OPINION: Annenberg’s decision does not erase history of misconduct

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

On Aug. 2, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism announced it would temporarily suspend using “The Julie Chen/Leslie Moonves and CBS Media Center” as the official name for its media center.

The decision comes after a report from The New Yorker, which details multiple allegations of sexual harassment from women who worked with CBS Corporation CEO Leslie Moonves from the 1980s to the late 2000s.

The decision was, of course, a smart one — especially for a university looking to repair its reputation after the Los Angeles Times released a bombshell investigation about the sexual misconduct of longtime Engemann Student Health Center gynecologist George Tyndall, and subsequently drove USC administrators to crisis mode. And yet, a closer examination of Moonves’ case begs the question: While it openly condemns the misconduct of public figures, does USC adequately prevent sexual harassment on its own campus?

The simple answer to this question would be: No. At least, not yet.

The Annenberg school’s decision is nothing we haven’t seen before: Last December, the USC School of Cinematic Arts removed film director Bryan Singer’s name from its Division of Cinema & Media Studies after he faced allegations of sexual assault. And after The New York Times and The New Yorker published their findings on the infamous Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment cases last October, SCA rejected a $5 million donation from the media mogul.

After the Weinstein story broke, a new wave of political correctness became ever more present in the policies of America’s public institutions. Particularly, USC’s open stance against sexual harassment is a no-brainer. Parents and students alike should sleep more easily knowing that the home of the Trojan Family is a safe, welcoming environment. And, of course, projecting the image of student safety and political progress is an essential task for any university looking to someday match the prestige of an Ivy League.

But preserving reputation has proven to be a double-edged sword.

Circling back to the Tyndall case, the Los Angeles Times has reported that complaints against the gynecologist date as far back as the 1990s — which means USC allegedly ignored student reports of sexual misconduct for decades. It was only after a nurse went to the campus rape center in 2016 that any substantial action was taken by the administration.

The case bears a few similarities to a scandal that erupted last October, in which a USC associate professor remained on staff after one of his students accused him of sexual harassment. In response, university faculty members penned a letter stating that they “simply cannot reconcile the limited sanctions imposed by the University.”

And so, considering USC history, one can’t help but wonder if USC is only sorry that it got caught. In May, the Daily Trojan’s editorial board responded to the Tyndall allegations by joining the crowd of students and faculty urging former President C. L. Max Nikias to step down. Among several faults made by the University’s administration, the board argued that the proposal to add new departments overseeing ombuds services and professionalism and ethics would not only ignore the central demands made by past victims, students and professors, but also create more barriers to an already arduous process of sexual assault reporting. As a symbolic but ultimately necessary gesture, the Academic Senate addressed those central demands by passing a motion calling for Nikias’ resignation.

USC’s eventual removal of Nikias — a fundraising powerhouse for the growing campus — was a tough decision, but the right one. And in the same vein, removing Moonves’ name from Annenberg’s media center was the right call, albeit on a much smaller scale. But now, USC must  shift the focus to where it should have been all along: the students. Blanket statements of apology and proposals of more bureaucracy will not regain students’ trust. Now more than ever, the University must answer cries of help from students rather than sweeping them under the rug. Now more than ever, the University needs to put its money where its mouth is and protect its students first and reputation second.

Indeed, it goes without saying that USC is undergoing a crucial reevaluation period — one in which the University must weigh its values of trust and safety against a longstanding culture of power and privilege. But will USC actually make good on its promises to put students first?

Hopefully, it will. But we’ll have to wait and see.