The USC Academic Senate passed a motion calling on President C. L. Max Nikias to resign in a private meeting late Wednesday afternoon. The vote comes eight days after a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed years of alleged misconduct and abuse by former student health center gynecologist George Tyndall.
Despite hundreds of former patients coming forward about their experiences with him, Tyndall has denied all allegations of misconduct. In a letter sent to the Daily Trojan, he said that his goal was always to help female students at USC.
“I chose to become the first-ever obstetrician-gynecologist to be offered a full-time position at USC’s student health center because I’d decided that my new mission in life would be to do my utmost to protect the health of Trojan women,” Tyndall wrote. “‘I will do everything I possibly can,’ I said to myself, ‘to assist Trojan women to achieve their career goals without being sidetracked by a preventable condition or disease.’”
But amid an investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department and four lawsuits against the University, revelations about Tyndall’s alleged misconduct left many members of the USC community disillusioned with the University’s senior leadership.
Approximately 30 senators voted in favor of the motion calling on Nikias to resign, none voted against it, and five abstained, according to Academic Senate member Ellis Horowitz.
The vote took place shortly after an emotional town hall meeting with more than 100 faculty in attendance, the majority of whom expressed distrust in Nikias and the Board of Trustees’ leadership, as well as their inability to fully serve the interests of the University’s students.
“Regardless of the details … the point is that these are terrible things that have happened on [the administration’s] watch,” physics and astronomy professor Clifford Johnson said. “Max [Nikias], at least, has to step down … He just does not have the skillset, but also the confidence of his colleagues, to move us forward.”
On Tuesday, President Nikias released a 20-page action plan detailing how he intends to move forward with the University after more than 200 former patients called a University hotline to file complaints about Tyndall.
“We owe it to our students, to each other, and indeed, to our entire community to do better, ” Nikias wrote in the plan. “I am truly sorry these events happened within our community, and deeply regret how much distress they have caused. From the sorrow comes determination to lead change in our culture.”
Nikias, along with Provost Michael Quick, said in an initial memorandum to the USC community that they had no knowledge of complaints against Tyndall until shortly before his removal from the University in June 2017.
“I am struggling with the question — as you are: how could this behavior have gone on for so long?” Nikias asked in a letter sent to the community last Friday. “Once again, I want to personally apologize to any student who visited our student health center and was made to feel uncomfortable in any way. You deserved better, and we let you down.”
Tyndall said that health center administrators allowed him to continue practicing because complaints about his conduct were outweighed by compliments.
“[The Times] stories allege that the university’s managers allowed a woman’s health clinician to practice at the campus student health center despite multiple complaints [about] his care,” Tyndall said. “Given that human resources does not generally hire dolts as managers, what is the likely explanation? The likely explanation is that the compliments [about] the clinician’s care must outweigh the complaints by magnitudes of order.”
However, some faculty were unsatisfied with how the University failed to react to Tyndall when complaints were first made, as well as its handling of other misconduct cases that have taken place at the University in recent years.
Many of the professors present at the town hall had signed a letter calling for President Nikias’ resignation earlier this week. The letter cited outrage against President Nikias, saying he had failed to protect the USC community from “repeated and pervasive sexual harassment and misconduct.”
“I understand the faculty’s anger and frustration,” Nikias said in a statement to the Daily Trojan Thursday evening regarding the faculty letter. “I have always encouraged our faculty to express their views and opinions on issues of critical importance. They are core to the mission of this university and I am grateful for their contributions to the action plan we released today. I am committed to working with them as we implement this wide-reaching plan and to rebuilding their trust.”
While the letter was initially closed after 200 tenured professors had signed it before it was published Tuesday, it was reopened Thursday to allow any full-time faculty at the University to sign. At the time of publication, at least 188 more faculty members had signed.
“We’re just stunned by the fact that that many people in less than two days said, ‘Yes, I want to sign,’” said law professor Nomi Stolzenberg, one of the letter’s originators. “It’s not something people do lightly.”
On Wednesday, the executive committee of the Board of Trustees announced it will form a special committee to find and hire an external counsel to lead an independent investigation regarding the misconduct allegations against Tyndall.
“The behavior exhibited by the former physician was reprehensible, and we will hold people accountable if we find they failed to report or take action to ensure the well-being and safety of patients and students,” the committee wrote in a public statement.
“The subcommittee is trying to see where the failures occurred and how our systems can and should be corrected,” a USC spokesperson said. “The overall goal is for the committee to evaluate processes and procedures to keep this from happening again.”
But several faculty at the town hall lambasted the Board’s executive committee for releasing a brief statement without offering an apology to students and others affected by Tyndall’s misconduct.
According to a faculty member at the town hall, one of the professors who spoke said the letter published by the Board of Trustees’ executive committee had no return address, and instead only listed Nikias’ phone number.
“We at USC don’t have Trustees,” the professor said. “Max does!”
Some also argued that the people who make up the Board of Trustees are not representative of the University’s values and needs, and suggested that the Board be restructured to include student and faculty representatives.
Many expressed dismay with the fact that Nikias and other senior leaders failed to immediately notify the USC community of allegations against not only Tyndall, but also former Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito, who was found to be using methamphetamines while on the job.
The faculty also cited the University’s mishandling of other sexual misconduct cases in recent years, including those involving associate social work professor Erick Guerrero, former vice president of fundraising David Carrera and former Keck dean Rohit Varma.
“President Nikias has demonstrated disinterest in the internal workings of the University and has put in place too many administrators who manage up while papering over problems within their units,” public policy professor Juliet Musso said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “ Moreover, he has built a Board of Trustees that exists primarily to raise funds, and that does not adhere to recognized effective practices in university governance.”
Some professors expressed concern about the financial burden that could result from allegations made against Tyndall. At least seven women have filed four lawsuits against the University over its handling of Tyndall’s alleged misconduct.
“If Nikias is not dismissed, the resulting anger from the estimated thousands of sexually abused former students could result in class action lawsuits that could cost the University billions of dollars,” physics professor Jack Feinberg said. “Also, the loss of tuition revenue from Chinese students — who pay full tuition — could jeopardize USC’s ability to provide scholarships that increase the diversity of the student body.”
Some professors said they signed the letter calling for Nikias’ resignation despite their respect for him as an individual.
“In his 13 years as provost, then president, [Nikias] has moved the University farther than I thought possible,” Physics and astronomy professor Bickers wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “But I believe the cascade of scandals that has occurred over the past year, culminating in the current crisis, has resulted in a loss of moral authority and trust that is now irreparable.”
English professor Hilary Schor, who helped draft the letter, encouraged students to use their voice and speak up for the future of the University.
“I believe that that is the students’ sacred duty as members of the Trojan Family to speak up for those who come after them and in defense of those who were harmed,” Schor said. “Students, more than any of the faculty, have the power, duty and right to say that this is not our USC.”
Tomás Mier and Kate Sequeira contributed to this report.