POINT: Apply Title IX guidelines broadly to fight systemic abuse

Another top University administrator is out at USC. David Carrera, USC’s vice president of advancement and health sciences development, is no longer working at USC while in the midst of an investigation into sexual harassment toward female colleagues.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Carrera is just the latest USC employee being investigated for wrongdoing. He follows former Keck School of Medicine Dean Rohit Varma, who abruptly resigned just a few days earlier in anticipation of a Los Angeles Times story about a complaint made 15 years ago by a female colleague. “USC formally disciplined the dean, Dr. Rohit Varma, in 2003 following allegations that he sexually harassed the young researcher while he was a junior professor supervising her work,” the Times said.

Varma follows his Keck predecessor Carmen Puliafito, who was removed from campus after yet another Los Angeles Times investigation detailed his drug use while serving as dean. And those aren’t the only USC employees under fire. Assistant basketball coach Tony Bland was arrested late last month on federal charges related to bribery.

What has become clear to students is that there is a systemic lack of foresight and accountability.

“It simply cannot be overstated: this University will not tolerate sexual misconduct in any form, whether it is sexual violence, abuse, stalking, intimate partner violence, harassment, or discrimination,” Provost Michael Quick said in a memo to USC students in September — just a month before revelations about both Carrera and Varma came out.

If Quick were sincere about the University’s commitment to zero tolerance of sexual harassment, why was Varma promoted to dean under his tenure? Though it cannot be said whether a review of personnel complaints took place before Varma’s promotion, Quick should have known about the complaint, and thus not promoted Varma to the deanship. It would seem as though, at the very least, looking into Varma’s background would have given Quick pause in appointing him as Puliafito’s successor. But in the event that USC officials were aware of the complaint, it appears that as far as University administrators were concerned, his censure in 2003 did not impede his eventual upward progress at the University.

And if Quick meant what he said, then why was Puliafito allowed to stay on faculty and treat patients even after he resigned from his deanship, a week and a half after a witness to the overdose of Puliafito’s companion made a six-minute call to President C. L. Max Nikias’ office; a crisis management specialist representing USC, Charles Sipkins, told the Times that an anonymous call did reach the president’s office, but that it never reached senior administrators.  If this account is accurate, then why wasn’t there a system in place to pass on phone calls of this nature? And why did USC not begin its investigation into Carrera until after the Los Angeles Times published its Puliafito investigation, even though it had already received five complaints about him in a single year?

Put simply, USC’s administration has lost the trust of its students. It continues to power a serious disconnect between its promises and its actions.

After Varma’s resignation, Quick sent a memo to USC’s medical community, promising to “strengthen and improve our culture” by hiring a new vice provost to provide leadership training to senior executives and creating an oversight office. It feels like too little, too late. And is leadership training for senior executives really necessary? Shouldn’t USC be hiring people who don’t sexually harass employees or students, indulge in copious drug use?

The private university system requires students to trust the University to self-regulate. Clearly, the University has lost this privilege. If it were not for the Los Angeles Times’ dogged investigations into USC faculty, Carrera, Puliafito and Varma might still be in senior leadership roles at the University.

The gateway to increasing accountability, especially when it comes to employees facing sexual harassment investigations, is through Title IX. One way for this to manifest could be a requirement for universities to report sexual misconduct complaints to the Department of Education. But implementation should be careful; colleges might make it more difficult for faculty or students to report sexual misconduct complaints, so that those complaints are not logged with the federal government. Therefore, the Title IX complaint process, which is already mandated, should be monitored to ensure its efficacy.

Given the ideology of the current presidential administration, expanding Title IX regulations isn’t likely; President Donald Trump probably doesn’t consider expanding sexual misconduct protections a priority. But elite universities have become machines of concentrated power, and the recent string of scandals at USC demonstrates that they require government regulation — like the FBI investigation that led to Bland’s arrest — in order to hire ethical faculty and administrators. It seems like such a small ask — for the staff of the University to refrain from sexual misconduct, avoid illegal drug use and resist bribery. Yet, here we are.

Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. She is also the special projects editor of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.