To say USC has had a dramatic couple of years would be an understatement.
A drug-using medical school dean, a health center doctor accused of sexual misconduct, President C.L. Max Nikias pushed out under duress, a business school dean repositioned and now, USC occupies the front and center position in an admissions scandal that has implicated four members of the athletic team in bribery charges. To make matters worse, earlier this month a senior at USC’s music school was shot to death in a robbery attempt a few blocks from campus.
Into all this tribulation comes Carol L. Folt, named USC’s new president on Wednesday. Folt is the former chancellor of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and a biologist by training. Taking charge at USC — under normal circumstances a dream job in higher education — will without doubt test her leadership skills. Just as surely, the coming days will test the entire university’s capacity for long-needed change.
It is in no one’s interest to see USC slide into mediocrity and irrelevance.
Folt’s first move must be to convince the USC Board of Trustees, now made up of 57 members of various categories, to radically restructure itself. No other major private university has a board that’s comparable. Yale University’s board has just 17 members; Stanford’s 31. Because former USC president Steven B. Sample and Nikias used the board to raise money and little else, most board members were out of the loop on what was occurring on campus and quiescent under Nikias’ vigorous leadership.
Since Nikias’ resignation in August, the capable board chairman Rick Caruso, along with interim President Wanda Austin, has had the difficult job of quelling unrest among the faculty, the trustees, alumni, students and business community. Now Caruso and the new president need to convince the trustees that they should resign en masse to allow USC to build a new, smaller board tasked specifically with oversight and aligned more with the university’s future than its past.
A handful of the current board members could be reappointed to new 5-year terms, but the next set of trustees must have duties beyond giving generously, attending football games and meeting at the 11th hour to fire the president when the university is in crisis. Given the egos of many board members, and their genuine affection for the university, making such a sweeping change will be no easy task, but it is crucial.
USC’s faculty needs to reinsert itself into the larger concerns of the university. Because the administration worked assiduously for a generation to neuter faculty power, USC’s academic senate has been inconsequential in the governance of the university for well over a decade. The school’s non-tenure model of hiring further diminishes the faculty’s role and cedes influence to the administration. The last 12 months haven’t changed that. Although a faculty “resistance” group worked admirably to represent professors’ input during and after Nikias’ ouster, ultimately, an ad-hoc group cannot provide an effective long-term faculty voice.
Although the board and academic senate need to be more involved in governance, Nikias needs to be less involved. Traditionally, a president emeritus plays two roles: returning to campus to teach or do research, and serving as a sounding board for the new president. Nikias, however, has built a sparkling new office for himself in the center of campus; apparently, he has no intention of fading away. An ambitious man with an exemplary work ethic who did not want to step down as president in the first place, Nikias now has the singular ability to doom the new presidency. If he continues to field calls from trustees, advise senior administrators about how to circumvent the new president’s decisions and be an active presence on campus, then Folt will be undermined, perhaps fatally.
Even provided the smoothest transition possible under the circumstances, the new president will have her hands full. At the same time Folt will have an immense opportunity to move USC forward as a world-class university. The high points of the school’s recent history show what’s possible. It has made extraordinary gains over the last quarter century. The quality of the faculty and the students has dramatically improved, and the diversity of the student body has significantly increased, although we still have a long way to go. USC’s leaps have coincided with a renaissance in downtown Los Angeles, and the work of the university’s faculty, board members and administrators has enriched not only the campus but also the surrounding region.
Whether the tragic events of the past years are an aberration — or a sign of a downward spiral — remains to be seen. It is in no one’s interest to see USC slide into mediocrity and irrelevance. The university, the city and the region need the new president to succeed, but its future does not rest on one person alone. Nikias, the board and the faculty must all commit to a new vision for USC. Will we?
William G. Tierney is Wilbur-Kieffer professor of higher education, a university professor, and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC.
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