For the past two decades, USC has risen from being a regional power to a world-class institution. And with increasingly selective admissions, big-name donors and Ivy League-educated faculty, the University is determined to continue its conquest of becoming an academic powerhouse comparable to Harvard University, Stanford University and other elite institutions. But as USC prepares to welcome its largest freshman class in recent history, questions swirl about its ability to maintain this rate of expansion while remaining true to the core values upon which the University was founded.
Over the years, the University has been the subject of scrutiny in multiple scandals — former USC football coach Steve Sarkisian, an embattled Roski MFA program and a failure to foster inclusivity on campus spotlighted by former USG president Rini Sampath. The most recent scandal involving former Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito may be an obvious indicator of USC’s tendency to turn a blind eye to underlying problems with faculty hires and employee misconduct before drawing national attention in the news.
Prior to the Puliafito case, USC’s narrative revolved around the meteoric rise of an institution into the upper echelon of academia, but now the growing pains are becoming more and more pronounced. If USC wants to become a world-class institution, it must be committed to changing its reactionary approach to managing internal conflict. No longer should USC be the University of quick hires, red flags or bureaucratic procedure rejection. Growth and improvement must be motivated by a strong code of ethics that aligns with USC’s values. And these changes must start with our senior administration.
After a series of Los Angeles Times reports on Puliafito’s drug use, partying and association with criminals, the University’s sluggish response has only amplified the scrutiny.
Since the news of Puliafito’s misconduct surfaced, USC has taken a few measures to address the situation: one being an internal investigation conducted by an outside firm, and the other being a task force led by Provost Michael Quick and Senior Vice President of Administration Todd Dickey. President C. L. Max Nikias assigned the new task force to an investigation of the reporting of employee misconduct. And in doing so, the University needs to take its commitment a step further.
Yes, presenting recommendations is a good step, but there also needs to be an enforcement mechanism. The University needs to describe in tangible ways how it will not only prevent a situation like this from happening again, but also ultimately be proactive in changing the way it handles employee misconduct in the future.
After all, this is not the first time USC has been caught in a reactive stance when faced with criticism over employee misconduct. In 2015, USC was marred by yet another employee-related scandal when head football coach Steve Sarkisian was fired midway through the season for conduct related to heavy drinking. Similar to the Puliafito case, there were telltale signs of Sarkisian’s condition leading up to the very public midseason firing. At the Salute to Troy, a booster event before the start of the season, he took the microphone while intoxicated. But then-Athletic Director Pat Haden did not reprimand him, and only fired Sarkisian two months later after he demonstrated erratic behavior at the Arizona State game. Haden claimed that USC vetted Sarkisian before hiring him in 2013, but The Los Angeles Times released receipts and spoke with former players who testified Sarkisian had a history of drinking at his previous stint at the University of Washington.
In both of the aforementioned cases, there is sufficient evidence that at the bare minimum, senior administrators were aware of at least some instances of employee misconduct, and yet chose not to act. That being said, if presented with only recommendations for change, what will propel the default reactionary stance of administrators to be transformed into action?
If USC is really committed to change and not just a Band-Aid solution to displace the scandal, the University must set goals and provide a timeline. It is not enough anymore to recommend change or request action: Action must be planned and shown.
This year marks a critical period in USC’s history. The University is approaching a line of demarcation between a future tinged with notes of corruption and scandal, and one whose values are upheld and enforced in every facet of university life. If USC does not make a conscious effort to reassess its priorities, the results will be devastating to the University’s legacy, and impact its ability to redeem itself in the future.
— Daily Trojan Fall 2017 Editorial Board