Op-Ed: As Max Nikias pushed USC to prominence, checks and balances were missing
Scandal has hit the University of Southern California like a hurricane, a perfect academic storm. Such tempests are on the rise in higher education, and universities need to reckon with the conditions that are causing them. Similar forces damaged Penn State and then Michigan State. Now it’s USC’s turn.
C.L. Max Nikias, who resigned Friday as president of USC, was a prodigious fundraiser with an extraordinary work ethic. He opened a new campus addition in record time, and he set a pace that allowed USC to dramatically improve in university rankings. At his inauguration — the first of many over-the-top events — he exclaimed, “My own commitment to you is to run the next marathon at a sprinter’s pace.”
I told him afterwards that such an analogy was absurd. I run marathons; no one treats a 26.2 mile race as if it were a 10K. He laughed and said that we must.
But the analogy was not just off-kilter — in the context of USC it meant that reflection and consultation were secondary to financial and reputational results. Nikias’ goal highlights how we got where we are: the downfall of an administrator who exuded confidence and disdained disagreement.
President Nikias relied on a small circle of confidants and, as his troubles rose, the circle grew smaller. The university’s Board of Trustees, mostly captains of industry, seemed awed by his fundraising ability. They ceded power to their fundraising juggernaut. John Mork, chairman of the USC Board of Trustees, admirably donated more than $100 million for scholarships for low-income students. When a reporter on the Daily Trojan asked how he saw the leadership job on the board, Mork said his task was to serve the university and “to facilitate President C. L. Max Nikias’ good work — I’m a servant in the deal.”
The Academic Senate sat passively by as problems unfolded. When The Times uncovered alleged misconduct on the part of medical school dean Dr. Carmen Puliafito, Nikias declined to accept individual responsibility. He ordered an independent investigation, but the report was provided only to executive committee of the Board of Trustees. The Academic Senate registered no public complaint. Last week, when the board announced yet another study in response to yet another scandal — the allegations about USC health center gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall — the plan again called for the findings to be reported only to trustees.That afternoon, the faculty representatives called for Nikias to resign.
Instead of cultivating an environment of reflection and reasoned debate, the university sprinted toward growth.
A dramatic increase in non-tenured professors at USC has made the faculty hesitant to confront the administration, lest their jobs be put at risk. The result is fewer checks and balances on the office of president. In 2015, the trustees gave Nikias a $1.5-million bonus. The Academic Senate registered no public protest at such an outlandish handout. How can it be that a man who deserved such a bonus a few short years ago has been forced to resign in disgrace?
This is the tragedy at USC: Instead of cultivating an environment of reflection and reasoned debate, the university sprinted toward growth. Those of us who disagreed with the president were first ignored and then banished. We were viewed as a distraction from the school’s goal of ever-greater international prominence. And the trustees and the faculty essentially acquiesced.
To repair the storm damage at USC, we need a Board of Trustees that provides consistent oversight and does not see itself as the handmaiden to the president. We need an Academic Senate that ensures that the faculty is an equal partner in decision-making. We need a president who can set a world record in running a marathon without forgetting what winning the race truly means. And we need the entire academic community to recognize how important a climate of thoughtful, reasoned dialogue is for our university.
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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