USC named Laura Mosqueda, chair of the Department of Family Medicine and associate dean of primary care, the interim dean of the Keck School of Medicine on Friday. Her provisional appointment comes in the wake of administrative issues at Keck that have led to the resignations of the last two deans within a two-year span.
“Dr. Mosqueda will work closely with President Nikias and me to support you as we strengthen and improve the culture at the Keck School,” Provost Michael Quick said in a memo on Friday addressed to Keck students, faculty and staff.
Earlier that day, Keck hosted a town hall to allow students to express their concerns and frustrations about the school’s administration. Rohit Varma resigned as dean of the Keck School of Medicine on Thursday, less than a year after starting the job.
On the same day, the Los Angeles Times revealed he had been disciplined for sexual harassment in 2003. His predecessor, Carmen Puliafito, reportedly engaged in drug-fueled misconduct and associated with convicted criminals during his term, according to a July report from the Los Angeles Times.
In front of a full crowd at the Mayer Auditorium on the Health Sciences Campus, Keck officials reiterated the University’s commitment to students’ education in the wake of the administrative scandals. Students also voiced their concerns regarding the disruptions in the past year.
“I know in the past 18 months we’ve gone through some turmoil, but rest assured that under no circumstances [do] these experiences and challenges … diminish the Keck profile that we assured you we were going to work on from the time you matriculated at this institution,” Vice Dean of Medical Education Henri Ford told the crowd.
Ryan Kraus, a medical student at Keck, opened the Q&A session by asking how the University recommends students confront any doubts potential employers may have about the quality of a USC education because of Keck’s leadership. After the report about Puliafito came out, Kraus said he faced questions about the former dean during an interview. Now, he is worried the same will happen regarding Varma.
Associate Dean for Student and Educational Affairs Donna Elliott told students to expect questions. Elliott advised students to reframe the narrative to focus on their Keck education and not on issues with the Keck administration.
Keck will provide students with talking points for their interviews to ensure they can avoid discussing the Keck administration, Elliott said. She also emphasized how the Keck education “has not been compromised by any of these events,” and said that the process of finding a replacement dean could take up to a year.
Other students at the town hall criticized the University’s handling of the situation. Some noted they found out about Varma’s sexual harassment allegations first from a Los Angeles Times article and not directly from Keck.
Jeremy Hardin, a medical student at Keck, read out a printed letter detailing his concerns with USC’s actions. Hardin praised Ford, Elliott and the rest of the Keck academic deans for their work, but noted his disappointment with what he sees as a lack of institutional responsibility in a “culture [that] endorses the obfuscation of truth.”
“This problem is bigger than all of us,” Hardin said. “It involves the hidden mechanisms of power at USC that none of us can seem to touch, and until we hold those in power accountable together, as a united group of principled students and faculty, I see no reason why we should expect anything to change.”
Varma’s resignation came as the Los Angeles Times was expecting to publish a report regarding a sexual harassment incident that occurred while he was a junior professor at USC.
The Times reported that Varma told a female researcher he was working with that he had booked a single room for them to share at a conference they were both attending. She said that when she protested, Varma took her phone and threatened to have her visa revoked.
When she reported Varma’s actions to USC, the administration reduced his salary by $30,000, denied him an expected promotion and required him to receive counseling about sexual harassment. His full salary was reinstated in 2004 and he was promoted to a full professorship in 2005, the Times reported.
USC did not confirm that the sexual harassment accusation and Varma’s resignation were related.
“Today we learned previously undisclosed information that caused us to lose confidence in Dr. Varma’s ability to lead the school,” Provost Michael Quick said in a statement on Thursday.
Ford expressed his belief that everyone makes mistakes and that in some cases, second chances should be given.
“Everybody’s entitled to a second chance, or a third chance, or multiple chances, as long as we’re not going back and committing the same infraction,” Ford said. “So to that extent, I think it’s not unreasonable to give someone who has made a mistake some 15 years ago a second chance, who has especially demonstrated exemplary behavior since then.”
Ford’s reasoning of a “second chance” for Varma was met with doubt from some students. Claire Conrad, a medical student at Keck, expressed concerns about USC’s decision to offer a second chance to an individual with a history of sexual harassment.
“This makes me really uncomfortable and unsafe going forward in my career and knowing that despite everything … the community and values held at Keck [are] that [sexual harassment] happened and there was a second chance given,” Conrad said.
Ford said, however, that Keck was working to try to maintain a stable academic environment for students despite the administrative changes taking place.
“To take a former dean that had defiled the name of the University and replace him with someone else who has a history of sexual harassment shows poor judgment,” Ford said. “What I can say is this is beyond my jurisdiction — and it’s not something we’re involved in. I can only focus on the quality of the educational environment.”
Tomás Mier contributed to this report.