Another Admissions Scandal… at USC

Ex-dean at Southern California accused of offering student admission to a graduate program, full-tuition scholarship and a professorship in exchange for funding from a Los Angeles County politician.

October 18, 2021
 
U of Southern California
Marilyn Flynn

Marilyn Flynn was dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California for 21 years, until 2018. She won awards in social work education -- at USC and nationally, including an honor for volunteerism from President Obama.

On Wednesday, she was indicted on federal charges of conspiracy, bribery, honest services mail fraud and 15 counts of honest services wire fraud.

The alleged scheme in short: Flynn arranged for the son of a politician to be admitted to a graduate program, awarded the son a full-tuition scholarship and eventually got the son a job at USC. And the son was at the time accused of sexual harassment, which she allegedly covered up.

In return, Flynn received contracts from the politician to "bring the school millions of dollars in new revenue," according to the Justice Department. The politician -- Mark Ridley-Thomas, at the time a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors -- was also indicted.

This is the latest scandal to arise at USC and seems modest in comparison to the other, much larger admissions bribery scandal still playing out at the university and involving numerous administrators and dozens of parents and students. That scandal involved elite universities across the country, but USC was implicated more than any other institution for letting unqualified students in on the bases of bribes, false records as star athletes and inflated SAT or ACT scores.

The last several years also saw a scandal involving a former gynecologist at the university, George Tyndall. Tyndall was the only full-time gynecologist at the university’s student health clinic from 1989 to 2016, treating about 17,000 women. He was accused of touching students inappropriately and of taking photos of students’ genitals. USC has agreed to pay his former patients $1.1 billion -- the largest sex abuse payout in higher education.

And in 2017, USC fired its former medical school dean Carmen Puliafito, after a Los Angeles Times investigation documented not only his alleged heavy drug use but also his alleged enabling of other addicts with whom he socialized.

Flynn is contesting the charges. Her lawyer did not respond to a phone call or an email but told the Los Angeles Times that Flynn “has not committed any crime, and we believe that the evidence in this case will ultimately support this conclusion.” The lawyer also described Flynn as a veteran academic who “worked tirelessly for the improvement and betterment of the social welfare network in Los Angeles and around the country.”

USC issued a statement that said, "When the university learned in the summer of 2018 about the $100,000 payment referenced in the indictment, the university disclosed the issue to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and has fully cooperated ever since. Marilyn Flynn has not been employed by the university since September 2018. We will continue to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and must limit comments because this is a pending criminal matter.” (The $100,000 is alleged to be a payment by the university, at Flynn’s direction, to a nonprofit group controlled by Ridley-Thomas.)

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The indictment says, "Under defendant Flynn's leadership, the social work school was facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit in or around 2017 and 2018 that threatened the school's viability, as well as defendant Flynn's deanship and reputation within the field of social work. Defendant Flynn was removed as dean of the Social Work School in or around June 2018 and resigned from the university altogether in or around September 2018."

When she left her deanship, USC announced that her departure was to serve as a "special advisor" in the provost's office.

USC policy, according to the indictment, specifically barred faculty members from being "candidates for degrees in the same department or program in which they simultaneously had a faculty appointment due to a potential conflict of interest." Flynn allegedly ignored this policy when she not only admitted the politician's son but arranged for him to teach.

The defendants also, the indictment says, "would take steps to disguise, conceal, and cover up the bribes, kickbacks, and other benefits defendant Ridley-Thomas … received from defendant Flynn and other university officials, including by: (1) concealing the official acts defendant Ridley-Thomas agreed to perform and performed in exchange for direct and indirect financial benefits from defendant Flynn and other university officials; (2) falsifying in a letter the nature and purpose of the $100,000 payment from defendant Ridley-Thomas to the social work school; (3) providing false information to university officials about the purpose and timing of the university’s $100,000 payment to Nonprofit B; and (4) concealing material facts from university officials about the purpose and timing of the university’s $100,000 payment to Nonprofit B."

Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said, “The corrupt activities alleged in the indictment were facilitated by a major university’s high-ranking administrator whose desire for funding apparently trumped notions of integrity and fair play.”

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