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USC’s president agreed to step down amid scandals. Months later, faculty are asking him to, um, actually leave.

C.L. Max Nikias, president of the University of Southern California, at the school’s commencement ceremony on May 11, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

In May, facing intense pressure amid scandals, the president of the University of Southern California agreed to step down.

On Wednesday, hundreds of faculty members asked the school’s board of trustees to ensure that really happens.

C.L. Max Nikias has led USC since 2010, earning a reputation for accelerating the private research university’s academics, global impact and fundraising. But during the past year, the university’s response to high-profile scandals led to demands for his resignation. After the Los Angeles Times reported that the school’s former gynecologist had molested students for many years — and that the university let him continue treating students despite repeated complaints — USC’s board of trustees announced Nikias had agreed to step down.

It wasn’t the first problem. Last year,  the Los Angeles Times reported that the former dean of the Keck School of Medicine, Carmen A. Puliafito, was abusing illegal drugs, even in his USC office. The dean who replaced him resigned after allegations of sexual harassment. In the spring, about 200 senior faculty members wrote a letter saying the university had repeatedly chosen to make financial settlements to cover up problems.

They called on Nikias to resign, and thousands of alumni and others did the same through online petitions.

In May, the executive committee of the board of trustees promised to rebuild the school’s culture to ensure transparency and safety and to begin an orderly leadership transition.

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

In the letter dated Aug. 1, faculty members wrote:

Two months ago, we wrote to you to express our grave concern over the terrible episodes that have shaken the university during the last year. We called for President Nikias to step aside to allow new leaders to heal the damage to the university, restore the trust of the community, and help us to move forward. Two months ago, you listened to the voices of faculty, students, alumni, and community members, and announced that President Nikias would step down in an “orderly transition” to new leadership.

Yet, they wrote, they were in a state of turmoil and uncertainty, with students arriving on campus soon. “President Nikias cannot be the one who stands up to greet the new students at the Convocation,” without provoking protests, outrage and the perception that the university had backtracked on its commitment, the faculty members said. They asked the board to formally announce Nikias’s resignation, and the appointment of an interim president, by the time students arrive for the coming academic year.

‘We could have done better’: After a report of drugs, a prostitute, and a med school dean, USC’s president responds

Nearly 700 full-time faculty members signed the letter in two days.

The chairman of the board, Rick Caruso, could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.

The university released a statement Tuesday night that said, “Nikias remains on vacation. Jim Staten, CFO, is acting president while Provost Michael Quick is away on vacation. Quick will be acting president again when he returns on Monday.”

According to the statement, Caruso had interviewed four recruitment firms and would make a recommendation to the board for their consideration and approval at an Aug. 7 board meeting. “At the same meeting, the board will vote on the formation of a presidential search committee, which will represent perspectives from across the university community and make recommendations to the Board. Throughout the summer, Caruso has had a number of constructive conversations with students, faculty, staff and alumni about the future of the university and its next president and will continue to seek broad input.” It is still to be decided who will preside over convocation.

Frederick J. Ryan Jr., publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post, is a member of the USC board. Ryan declined to comment.

The board is large, with more than 50 members, and several professors said they have not been able to determine which members constitute its executive committee.

Faculty members were anticipating it would take a little time for the board to arrange the transition, said Ariela Gross, a law and history professor and the co-director of the Center for Law, History and Culture at USC’s Gould School of Law. But as the summer wore on, and no further announcement from Nikias or the board was forthcoming about leadership, faculty members began to worry that the transition might be delayed, or not happen at all. And with students moving back to campus in just two weeks, some worried the summer might come and go without new leadership. 

“It’s just not acceptable to go back on what was already announced two months ago,” she said. She noted that faculty members who were unsure whether Nikias should step down, in May, had quickly signed on to the letter urging action from the board to ensure the transition would take place as announced. “We really can’t move forward until we have new leadership.”

On Monday, Yaniv Bar-Cohen, a pediatric cardiologist who is president of USC’s Academic Senate, wrote to colleagues telling them he had signed the letter from faculty, and encouraging them to make their views known to the board. Too much uncertainty remains regarding the presidential transition, he wrote, and a particular concern is Nikias’s role.

Bar-Cohen wrote that the faculty senate’s executive board had been working hard to convey to trustees that broad faculty consensus appears to exist that it would be inappropriate for Nikias to remain in office during the search for a president. “I have remained very optimistic that the Board of Trustees will understand the tremendous potential damage that could occur if Nikias returns to lead our University,” he wrote. “. . . his return would suggest that we are not able to move forward and would harm our University in the eyes of our students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni and the public at large.”

On Tuesday, a group of USC’s most distinguished faculty met with Nikias in his office. “We felt he listened to our concerns and understood very well,” said Leo Braudy, a professor of English, art history and history who is one of fewer than 30 faculty granted the title of University Professor.

“He has been a great contributor to the university. I think he understands it’s a big problem right now. His contributions have been very positive, but this is a crisis situation and in fact the university has to move forward. He seemed very open to that message,” Braudy said, and Nikias asked for time to process it.

Braudy shared a copy of a letter, signed by 17 University Professors, sent to trustees Wednesday:

Yesterday, a large group of the University Professors held a very constructive meeting with President Nikias in his office. We went there at his request and he told us that we are the only faculty members that he is meeting with during this period.
He started by saying that last May he explained to the board that he needed to step down for the good of the institution. We told him that we all agreed with that decision. Many of us greatly respect Max’s achievements, first as a member of the faculty, then Dean, Provost, and President.  But the eleven University Professors who took part in the meeting — and to the best of our knowledge all our colleagues who could not attend — are unanimous in concluding that it would be a grave mistake for the University, as well as for Max personally, if he were to continue as President, even for a temporary period.
In order for USC to maintain and enhance its remarkable trajectory, we believe that the board should find a respected educator from, say, the ranks of former leaders of other major research universities to serve USC as interim president while a search committee identifies candidates to be our university’s new president.
If there is any way in which we can help the Trustees during this difficult period, please let us know.

William Tierney, a professor of higher education who is also a University Professor, said Nikias had accomplished “an inordinate amount of good things” at USC, working tirelessly, leading a fundraising campaign that brought in billions of dollars and overseeing construction of a second campus. But the status quo is not tenable, he said.

And then there’s the symbolism.  “At convocation, the president stands in front of the student body and welcomes them,” Tierney said. “We don’t know who’s going to do that.”