National News

200 Professors Call for Ouster of USC President, Citing Lack of ‘Moral Authority’

Posted May 22, 2018 8:35 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — Two hundred professors at the University of Southern California have demanded the resignation of the school’s president, C.L. Max Nikias, saying that he no longer had the “moral authority to lead” and had failed to protect students and staff from “repeated and pervasive sexual harassment and misconduct.”

The letter was addressed to the board of trustees of the private university and signed by senior faculty members, who said they wanted to “express our outrage and disappointment” over how Nikias had handled reports that a gynecologist at the campus health center had mistreated students for decades.

Although an internal investigation in 2016 found that the doctor had conducted pelvic exams inappropriately and made offensive remarks to patients, officials chose to settle the matter quietly and did not report it to the state medical board.

“We call upon President Nikias to step aside, and upon the board of trustees to restore moral leadership to the university,” the faculty wrote in their letter. “President Nikias’ own actions and omissions amount to a breach of trust.”

Nikias became president in 2010 and has presided over the university at a time of tremendous growth, attracting international students and top-tier faculty while completing a $6 billion fundraising effort and opening dozens of new buildings.

But in the last year, the university has been dogged by a string of scandals brought to light by The Los Angeles Times. First came reports last summer that the former dean of the medical school had used drugs on campus and partied with prostitutes. Then, last fall, the man who had replaced him was forced to step down after the university admitted it had settled a sexual harassment case with one of his former researchers.

Nikias had promised a full investigation of the scandal involving the medical school dean by an independent law firm last year, but several faculty members and university staff said they had grown impatient and angered that the results have so far been kept under wraps. Then came the reports last week of the decadeslong history of misconduct allegations against the gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall, and the university’s failure to report them to state authorities, former patients or the public.

Tyndall has denied allegations of any misconduct.

“It’s a clear pattern of something terrible happens and it’s allowed to go on for a long time, then there’s secret settlement and no taking care of victims, no public accounting,” said Ariela Gross, a professor of law and history who has been at USC for more than 20 years. Gross began circulating a draft of the petition Sunday to tenured professors she knew and stopped when she had 200 signatories less than 48 hours later.

“We know all that we need to know, to know that we need new leadership. I’ve hardly been a consistent critic of our administration, but this is beyond the pale,” she said.

The faculty petition included many of the university’s most celebrated professors from more than a dozen schools, as well as former administrators. Still, it was unclear how much of an effect it would have. (USC has about 1,200 tenured faculty members.)

Just one hour after the faculty letter was released to the public, the chairman of the board of trustees sent his own letter to students, staff and alumni affirming his “full support” of Nikias.

The board of trustees is primarily made up of alumni who have given millions to the university, including Hollywood producers, real estate barons, lawyers and business executives. None of the 59 voting members have openly criticized Nikias.

The first lawsuits were filed this week against USC in what is likely to become a period of protracted litigation involving dozens of women, if not more. Six women have filed suit so far, saying they were sexually abused and harassed by Tyndall during medical examinations and that the university failed to protect students. Several more lawsuits could be filed by the end of the week, according to one of the lawyers involved.

A separate student petition circulating online also called for Nikias to resign and had gathered more than 2,000 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.

Nikias, 65, set an ambitious goal for fundraising almost immediately after he became president. At the time, the $6 billion campaign was the largest ever for an American university. Nikias met the goal, and his success at bringing in money has raised the stature of the university globally and, so far, largely insulated Nikias from the effects of scandal.

On Tuesday morning, Nikias sent a 20-page memo to staff, students and alumni vowing to “change the culture at the university, and instill a higher level of professionalism and ethics.”

Among other changes, he said he would oversee an update to the code of ethics and create a new office of ombuds services, as well as a senior vice president for communications whose job would include “promoting the good work we do every single day.”