For the second time in less than a year, the University of Southern California is drawing scrutiny not just for the alleged misconduct of one of its doctors, but also for the way campus leaders handled the situation.
Any organization the size of USC is bound to have problematic employees. The issue is how the organization responds: Is it bad luck? Bad supervision? Or a bad organizational culture?
In the latest incident, a Times' investigation revealed that staff and patients made repeated complaints, beginning in the 1990s, about Dr. George Tyndall, the one full-time gynecologist at USC's student health clinic. These included complaints about Tyndall taking pictures of patients' genitalia and touching them in ways other gynecologists would not. The university didn't take the concerns seriously enough to suspend him until 2016; it then brought in investigators who found that Tyndall had made racially discriminatory and sexually inappropriate comments, sometimes while examining patients, and that his behavior during exams amounted to sexual harassment of students. Tyndall was quietly forced out and paid severance under a separation agreement.
Despite the seriousness of the misconduct, the university didn't report any of these findings to law enforcement or to the Medical Board of California, the agency responsible for protecting the public from problem doctors, until Times reporters began asking questions.
The university insists that it was not legally obligated to report Tyndall, but concedes that it should have done so. Of course it should have — reporting Tyndall to the appropriate authorities could have triggered an investigation into the allegations and helped alert future employers and patients to the doctor's record.
The Tyndall episode echoes last year's revelations about Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the former dean of the university's medical school. USC came under fire for ignoring or mishandling reports alleging that Puliafito took drugs and partied with a circle of criminals and drug abusers. In that case, the university also failed to report the dean's alleged substance abuse to the Medical Board, even as he continued to see patients.
President C.L. Max Nikias sent a letter to the campus community Tuesday shortly before the Times posted its investigation, apologizing "to any student who may have visited the student health center and did not receive the respectful care each individual deserves." Still, the Tyndall case again raises questions about the priorities of the university. Why did so many complaints of misconduct fall on deaf ears? How is USC going to ensure patients are protected?
Members of the university community must have confidence that their concerns will be taken seriously and investigated. Medical personnel must be empowered to report concerns and know they won't be ignored or penalized for speaking up. The questions are uncomfortable now; they'll grow more so if these episodes continue.