The University of Southern California banned its former medical school dean from campus last week and moved to fire him amid mounting anger over allegations that he had used illegal drugs.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times wrote a staggering account — which can be read in full detail here — describing the secret life of the former dean of the Keck School of Medicine, eye surgeon Carmen A. Puliafito. The doctor had brought in millions in donations and grant money to the school and lured top talent. But he resigned as dean in March 2016, staying on the medical staff.
Three weeks before that resignation, the L.A. Times reported, a 21-year-old woman allegedly overdosed in Puliafito’s hotel room in his presence; police found methamphetamine in the room but made no arrests. After the woman was treated at the hospital, she reportedly returned to the hotel and continued partying with Puliafito. The Times’ story described videos and photos shot in 2015 and 2016 showing the 66-year-old Puliafito using drugs with a prostitute and other much younger friends, including in the dean’s office at USC:
In one video, a tuxedo-clad Puliafito displays an orange pill on his tongue and says into the camera, “Thought I’d take an ecstasy before the ball.” Then he swallows the pill.
In another, Puliafito uses a butane torch to heat a large glass pipe outfitted for methamphetamine use. He inhales and then unleashes a thick plume of white smoke. Seated next to him on a sofa, a young woman smokes heroin from a piece of heated foil.
After the L.A. Times story broke, university officials issued a brief statement, saying they could not discuss personnel matters but that Puliafito was on leave from his roles at USC, including seeing patients. “If the assertions reported in the July 17 Los Angeles Times story are true, we hope that Carmen receives care and treatment that will lead him to a full recovery,” the statement said.
Response on social media and elsewhere, however, was blistering, with people asking how much the university knew, when the administration knew it, and why Puliafito, as the Times reported, had continued to represent the school in some roles as recently as last weekend. He was honored by the 44,000-student private university last year, after his sudden resignation as dean.
On Friday, USC’s president, C.L. Max Nikias, wrote a letter to the campus community: “We are outraged and disgusted by this individual’s behavior.” He said that the school had hired Debra Wong Yang, a partner in the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, to investigate Puliafito’s conduct, the university’s response, and its policies and procedures.
“Ms. Yang, the former top federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, is highly respected,” Nikias wrote, “and has extensive experience leading and conducting internal investigations. Among her many credentials, she is the former U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, a retired state judge, and a former Los Angeles Police Commissioner.”
Also on Friday evening, the university’s provost, Michael Quick, wrote a letter to the faculty saying that they had been moving as best and swiftly as they could.
“I know many people wanted us to act on allegations and hearsay, but we needed actual facts,” Quick wrote. “Today, we were provided access to information of egregious behavior on the part of the former dean concerning substance abuse activities with people who aren’t affiliated with USC. This was the first time we saw such information first-hand. It is extremely troubling and we need to take serious action.”
Quick wrote that they had begun the process of firing Puliafito and stripping him of his faculty tenure. He is suspended and banned from campus and from participating in campus events. He added that university officials understand that substance abuse is a tragic and devastating disease.
Puliafito could not be immediately reached for a response Saturday morning.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.