C.L. “Max” Nikias has agreed to step down immediately as president of the University of Southern California, the board of trustees chairman announced Tuesday night. A trustee will serve as interim president while the school searches for a permanent leader.
Nikias, 65, had faced intense pressure to step down after a series of scandals, with many in the campus community expressing disgust over the university’s handling of them. In May, the board chairman announced that Nikias had agreed to a transition to a new president.
But as the summer months passed with no announcements, calls for action grew. Last month, hundreds of faculty members signed a letter asking the board of trustees to ensure that students would not arrive on campus without news of an interim leader.
The school desperately needed new leadership, they wrote, to “heal the damage to the university, restore the trust of the community, and help us to move forward.”
On Tuesday night, Rick Caruso, chairman of the private university’s board of trustees, announced to the campus community that Nikias had agreed to step down, effective immediately, and will move into the role of president emeritus and life trustee of the university. Nikias will continue to serve as a tenured professor and will help with the transition of the incoming president.
Wanda M. Austin, a board member, engineer and business leader, was named interim president. Austin is former president and chief executive of the Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit considering issues confronting the nation’s space program. She earned her doctorate in systems engineering from USC.
Trustees praised Nikias’s contributions during more than 25 years at the university, and said his presidency had been distinguished by the recruitment of top faculty, expanding the school’s academic medical enterprise, extending its international presence and prodigious fundraising.
“As he has always done, Max is taking this action in what he believes to be in the best interest of the university following controversies that have arisen from the unfortunate and unacceptable acts of others,” Caruso said in the statement announcing the changes. “From our investigations, which are not yet completed, we have found absolutely no wrongdoing on Max’s part.”
Nikias said in a statement it had been a privilege to serve as president and that he was proud of the accomplishments during his tenure.
“I regret profoundly that those shared accomplishments have been overshadowed by recent events,” he said, “but I am confident that the USC community will remain strong and resilient, and build on a very solid foundation to take USC to even greater heights.” He said he and his wife would “continue to support our beloved university. Fight On.”
The school had been widely regarded as ascendant under Nikias’s leadership, but a series of revelations drove faculty, alumni and students to demand a change. In 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that the former dean of the Keck School of Medicine was abusing illegal drugs, even in his campus office. The dean who replaced him resigned months later after allegations of sexual harassment.
Then in May, the Los Angeles Times reported that USC had allowed a gynecologist at the school’s health clinic to continue treating students for years despite complaints. Hundreds of women said they had been victimized by the doctor over his more than 30 years at USC. George Tyndall, the gynecologist, denied wrongdoing in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
After those revelations, many faculty members called on Nikias to resign and the board to restore moral leadership to the university.
“We’re very happy that this transition is finally taking place,” said Ariela Gross, professor of law and history at USC and co-director of the Center for Law, History & Culture at the Gould School of Law, one of the authors of the letter to the board that was signed by nearly 700 faculty members last week.
“We had three key things that we thought needed to happen: President Nikias to step down immediately, interim president appointed, and a presidential search underway. Rick Caruso announced all three of those right away, so I’m very pleased with that.”
She was also pleased that, since a trustee was selected to serve as interim president, that they chose a woman with a doctorate, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “She was a good choice,” Gross said.
Andy Rubenstein, the lead attorney representing 51 of the women suing USC and Tyndall, was dismissive of the announcement. “This is window dressing,” he said. “It effectively treats a symptom but not the disease. A cosmetic departure 10 weeks after this was made public will do nothing to change the culture that has operated in the dark for 30 years.”
Caruso announced that the search for a permanent president was underway with a goal of completing the search within four to six months. He wrote that a member of the faculty had described the purpose of the university as “the light of the human mind.”
“Our light has dimmed recently,” Caruso wrote, but by working together “we will restore trust and heal our community.”
Frederick J. Ryan Jr., publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post, is a member of the USC board.