On Tuesday, Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso announced the creation of a search committee to aid in the selection of USC’s next president. The 23-person committee includes faculty, trustees, the School of Cinematic Arts dean and Interim President Wanda Austin but notably lacks student representatives.
The choice to exclude students from this process is a major misstep on the Board’s part; administrators must respect student voices and provide students with a direct channel to influence the election of a new University leader.
Barring students from this key group is a huge mistake at best and an incident of conscious discrimination at worst. The 45,000 students at USC are the face and future of this school and make up the bulk of the academic community — not senior leaders and trustees. The livelihood and wellbeing of students are directly tied to the action — and inaction — the administration takes. The new president, whoever they may be, will impact the lives of students far more than the lives of the adults who are currently on the committee. It does not make sense that 23 people were given the responsibility of speaking for all students when we are perfectly capable of speaking for ourselves.
In his letter to the University, Caruso explained that students and other members of the community are invited to attend town hall-style sessions where they can share recommendations to aid the committee in its search. Yet, in light of the University’s failure to take inclusionary action, the town halls feel like a hollow statement, a consolation prize offered up in place of actual representation. Students deserve more respect than a half-assed forum that is open to everyone. Our voices should be treated as more important than those from the general public. If the administration truly intends to ameliorate the school’s toxic culture, these town halls are insufficient and unacceptable.
On Wednesday, Caruso told the Daily Trojan that “the voice of the students is critically important” but that they also can’t have “an unlimited amount of people” participating in the search committee. This is a weak excuse. It should not be difficult for the committee to shirk a few trustee voices — who, with 13 people on the committee, already comprise the majority of seats — in favor of at least one student representative.
In discussions of USC leadership, the voices of students are always mysteriously silenced. Our needs, desires and concerns are overshadowed by trustees and administrators who, though their hearts may be in the right place, are fundamentally disconnected from our experience.
Kristopher Coombs, Jr., a Graduate Student Government vice president, said that students began advocating for student representation at the trustee level weeks before the presidential search began. Both GSG and Undergraduate Student Government requested one student seat each on the search committee — upsettingly, neither request was fulfilled. The fact that students took clear steps to demand representation and were still left out exemplifies that the University is guilty not only of oversight but of blatantly ignoring student needs.
Including students in the discussion is hardly a novel concept. Michigan State University is also reeling from a scandal that forced its president out after Larry Nassar, a former sports doctor for USA Gymnastics and the school, was sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting his patients. Katherine Rifiotis, the student body president, is one of the members on Michigan State’s search committee. Several prominent universities, such as Duke, Stanford and Scripps, have also sought to include student voices in their presidential searches. It makes sense to have a representative chosen by the student population in the room — but at USC, neither USG President Debbie Lee nor GSG President Joycelyn Yip will be given that opportunity.
In addition, Michigan State’s search committee website is sleek, open and detailed. There is a timeline of important steps in the process, from when candidates will be identified (Nov. 2018 – Jan. 2019) to when the new president will be announced (June 2019). There are many updates on the search process and a full list of the committee members and their occupations. USC’s search committee page pales in comparison. There is no timeline — only a short statement, a page to share thoughts on the process and a list of vague FAQs. A university as large as USC should be far more transparent to the public and to, as Caruso put it, “its constituents.”
After a rolling tide of scandals, it seemed like C. L. Max Nikias’ exit from the presidential office was a step toward change. Lots of rhetoric was tossed around about “transparency” and “healing,” but this exclusionary decision detracts from those promises, rendering them empty. Leaving students out of the discussion feels like something is being hidden from us, and the University cannot preach transparency and then refuse to give students a seat at the table. Students are the lifeblood of this institution, and it is deeply frustrating to find our voices silenced once again.
Daily Trojan Fall 2018 Editorial Board