National News

USC Admits Fault in Response to Complaints Against Gynecologist

Posted May 15, 2018 11:00 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — For decades, medical staff at the University of Southern California complained about inappropriate touching of students during pelvic exams by a gynecologist at the campus health center. On Tuesday, the university admitted it failed to respond to the accusations strongly or quickly enough.

The scandal comes at a difficult time for the university, which was rocked last year by reports that the former dean of the medical school had spent months partying with criminals and using drugs on campus, and was forced to resign.

In 2016, the university conducted an internal investigation, which concluded that the doctor’s pelvic exams may have been inappropriate and that he had repeatedly made racially and sexually offensive remarks to patients. The doctor, George Tyndall, agreed to retire under a separation agreement last summer, USC officials said Tuesday.

But university officials did not make a report about Tyndall to the California Medical Board until earlier this year, after he wrote a letter asking the university for reinstatement. Officials now say that was a mistake. The university also acknowledged it failed to make the investigation public until it was contacted by the Los Angeles Times, which first reported the complaints about Tyndall on Tuesday.

“In hindsight, we should have made this report eight months earlier when he separated from the university,” C.L. Max Nikias, the president of USC, wrote in a letter sent to all students and staff earlier Tuesday.

Nikias said there had been repeated complaints about Tyndall dating back to 2000, which “were concerning enough that it is not clear today why the former health center director permitted Tyndall to remain in his position.”

In its report, the Los Angeles Times found that Tyndall was not suspended until a frustrated nurse turned to the rape crisis center on campus in 2016.

In its statement, the university did not directly address the most serious allegations of misconduct unearthed by the Los Angeles Times, which were based on extensive interviews with students and university employees as well as documents. The newspaper reported that Tyndall often photographed women’s genitals, moved his fingers in and out during pelvic exams, and in one case asked a woman if he could keep the IUD he had just removed from her. In recent years, Tyndall appeared to be targeting students from China.

Tyndall denied any wrongdoing to the Los Angeles Times and did not return phone calls on Tuesday.

Gretchen Dahlinger Means, the university official who oversaw the investigation in 2016, said Tyndall often made inappropriate remarks to women he was examining, commenting, for example, on their “perky breasts,” “flawless skin” or “intact hymen,” according to nurses and other medical staff.

Tyndall performed pelvic exams with women by initially using his fingers, rather than a speculum, as is regular medical practice now, according to medical staff interviewed in the investigation. Tyndall “vigorously defended his practices,” officials wrote. Investigators consulted a gynecological expert “who stated that this could be considered an acceptable practice.” Another outside medical review firm said the “examination practice was outdated and not current standard of care.”

“These comments and his behavior were completely unacceptable and a violation of our values,” Nikias wrote.

Tyndall began working at the student health center in 1989 and was often the only full-time gynecologist on staff, seeing thousands of students.

During their 2016 investigation, university investigators consulted two independent criminal law experts, Nikias wrote, who said that there was no criminal conduct to report to law enforcement. Last week, “in an abundance of caution” officials contacted the Los Angeles County district attorney and the Los Angeles Police Department. A spokesman for the department could not say whether there was an active investigation into the incident.

“While we have no evidence of criminal conduct, we have no doubt that Dr. Tyndall’s behavior was completely unacceptable,” Nikias wrote. “It was a clear violation of our Principles of Community, and a shameful betrayal of our values.”

Before the 2016 investigation, the former health center director primarily dealt with complaints on his own, rather than elevate them to an independent investigator. In 2013, that director, who has since died, did report allegations of Tyndall’s making racist comments, but an investigation did not find “conclusive evidence of a policy violation,” according to a summary from university officials. At the time, “interviews yielded mixed opinions,” with some staff members saying they “loved him” while others described him as “creepy.”

The university has now set up a hotline for anyone to call with additional information about Tyndall’s conduct.

“We understand that any unacceptable behavior by a health professional is a profound breach of trust,” Nikias wrote. “On behalf of the university, I sincerely apologize to any student who may have visited the student health center and did not receive the respectful care each individual deserves.”