ryan, who died in 2013, wrote that the letter “will be part of your permanent University file.” Half a dozen USC officials were copied on the letter, including two who remain in prominent roles: Vice Provost Martin Levine, and Senior Vice President and General Counsel Carol Mauch Amir.
The university reached a $135,000 settlement with the woman, according to sources with knowledge of the payment. A university source said Varma personally paid about $11,000 of the settlement. The woman ultimately left the United States. Reached by phone recently, she declined to comment.
The decision to discipline Varma but keep him on the faculty came the month after he received a five-year, $11-million grant from the NIH. At the time, it was the largest grant ever awarded to USC’s ophthalmology department.
In the following years, USC rolled back some of Varma’s punishments. University administrators rescinded the $30,000 reduction in his salary in 2004. They reasoned that the loss of a promised raise was sanction enough, according to internal university correspondence.
“We are confident that Dr. Varma will not make these mistakes again and that he has learned a great deal from this process,” Ryan and another medical school administrator wrote to Varma’s department chair in 2004.
In 2005, the university promoted Varma to full professor, according to his USC bio.
Through it all, Varma continued attracting substantial research funding. In the years since the harassment case, the NIH sent more than $60 million in grants to USC for Varma’s projects, according to federal databases.
Varma left USC in 2012 for a brief stint as chair of the ophthalmology department at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago. Two years later, then-Dean Puliafito brought him back to USC as ophthalmology department chair and co-director of what is now known as the Gayle and Edward Roski Eye Institute.
By that time, Puliafito had become unpopular with many on campus. Faculty and staff made numerous complaints about his alcohol consumption at USC events and his rage-filled tirades against co-workers.
Puliafito was using methamphetamine and other drugs and partying with a circle of addicts, prostitutes and other criminals in 2015 and 2016, The Times reported in July.
He stepped down March 24, 2016, after Provost Quick confronted him with complaints about his job performance and behavior, according to USC. The same day, USC appointed Varma as interim dean and announced a nationwide search for a new permanent dean.
A search committee headed by Quick interviewed candidates from several top universities, according to a university source. The job went to Varma, whom the provost described then as “the standout” to lead the medical school.
The mistreatment of young female scientists by more-established and better-funded male researchers has become a pressing concern in academia in recent years. The NIH, which this year will spend more than $27 billion to support research, said last year that it was “deeply concerned about sexual harassment in science” and was working on ways to end misconduct by the researchers it funds.
Noreen Farrell, an attorney who has represented victims of sexual harassment on campus, said universities who promote faculty found to have acted inappropriately towards women colleagues send the wrong message.
“It damages the credibility of schools who say they want to protect students and faculty from harm,” said Farrell, now the executive director of the national nonprofit Equal Rights Advocates. “Who your leaders are matters.”
Fatima Goss Graves, an attorney and advocate for gender equality in the workplace, said Varma’s incident did not automatically exclude USC from considering him as dean.
“I don’t want to say that no one can be rehabilitated. Of course people can,” said Graves, the president and chief executive of the National Women’s Law Center. “I think there’s a question: What steps did they take to correct the environment, and what steps did they take to ensure it’s not a continuing problem?”
In astatement Friday, Quick said USC was planning a national search for Varma’s replacement.
“I understand how upsetting this situation is to all of us, but we felt it was in the best interest of the faculty, staff and students for all of us to move in this direction,” Quick wrote. “Today we learned previously undisclosed information that caused us to lose confidence in Dr. Varma’s ability to lead the school. Our leaders must be held to the highest standards. Dr. Varma understands this, and chose to step down.”
Times staff writers Matt Hamilton and Adam Elmahrek contributed to this report.
9:45 a.m., Oct. 6: This article was updated with additional statements from Michael Quick.
6:40 p.m.: This article was updated with new statement from USC.
This article was originally published at 4:30 p.m., Oct. 5.
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