In the wake of a series of scandals that rocked it to its foundations, the University of Southern California on Wednesday announced the appointment of a new president: Carol L. Folt, the former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Folt will be the first female president in USC’s 139-year history. Before serving six years as head of UNC, she amassed a lengthy academic record as a professor of biological sciences, a dean, a provost and interim president at Dartmouth College. But perhaps most important for the USC job are her battle scars: in North Carolina, Folt managed to overcome a series of partisan political fights and academic scandals (though not without criticism that she didn't go far enough with reforms). Ultimately, she was pushed out of the job after bravely making the call to remove remnants of a Confederate statue at the heart of the campus.
It appears that Folt is not afraid to take on a challenge. That’s good, because reforming USC will be a tremendous one.
Folt’s appointment comes just as the university is reeling from its latest controversy: a national investigation into fraudulent college admissions that resulted in criminal charges against members of the USC community — more, in fact, than at any other institution. This follows on the heels of a devastating scandal involving a campus gynecologist accused of decades of sexual assaults and improprieties, and another involving a medical school dean who partied with criminals and did illegal drugs. And there was the former assistant basketball coach who pleaded guilty in January to accepting bribes from a sports management firm.
The new president, who starts work on July 1, will have to help clean up those messes. That means ensuring a full and transparent investigation into how USC employees were able to sell admission slots to wealthy parents willing to cheat and bribe their kids’ way into the university. It means continuing to work with the former patients victimized by campus gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall to ensure a fair settlement and enact patient protections and reporting reforms.
Over the years, USC has climbed in the national rankings of colleges and universities — but now university officials must take a deep breath and confront the question of whether they are remaining true to their values. Under the leadership of former President C.L. Max Nikias, the school raised billions of dollars, built big new buildings and vastly expanded its research. Yet many in the community feel USC lost its way, putting fundraising, prestige and rankings above the fundamentals of academia and the safety of its students. Folt will have to grapple long and hard with the larger cultural and institutional flaws that allowed misconduct to continue, ignored serious complaints and hid bad behavior rather than forcing it out into the open, to the detriment of the student body.
USC has more more than 44,000 students and 4,000 faculty members in programs spread across the world. Any large institution will have controversies and problem employees. The test is how leaders respond to crises. Do they confront misconduct head-on, with honesty and transparency? Do they take preventive measures to ensure problems aren’t repeated? Do their actions assure students and faculty that the school is committed to fostering a safe and ethical community?
It’s far too soon to say if Folt will usher in a new and better era for USC. It’s unrealistic to pin all hopes for reform on one person, even if she is the university president.
Folt can succeed only if she has the backing of the Board of Trustees, which is a veritable who's who of power brokers in Los Angeles. Some board members were Nikias loyalists and have been unreceptive to change, though the search committee did back Folt unanimously. She also needs to take guidance and insight from students and faculty — and she needs to be humble enough to listen to those members of the USC community who may not sign big donation checks but have the institution’s best interests at heart.