USC President C.L. Max Nikias acknowledged Wednesday that the university “could have done better” in its handling of a former medical school dean who a Times investigation found took drugs and associated with criminals and drug abusers.
Nikias didn’t detail how the university could have done more but said USC currently has “only loosely defined procedures and guidelines for dealing with employee behavior outside the workplace.” He announced a new committee that would look at strengthening those procedures.
His comments marked the first time USC has conceded that it could have taken more decisive action to address the dean’s behavior more than a year ago. Nikias and his administration have been under growing pressure from faculty and students to explain why they didn’t act sooner.
On Wednesday, USC’s board of trustees made its first public statement on the issue, saying it was confident that Nikias and his team would work to “put in place policies and procedures to prevent something like this from happening again.”
It came a day after USC acknowledged that it received a call in March 2016 from a witness reporting that Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito had been found in a Pasadena hotel room with a young woman who overdosed on drugs.
Ann Fromholz, a Pasadena-based lawyer and USC law school alumna who has conducted hundreds of workplace investigations, said universities and corporations typically have procedures in place for dealing with complaints.
“People call the head of the organization. Sometimes it’s the only person they know to call; sometimes they feel frustrated they haven’t gotten answers from someone else,” Fromholz said. “There are invariably procedures in a CEO or president’s office to handle calls exactly like this, and it gets triaged to the appropriate department, whether it is human resources, legal or public safety.”
The witness told The Times of phoning Nikias’ office, giving two employees an anonymous account of the overdose and demanding that USC take action against Puliafito.
Phone records reviewed by The Times showed the witness made a six-minute call to Nikias’ office on March 14, 2016, 10 days after the overdose. The tipster did not expect a call back but had told the USC employees the media would be alerted if action wasn’t taken, the person said.
Last week, Puliafito’s successor as dean, Dr. Rohit Varma, told a gathering of scores of students that USC had found “no evidence, particularly, of that phone call.”
But Tuesday evening, a crisis management specialist representing USC, Charles Sipkins, said that Nikias’ office did receive an anonymous call about Puliafito’s presence at the hotel overdose. However, the anonymous report did not make it to senior administrators, Sipkins said.
The witness told The Times of initially speaking to a woman who answered calls to Nikias’ office, giving her a brief account of what occurred at the Hotel Constance in Pasadena and asking to speak to a person in authority. According to the witness, the call was transferred to a second woman, who was given a detailed account of the overdose and Puliafito’s involvement.
It remains unclear when top USC administrators first learned about the allegations involving Puliafito or whether it took any action against him before The Times investigation was published July 17.
But The Times made repeated inquiries over the last 15 months about Puliafito, in some cases describing information reporters had gathered about the dean.
USC’s leaders never responded to the inquiries. Numerous phone calls were not returned, emails went unanswered and a letter seeking an interview with Nikias to discuss Puliafito was returned to The Times by courier, unopened. The courier also delivered a letter of complaint from Brenda Maceo, USC’s vice president for public relations and marketing, who said the reporter had “crossed the line” by visiting the Nikias home to deliver the letter.
The Times report last week described in detail how Puliafito kept company with a circle of criminals and drug addicts and used methamphetamine and other drugs while serving as dean of the Keck School of Medicine. The article cited photos and videos reviewed by The Times that showed Puliafito and his friends, who were in their 20s and 30s, partying in 2015 and 2016.
The images include some in which Puliafito’s companions are seen holding drug paraphernalia during an after-hours visit to the dean’s office at USC.
One member of Puliafito’s circle was a 21-year-old woman who overdosed in his presence at the Pasadena hotel three weeks before he abruptly quit as dean in March 2016, in the middle of the spring term.
USC has not said whether the incident was related to Puliafito’s resignation.
After stepping down as dean, the Harvard-educated Puliafito, a renowned eye surgeon, remained on the Keck faculty, continued to accept new patients and represented the university in public as recently as this month.
Nikias’ comments come amid anger and questions directed at USC over Puliafito’s behavior and how the university handled it.
The day The Times investigation was published, Nikias said in a letter to the campus community that USC would “examine and address” the accounts but also suggested the school had not determined whether they were true.
By last Friday, Nikias released a more strongly worded statement, saying “we are outraged and disgusted by this individual’s behavior.” The same day, officials announced it hired a former federal prosecutor who works for a law firm with close ties to USC to investigate the affair. Moreover, they said Puliafito had been barred from the campus and from “any association with USC.”
The president announced that USC Provost Michael Quick and senior vice president for administration Todd Dickey would form a task force to address how the university could improve the way it handles these types of incidents. He said the task force would discuss how to improve communication between various parts of the organization and a better way to track and investigate anonymous complaints, as well as better training and services for those with mental health and other issues.
“While we are processing our feelings, whether that is regret, outrage, disgust, or sympathy, I want to make clear that the unfortunate actions of one individual in no way reflect the broader actions of the university and our thousands of faculty members and employees,” Nikias wrote.
John Mork, the chairman of the USC board of trustees, released a statement expressing confidence in Nikias and Quick to deal with “this challenging time.”
“These individuals have a long and highly-respected track record guiding USC to excellence with vision and integrity,” Mork wrote. “As Chairman, I am certain they will work quickly and decisively to make all necessary changes and will put in place policies and procedures to prevent something like this from happening again.”
Management experts said there are both benefits and drawbacks to having senior administrators propose reforms for problems within their own organizations.
Raquel Rall, an assistant professor of higher education at UC Riverside and a USC alumna, said an outside team would be able to “see past the institutional culture.” At the same time, she said, insiders with deep knowledge of the system could more quickly identify shortcomings.
7:45 p.m.: This article was updated with input from a management expert.
This article was originally published at 5:15 p.m.