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Opinion

Op-Ed: James Ellis: Setting the record straight about my departure from USC

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - MAY 26, 2018. The statue of Tommy Trojan looks up at cloudy skies from his pe
The statue of Tommy Trojan looks up at cloudy skies from his pedestal in the middle of the USC campus of Saturday, May 26, 2018.
(Los Angeles Times)

Today is my last official day as dean of the Marshall School of Business at USC, a job I have held for 12 years. It also marks the first time I am telling my story — against the wishes of the university — since my dismissal was announced last year by interim President Wanda Austin.

Even as USC was firing me, I was told I could stay in my job as dean for another academic year and collect the three years of salary left on my contract and other incentives. But only if I would remain silent. Silence was something I could not agree to.

For years, USC has dished out millions of dollars to former employees to cover up heinous activity and quiet squeaky wheels. Even disgraced campus gynecologist George Tyndall and medical school Dean Carmen Puliafito were paid lucrative severance or bonus packages that included strict nondisclosure agreements.

I’m being held responsible for things I didn’t even know had sparked complaints and therefore had no opportunity to address.
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I refused to be a part of the university’s deplorable practice of rewarding those who agree to leave quietly in shame. USC clearly needs the kind of transparent and accountable reform that university leaders say they are pursuing. But the facts and circumstances of my departure demonstrate that university administrators remain desperate to show public “progress,” even as its administrative culture continues to default toward secrecy and cover-up.

I am now free to set the record straight about my own situation.

In December, this newspaper reported that USC said my ouster “was necessary to repair campus culture after a series of embarrassing scandals.” Citing unnamed sources, The Times disclosed that I was dismissed after the administration reviewed 10 years’ worth of complaints against Marshall faculty and staff that included “allegations of racial and gender discrimination and hostile workplace conditions.” To my knowledge, none of the complaints was about me personally.

USC administrators have never publicly explained the reasons for my removal, which came after years of my supervisors’ praising my work in written performance reviews and rewarding me with merit bonuses.

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Here are the facts: There was no pattern of sexual harassment or discrimination at Marshall, although there were certainly some complaints — as would be expected in a school with 6,000 students and more than 500 staff and faculty members. We took each complaint seriously and handled them appropriately, alerting university officials and following policy.

Following a public outcry over my firing, USC allowed a team of Marshall faculty and administrators to review 10 years’ worth of Office of Equity and Diversity files involving the business school. OED is the independent entity within USC that receives, investigates and adjudicates complaints about harassment and discrimination. I also have reviewed those files.

There were about 58 cases involving Marshall over the 10 years, none of them involving accusations of misconduct on my part. This represents an average of less than six complaints per year at USC’s largest school.

Nearly a third of the cases were dismissed after initial inquiries. And in more than three-quarters of the cases, the files show, I was never notified that a complaint had been filed or was being investigated. In those rare instances when I was looped into the process, the ultimate outcome was largely determined by the university’s centralized legal and human resources departments.

I fully believe that USC deans should serve at the pleasure of the president, but in this case, I’m being held responsible for things I didn’t even know had sparked complaints and therefore had no opportunity to address.

To further justify my ouster, USC produced a report prepared by the Cooley LLP law firm that examined harassment and discrimination cases at Marshall. The report was never shared with me.

Trustee Ming Hsieh, a major USC donor who opposed my ouster and hired a lawyer to contest it, read hundreds of pages of USC records about me, including the 2016 review that led to the renewal of my appointment as dean, the OED report and the Cooley examination. “There was no evidence or conclusion from any documents I read that there was racial, sexual or aging discrimination at the Marshall School or by Dean Ellis or his senior administrators,” Hsieh told The Times.

Moreover, even as the administration was suggesting that my removal was required “for the good of the university,” it was negotiating with me to stay on as dean through the 2019-20 school year until my successor, Geoffrey Garrett, arrived from the Wharton School. It makes no sense that it was imperative for the good of the university that I be replaced as dean, but perfectly fine for me to stay in the job for another year.

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It was only after I refused to accept the nondisclosure agreements that the university withdrew the offer, along with the money, and made today my last day as dean. (As a tenured professor, I plan to return to teaching at Marshall after a sabbatical.)

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Marshall is on a tremendous upward trajectory that reflects positively on the entire university. Female students comprise 52% of the 2020 MBA class — a first among major universities. We also have among the highest percentage of underrepresented minorities of any major business school in the country. Last fall, the graduate school achieved its highest ever ranking — No. 14 — in the Bloomberg Survey of Best B-Schools, while the undergraduate program has consistently maintained a top 10 ranking.

These accomplishments reflect the vision, hard work and collaboration of every member of the Marshall community. In its rush to make amends for an egregious and pernicious culture of neglect, USC has unfairly tarnished the faculty, staff and students of Marshall.

The price of silence at USC has proved so high for so long that none of us can afford it any longer. To be open to change, we must first be open. And the change necessary at USC cannot spread in the toxic environment of congenial secrecy and convenient payouts.

James Ellis has been dean of the USC Marshall School of Business since April 2007.


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