Op-Ed: How to fix USC’s culture of impunity
The University of Southern California, where I have taught for 22 years, has been through one terrible episode after another since 2017. We had a medical school dean who abused drugs and alcohol and partied with young criminals and addicts, yet was allowed to resign his deanship quietly, while still seeing patients and remaining on the faculty. A new dean was appointed despite his known history of sexual harassment complaints. And then, this week, we watched aghast as brave young women came forward with claims of sexual abuse at the hands of a USC student health services doctor who is alleged to have hurt patients for decades.
This is not the USC I am proud of.
The USC I’m proud of has emerged in the last two decades as a great research university, with top programs from neuroscience to creative writing. It has recruited stellar undergraduates from around the world, as well as in our own Los Angeles neighborhood, many of them first-generation college students. But our top leaders’ management style has not similarly evolved: Their pattern of keeping wrongdoing quiet, and disregarding victims, endangered the safety of students and our community.
That is why last week my colleagues and I wrote a letter signed by faculty from throughout the university (200 when we sent it Tuesday morning, more than 500 by Friday) calling on USC President C.L. Max Nikias to resign. The Academic Senate, a majority of whom don’t have the job protections of tenure, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the same outcome. Friday, the Board of Trustees heard our voices, and those of students, alumni, and community members, and Nikias stepped down.
I believe this will be a turning point for USC. The brave young women who came forward, and all the people who spoke up this week, have shown that our voices can make change happen.Now we have the opportunity to choose new leadership through a process that incorporates those voices: faculty, students and other stakeholders in our community. We have the chance to come together and move USC forward administratively, ethically and intellectually.
During this difficult time of transition, we need a trusted senior academic leader, someone with no involvement in any of the three terrible episodes of the last year, to step in as interim president. That individual should not to be a candidate for the permanent position, so that he or she can concentrate on guiding us through the immediate challenges rather than campaigning for a job. The committee that leads the search for the new president must include academic leaders from within and outside USC, student representatives and experts in gender and sexual assault issues. They should focus on recruiting a president with a world-class academic reputation and ironclad ethical values. The Board of Trustees must also add faculty and student representation.
USC’s culture of impunity will not be fixed with new bureaucracies.
A thorough investigation of the administrative failures that culminated in the debacles of last year should be conducted by an outside firm, and the Board of Trustees should commit in advance to making the report public and implementing its recommendations. The results of the recent investigation into the medical school dean’s alleged misconduct should also be made public without further delay.
In many public statements over the last year, USC’s leaders have deflected responsibility away from themselves, and toward “structures” and “cultures.” Often these statements suggested “we all” were to blame for the university’s deficiencies, for an environment that discouraged truthtelling, and allowed wrongdoing to go unpunished. But in truth, the students who spoke up over the years and in the hundreds this past week, faculty members who stood with them, and all those who have made their outrage clear are not to blame. It was not their failure of moral leadership that swept misconduct under the rug and even financially rewarded it in order to make it go away.
USC’s culture of impunity will not be fixed with new bureaucracies. It will not be fixed with new training videos. It will not be fixed with flowcharts, or buzzwords like “wellness” and “climate.” The university — already thriving in so many ways, in its classrooms and among its impassioned advocates — will be repaired only when we choose honest, compassionate, accountable leaders who make it clear that wrongdoers will face consequences, regardless of the reputational costs.
That is the USC we are proud of.
Ariela Gross is the John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History at USC Gould School of Law. She was one of the drafters of the faculty letter calling for Nikias’ resignation.
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