Provost Michael Quick announced Friday that USC will be restructuring the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund to “more closely align it to the mission and core values of the University.”
One of the changes to the Topping Fund was the elimination of the Topping director position, which has been held by Christina Yokoyama for 11 years. With the changes, Yokoyama will no longer be employed as director starting Feb. 1.
Since 1972, the Topping Fund has served as a student-funded and student-led scholarship program for underrepresented, low-income and first-generation students. Through mentoring services, special programming and open-door advising, the Topping Fund has provided scholars with several resources on campus.
“This is the only student-funded, student-led scholarship program of its kind in the country,” said senior Sabrina Enriquez, a Topping scholar who helped pen a letter to Provost Quick. The letter was signed by the Topping scholars as a plea for Quick to reverse the decision.
“This decision is indicative of a shift of values and shows us that first-generation students and Topping scholars are no longer valued or supported by administration as we once were,” the letter stated.
Quick, however, said in a memorandum addressed to the USC community that he made this decision in an effort to expand on the program while maintaining its history.
“The core of the program is fantastic, and we have helped many students who are currently here and in the past,” said Andrea Hodge, vice provost of Undergraduate Programs. “They become a family of scholars, [and] we want to keep this family of scholars.”
According to the Provost’s memorandum on Friday, the program has traditionally been offered to “a small number” of students.
“When you look at the history of [the Topping Fund], it was established to diversify the student population and be more than a scholarship program, and we can definitely increase the cohort size,” Hodge said.
Hodge said she consulted with the USC Office of Admission, the USC Financial Aid Office and the USC Graduate and Undergraduate Student Governments to make changes in expanding the program to more students.
However, many of the Topping Scholars expressed frustration with the decision to remove the position and Yokoyama, and also with being excluded from the decision process.
“To bring in more students, in theory, is a really great idea,” Enriquez said. “To take one of our dedicated staffers who has really given her entire life to the program… it wouldn’t make sense that more students can be served with less [staff].”
Yokoyama explained that there was a lack of communication between Quick, the Topping Scholars and the Topping Governing Board, a group of students who are responsible for shaping the program by reviewing student applications and selecting scholars.
Although Hodge notified scholars that changes would be put into effect in the near future, Yokoyama said the elimination of her position was never discussed with her.
“I was called [into a meeting] to be informed that the Topping Director position had been eliminated, which meant my termination,” Yokoyama said. “It wasn’t even a conversation. [Hodge] spoke to me for five minutes. When I asked questions like ‘Is my staff safe?’ or ‘What other changes have been proposed?’… They refused to answer any questions.”
Many Topping Scholars and faculty members have stated their disapproval of Yokoyama’s firing, some penning letters to Provost Quick.
Some letters described Yokoyama’s dedication and support to the Topping Family as invaluable. Letters from scholars, the Topping Fund Governing Board Chairs from the past decade and former Associate Topping Fund Director Felipe Martinez have been sent to the USC Provost.
Former Associate Vice Provost Gene Bickers and former Vice Dean for Diversity and Strategic Initiative for Dornsife George Sanchez, who have worked with Topping scholars in the past, also expressed disagreement with the changes to the program.
In a letter addressed to Quick and Vice Provost Elizabeth Graddy, Bickers and Sanchez asked for the Topping Governing Board to be involved with the decision-making process.
“We believe this lack of consultation violates the unique governance model that has been in place for NTSAF since its creation nearly five decades ago,” the letter stated. “We believe it also contravenes assurances that were made to the board less than five years ago by Dr. Michael Quick in his role of Executive Vice Provost.”
Topping Governing Board members will be meeting with Hodge Tuesday morning to further discuss the changes that are being made to the program, as well as concerns regarding the removal of Yokoyama’s position.
“Many of our scholars have difficult situations that require more support than the average USC student,” Enriquez said. “What Christina does is not only get us in touch with all of these resources available to us that we may not know about, but she advocates on behalf of us. What we are essentially pleading is that they reverse the decision and reinstate not only the position of the director but that that director remains Christina.”
Yokoyama said she will be meeting with Provost Quick on Friday.
“This is a very significant, historical program, and it has been, because it is student-led,” Yokoyama said. “I’m dreading the changes to come and I’m very frustrated that these changes could not be shared with me or this division could not be worked on together, but instead it’s being taken over.”