Southern Cal Professors Want President Ousted

He has "lost the moral authority to lead the university," says letter from 200 faculty members, in wake of latest scandal.

May 23, 2018
 
C.L. Max Nikias

C.L. Max Nikias has raised billions of dollars for the University of Southern California, and used that money to recruit top faculty members and students.

But his hold on the position of president is being challenged in ways that it never has since he took office in 2010. On Tuesday, more than 200 faculty members released a letter calling for his resignation. Their letter follows revelations of numerous instances of abuse of students by a campus gynecologist. And that scandal broke just months after scandals involving medical school deans. In all of these cases, questions have been raised not only about the conduct of those involved but whether university leaders acted to prevent or respond to misconduct.

"President Nikias' own actions and omissions amount to a breach of trust," the letter says. "He has lost the moral authority to lead the university, and in addition, to lead the investigation of institutional failures that allowed this misconduct to to persist over several decades."

USC trustees promptly released a statement expressing support for Nikias, and the board decides whether he stays in office. But a series of investigative reports in The Los Angeles Times have left many on campus and elsewhere questioning whether the university is being well led.

The Times broke the news of the most recent scandal last week. It reported on the case of George Tyndall, who worked as a gynecologist in USC's student health clinic for nearly 30 years. The article detailed complaints that he photographed female students while examining them, touched them inappropriately and made sexually suggestive comments while examining them. Many of the female students were from China, and may have felt particularly vulnerable to him. Tyndall denied wrongdoing. But much of the anger on campus isn't just about him, but about how the university handled the allegations.

A USC inquiry confirmed reports of inappropriate behavior on his part last year, but he was allowed to resign, and USC did not inform his patients or state medical authorities of its findings. The university now says that, "in hindsight," it should have reported him. Suits are already being filed against USC by former patients.

Many of those criticizing the university over the Tyndall case are also noting the case of Carmen A. Puliafito, the now former dean of the medical school, who lost his job amid a series of stunning reports in the Times. Prior to resigning as dean, the newspaper reported, he had spent considerable time socializing with criminals and others who said he used methamphetamine and other drugs with them.

The newspaper also reviewed photographs showing the dean partying with these companions in a variety of locations, including his USC dean's office. He resigned as dean shortly after a woman overdosed while with him in a hotel room, but he maintained his faculty role.

In back-and-forth statements between the university and USC after the newspaper broke the story about Puliafito, the university suggested that it had only recently learned of the accusations against him. But the Times described a series of inquiries over 15 months it made to the university seeking information about the then-dean's conduct.  In one case, a reporter delivered a sealed note requesting an interview about the matter to Nikias's home, only to have the note returned, unopened, the next day by courier with a letter from the university's vice president for public relations and marketing saying the reporter had crossed the line.

Then the university faced another scandal over the professor selected to succeed Puliafito as medical school dean.

In October the university announced that it had lost confidence in Rohit Varma and that he was no longer dean. The university acted after the Times told officials it was about to publish an article about how Varma treated a female medical school fellow. According to the Times: "The woman accused Varma of making unwanted sexual advances during a trip to a conference and then retaliating against her for reporting him, according to the records and interviews. USC paid her more than $100,000 and temporarily blocked Varma from becoming a full member of the faculty, according to the records and interviews." Later, however, the university promoted him to dean -- at least until the newspaper called with its story.

The faculty letter calling for Nikias to be ousted focuses on what professors see as a pattern.

"The university administration's actions have been wrong at every turn, and not only in hindsight," the letter says. "In this case, as in prior cases, faced with an ongoing pattern of serious wrongdoing by a powerful university official, the university has kept the wrongdoing quiet, settled financially with the wrongdoer in secret, and denied any responsibility on the part of the university. There has been no public report on the two cases involving USC medical deans, nor any visible attempt to determine what university administrators knew and when they knew it and why they waited as long as they did to take action."

A petition by alumni -- also calling for Nikias to step down -- also references what those signing see as a pattern. "We do not know how many more cases of abuse have yet to be exposed, but it is clear that the university is unwilling to confront the toxic environment for women they have cultivated over years of neglected accountability," the petition says.

Amid the criticism, leaders of the university's board issued a statement backing the president. The statements said that board leaders found the reports about the abuse of students to be "distressing."

But the statement went on to say that Nikias was putting in place a "comprehensive action plan" to prevent such abuses. And as to the president, the statement said: "The executive committee of the board has full confidence in President Nikias’ leadership, ethics, and values and is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward."

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