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‘We have heard the message that something is broken’: USC’s president agrees to step down amid growing outrage over scandals

The president of the University of Southern California agreed to step down, the school’s board of trustees announced Friday night, amid growing outrage over allegations that the school’s former gynecologist had molested students for many years.

C.L. Max Nikias has led USC since 2010, pushing the private research university to more global ambitions, higher academic prestige and considerable fundraising prowess. But in the past year, scandals — and the way the administration handled them — came to overshadow his successes, and led to a torrent of calls for his resignation.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the university had let a gynecologist at the school’s health clinic continue to treat students for years despite complaints about his behavior. Within days, hundreds of women said that they had been victimized by George Tyndall, who had been a physician there for more than 30 years. Multiple lawsuits were filed, claiming that Tyndall repeatedly sexually abused patients and that the university did not act on complaints.

Tyndall could not be reached for comment, but he defended his exams as medically appropriate in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week. He was placed on administrative leave in 2016 and later reached a separation agreement with the university, according to USC officials.

John Manly, an attorney who is representing more than 80 women in lawsuits against USC, has compared the university’s response to complaints about Tyndall to the way Michigan State University leaders responded to women saying they had been molested by Larry Nassar, who had been a doctor there. Manly was the lead attorney in a $500 million settlement reached with Michigan State last week.

Having been involved in many mass sexual assault cases since the 1990s, the volume of calls — 90 in five days — “is almost hard to believe, and the stories are just so troubling … The only thing that even comes close is Larry Nassar.” And he believes it is because so many of Nassar’s victims had the courage to speak out, that former USC students feel they, too, must tell the truth. 

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The university’s Academic Senate formally asked for Nikias’s resignation Wednesday, more than 8,000 people signed an online petition of alumni demanding USC “hold administrators responsible for supporting sexual predators,” more than 4,000 people signed another online petition calling for his resignation, and student leaders demanded answers.

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Many were upset not only by the allegations involving Tyndall. In 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that the former dean of the Keck School of Medicine was abusing illegal drugs in his office at USC. Just months later, the dean who replaced him resigned after allegations of sexual harassment. In repeated instances, according to a letter signed by 200 senior faculty members, the university had chosen to make financial settlements and cover up wrongdoing. They called on Nikias to resign and the board to “restore moral leadership to the university.”

The board’s chairman expressed strong support for Nikias’s presidency earlier this week. But on Friday, trustees responded to the outpouring of anger.

“We have heard the message that something is broken and that urgent and profound actions are needed,” Rick J. Caruso, chairman of the subcommittee of the executive committee of the USC board of trustees, wrote to the campus community Friday. “Today, President Nikias and the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees have agreed to begin an orderly transition and commence the process of selecting a new president.”

The board pledged to “rebuild our culture to reflect an environment in which safety and transparency are of paramount importance, and to institute systemic change that will prevent this from occurring in the future. There is nothing more sacred to this board than the wellbeing of our students. We will be guided solely by what is in the best interest of this great university.”

It’s a good first step, Manly said, “but anybody that thinks that’s solving the problem here is naive.” He said there were complaints for decades about Tyndall, and there should be a thorough outside investigation that ends with recommendations for changes of personnel, policies and other institutional changes to protect young women at the university.

From the first day at the school, Manly, an alumnus, said, students are told they’re part of the Trojan family. “If this is a family, these are our daughters. And they’ve been subjected to horrors.”

Kris Coombs, the outgoing president of USC Graduate Student Government, wrote in an email that “for a large number of students, this was the right and only move.” Since the summer, almost every meeting they held with top administrators included urging them to be as transparent as possible about anything that might have a negative impact on students.

Coombs said the university needs a leader who will “vigorously tackle issues of sexual assault and misconduct on our campus, and include students in this journey every step of the way.

“The most important thing for many students now is that we have leadership we can trust, leadership we know will act with the moral and ethical integrity expected of any and all Trojans, and, above all else, who will prioritize our safety.”

Paul Rosenbloom, president of the academic senate, wrote to faculty Friday that he welcomed the trustees’ announcement and the prospect of a transition that could begin the healing process for a community that is in pain.  “… the Senate recognized that throughout the past year there has been an increasing breakdown of trust between the President and the academic community.”

Their conclusion, after having listened to many voices, was that this break in trust was irreparable, he wrote, and the only way forward was a change in the presidency. “This decision was not intended to denigrate the major accomplishments of President Nikias’ tenure for which he can rightly take credit,” he wrote, but was one they concluded was for the best of the university. “With this change, we have cause to be optimistic.”

Hilary Schor, a professor of English and law at USC and an author of the letter sent by faculty, said Saturday she was thrilled the board listened to the voices of concern about Nikias. “I think that he really failed to understand the depth of the charges,” the horror felt by many in the campus community and the pervasive sense that their trust in the university had been betrayed, she said.

Schor praised Nikias’s achievements in fundraising; building new programs; taking the university onto the global stage; encouraging entrepreneurial vision; holding the values of the arts, humanities and sciences in high esteem; and committing the university to combat social problems. “That kind of vision is rare. His skill in telling the story of USC and attracting donors and faculty is remarkable,” Schor said. “… But I fear the university, in its quest for rankings and its quest for prestige has left behind some of its moral values — and this is a wake-up call for all of us. You cannot be a great teaching and research university without being a place of morality and justice for all.”