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Opinion

Editorial: Why is Max Nikias still hanging around? USC needs to move faster to find new leadership

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C. L. Max Nikias at The University of Southern California’s commencement ceremony on May 11.
(Los Angeles Times)

When the University of Southern California’s Board of Trustees announced that beleaguered President C.L. Max Nikias would step down following a series of scandals on campus, the decision was hailed as a necessary first step toward repairing trust in university leadership. And it would be an important step toward restoring accountability — if it actually happened. But here we are, two months later, and Nikias has not yet resigned. There’s even concern among some faculty that Nikias’ supporters on the Board of Trustees may be trying to reverse course and keep Nikias on the job.

Of course, that would be a terrible reversal. Nikias had lost the moral authority to lead, and USC needed new leadership to reset the university’s tone and transform its culture so students and faculty could feel safe knowing their concerns would be heeded and addressed. Many assumed Nikias was already gone and the university was on its way to a fresh start.

Not so, according to a petition signed by more than 680 faculty members that was sent to the Board of Trustees this week, warning that with students arriving on campus in three weeks, “President Nikias cannot be the one who stands up to greet the new students at Convocation.” The petition called for Nikias’ formal resignation and the installation of an interim president.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute from L.A. Times Opinion »

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When the Board of Trustees meets Aug. 7, developer Rick Caruso, who took over as board chairman at the end of May, is expected to ask the board to approve the formation of a presidential search committee and the hiring of a recruitment firm. Caruso told Times columnist Robin Abcarian that he intends to have a new president announced in four to six months. That would be significant progress.

Still, the delay in Nikias’ departure and the uncertainty and consternation it has created suggest that USC still has a long way to go in restoring trust among faculty, students and supporters. Nikias’ slow walk out sends the message that some of the university’s leaders don’t grasp the gravity of the situation — which would be shocking, given the scandals that have rocked the campus.

USC is facing lawsuits from 300 former patients of Dr. George Tyndall, a gynecologist at the student health clinic who was repeatedly accused of improprieties over the course of decades. He was forced out of the university in 2017, but his misconduct was not revealed to patients or the USC community until a Times investigation was published in May.

Before that, USC came under fire for ignoring or mishandling reports alleging that Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the former medical school dean, took drugs and partied with a circle of criminals and drug abusers. The university failed to report the dean’s alleged substance abuse to the Medical Board, even as he continued to see patients.

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This is a university that desperately needs a new administration capable of governing with accountability, transparency and ethical behavior as top priorities. It’s especially important as USC is dealing with another potential scandal on its campus.

The Times reported that university officials had put the dean of USC’s School of Social Work on administrative leave and reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s Office over alleged inappropriate financial transactions and agreements. The allegations stem, in part, from a $100,000 donation to USC from Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ campaign fund. The dean allegedly transferred the money to a nonprofit to fund a think tank run by the supervisor’s son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.

In a letter to faculty, Caruso said a USC staff member reported concerns about the transaction in June and, he said, the university immediately launched an investigation that was ultimately referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Caruso has pledged transparency would be “of paramount importance.” This is a good step in a long walk toward reform.

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