A String of Scandals

William G. Tierney describes the mistakes that brought down the University of Southern California.

July 25, 2019
 
 

This month, the University of Southern California paid the University of California, San Diego, $50 million and apologized for poaching its faculty. The scandal is only the most recent that has rocked USC’s campus.

In July 2017, the Los Angeles Times published a jaw-dropping story about the dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine that involved drugs, prostitutes and criminal behavior. Thus began a string of scandals, any one of which would have brought disgrace to an institution.

The person who replaced the medical school dean was removed for disreputable behavior. A doctor was alleged to have molested nearly 100 young women. The dean of the school of social work allegedly participated in a pay-to-play scheme with a politician and his son, running up a $40 million deficit. And an administrator and three coaches in the athletic department received bribes to help unqualified students gain admittance to the university.

In another series of embarrassing incidents, the interim president replaced the business school dean for his alleged failure to monitor sexual harassment -- and then encountered dozens of business leaders rallying to the dean’s defense. A member of the Board of Trustees even hired a lawyer to help the dean sue the university. When the chair of the board scolded the trustee, other members reprimanded the chair. The faculty publicly rebuked the board, and in turn, a trustee criticized the faculty as a know-nothing mob.

These scandals and fights are all the more remarkable because the university had seen a spectacular rise over the past 20 years. The president had led a $7 billion capital campaign and opened a $700 million new campus in the fall of 2017. The quality of the faculty and student body had surged. The institution had risen in reputational rankings.

What caused such a dramatic string of scandals, and how might they have been prevented? What might other colleges and universities take away from these scandals to avoid similar disgrace? What were the warning signs?

On July 1, Carol Folt became the new president of USC. The institution is now searching for a new provost. If we look to the past events, what lessons might be learned?

The university president ignored the faculty. When Donald Trump was elected, a wide swath of faculty members tried to get the university’s president to engage the larger community on the many troubling issues that were arising. The point is less about whether or not the president agreed with the faculty; he simply ignored them and failed to meet with anyone.

After the first scandal in the medical school, the president squandered an academic year instead of cultivating goodwill by meeting with faculty to seek their advice. He made no explicit or informal overtures to the faculty. When the health center issue arose, he had no reserve of goodwill among the faculty.

The president’s enablers cut off communication. The president surrounded himself with handlers whose goal was to enact his agenda rather than facilitate dialogue or support faculty governance. Since the president was so successful at raising money, he no longer had time to talk with those who might slow him down -- or offer a different viewpoint. When times get tough, a president’s handlers ought not close ranks so that no one with a contrary view meets with the president.

During a crisis, the provost, not the general counsel and powerful businesspeople who reinforce an imperial style of governance, should meet with the president regularly and deliver hard messages. A general counsel is concerned with liability; a provost has to keep academic values paramount. The reappointment of a dean, the aggressive nature of poaching faculty from other institutions and circumventing faculty decision making are all areas where a provost has to deliver messages in a way that a general counsel won’t.

The trustees were just cheerleaders. The president handpicked a significant number of board members, and they had genuine affection for him. One lifetime trustee served as his lawyer. A handful of trustees consulted with the president regularly after he had been removed with the hope that he might be reappointed. One hired a lawyer to sue the university. Nothing was illegal, but these sorts of arrangements make effective governance difficult.

As a result, the board was blindsided when the scandals arose. At one point, they were not even clear about what they had agreed to when the president said he would step down. A board needs to provide oversight rather than be a handmaiden to the president.

The Academic Senate was asleep at the wheel. It had been for the most part a do-nothing body for well over a decade. A catch-22 scenario existed where faculty members who could have played more of an oversight role stayed away from it because it did nothing. In turn, faculty members who were unable or unwilling to criticize the president ended up serving on what had become a charade.

Even when the scandals erupted, the senate acceded to whatever the administration said. Confidential reports usually went to the Board of Trustees, not the faculty; supervision rested with the administration. Only at the 11th hour -- when a vocal group of faculty members forced its hand -- did the senate register a vote of no confidence. It then played an irrelevant role during the ensuing scandals.

Senior faculty members wore blinders. Many senior professors, especially the most decorated, ignored all of the warning signs that existed. Successful in their own academic fields and comfortable with their perks and privileges, they all too frequently shrugged off institutional problems as “above my pay grade” or were unwilling to risk their own privilege. After the initial scandal occurred and the president did not seek advice from even the most respected leaders, they should have demanded input. When senior faculty members are unwilling to look out for the welfare of the entire university community, then that community is at risk.

The community acceded to complacency rather than fostering creative conflict. For over a decade, the formula for the university was remarkably successful. The president had an astounding ability for fund-raising. He thought his periodic formal and scripted remarks to the faculty served as successful communication. The Board of Trustees apparently looked at his fund-raising prowess and saw little else. The Academic Senate more or less accepted whatever the administration told it. The president’s enablers kept him isolated. Senior faculty members went about their research and came to identify more with their department or unit than the university as a whole. The administration sent a consistent message that they managed the institution and everyone else should stay in their lanes.

Successful academic communities don’t look at disagreement as a nuisance, try to paper over differences or silence the people who disagree. The former president has yet to acknowledge the cascade of mistakes made under his watch. The Board of Trustees and Academic Senate are making stutter steps at reform -- for instance, the chair of the board created a committee to investigate board reform a year ago, but it has thus far not come forward with significant recommendations. People seem unable to acknowledge the structural rot that enabled these problems to fester for years and then explode.

Successful shared governance ought to be a noisy democratic conversation. Different constituencies will have different opinions on matters that are crucial to the university, and disagreements will be aired. Conflict, however, need not be seen as bad or detrimental to progress. A university with a board that exerts oversight, a senate that actively participates in decision making, a senior faculty that engages with the decisions of the university and a president who encourages disagreement and does not have a gatekeeper to guard the door would avoid the string of scandals that brought USC to its metaphorical knees.

The failures of USC need not have happened. It is insufficient to simply say “mistakes were made,” as if no one was to blame. This was a systemwide failure that should provoke soul-searching for the entire community -- while also providing meaningful, albeit cautionary, lessons for the incoming president, as well as college and university leaders everywhere.

Bio

William G. Tierney is University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education in the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education and the co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education.

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