As USC professor William G. Tierney said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “The university has lost its way.”
In the last week, the USC community has been rattled by a Times investigation that revealed the disturbing misconduct of former Engemann health center gynecologist George Tyndall.
The investigation uncovered abhorrent details about Tyndall’s predatory behavior toward the female students he treated in the health center as a USC gynecologist. During this three-decade period, a number of USC staff members, including those who worked in the health center, have reported his inappropriate behavior — but to no avail. USC claims it was not aware of Tyndall’s behavior until 2016, and even then, the administration stated it held no legal obligation to report Tyndall to the Medical Board of California.
This wave of allegations comes at a time when USC is attempting to cement its identity as an elite institution — an effort spearheaded by a president who seems to prioritize fundraising above all else. Over the past year, the University has seen a $700 million expansion project through USC Village, and its admissions rate has dropped to an all-time low of 12.9 percent. And yet, students have perhaps become more distrustful than ever of their shiny new school.
Moving forward, this is not a problem that can be addressed by simply sending out half-hearted apologies, promises to exercise transparency and an action plan to allegedly improve campus culture — USC’s leadership needs to do more. This is about questioning the values and culture of a University that was built on power and privilege.
Last week’s scandal is the latest addition to a laundry list of misconduct by University staff. USC has been plagued with allegations since last July, particularly surrounding revelations about former Keck School of Medicine dean Carmen Puliafito’s drug use — which now appears to be the tip of the iceberg. In later months, USC assistant basketball coach Tony Bland was arrested for bribery and corruption and both Keck dean Rohit Varma and university vice president of fundraising David Carrera left their posts amid sexual harassment allegations.
As a short-term solution, the University must immediately take concrete actions to ensure the transparency of faculty and staff misconduct through sexual abuse response training, hosting town hall meetings and seriously investigating reported claims. Too often, administrative decisions are made behind closed doors, with announcements made after the fact — usually just hours before the Times publishes the findings of an investigation. It is disappointing that these allegations against Tyndall would not have come to light if the Times did not seek to report them.
But it will take much more to gain back the trust of students and professors. On Tuesday, 200 USC professors penned a letter to express their “outrage and disappointment” toward the University’s — specifically President C. L. Max Nikias’ — failure to protect students and staff from repeated instances of sexual harassment and misconduct. But while distinguished faculty members are calling for Nikias’ resignation, Chairman of the Board of Trustees John Mork released a statement that the Board has “full confidence in President Nikias’ leadership, ethics, and values and is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward.”
In addition to receiving the Board of Trustees’ support, Nikias sent a 20-page letter to the USC community detailing his plan to address and “lead change in our culture.” The president’s plan not only calls for the creation of three new vice president positions — one for professionalism and ethics, one for human resources, and one for communications — but also for the establishment of two offices for ombuds services and another for professionalism and ethics.
These plans, though well intentioned, simply mean nothing to the University’s most important stakeholders: its students. If Nikias’ plan was to merely pay lip service to the Board of Trustees, then this might have worked. However, the truth is that the creation of these new entities introduces more challenges and barriers that will impede the reporting of misconduct and abuse, and will likely prove the ineffectiveness of increased bureaucracy. What USC needs goes beyond transparency, and it goes beyond senior administrators taking ownership of the scandals that have plagued our campus in the past year. What USC needs is to rebuild its culture from the ground up — which may entail a change in leadership.
Although it points to a dramatic shift in the University’s identity, the initiative to remove Nikias from office is not far-fetched. Perhaps it has come to this point. After all, the complete turmoil surrounding last week’s events was self-inflicted. Amid these incidents, Nikias has — time and time again — chosen preserving reputation and pleasing trustees over the safety and well-being of his students.
No matter the course of action it takes, the University must seriously reconsider its priorities as an institution of higher learning and, more importantly, as a second home to 45,500 young adults. Ultimately, USC belongs to the students — not Nikias, not Quick and certainly not the 59 philanthropists and business tycoons that make up the Board of Trustees.
Daily Trojan Summer 2018 Editorial Board