Several University administrators were aware of former state legislator Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ status as a student when he was hired to teach at USC, a conflict that later led to his termination as a professor, according to documents acquired by the Daily Trojan.
Ridley-Thomas, who stepped down from his position as a member of the state Assembly in December 2017, was accepted to an on online social work program in January 2018 and awarded a full-tuition scholarship. A month later, he received a non-tenure track faculty position as a “professor of practice” in the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the Price School of Public Policy.
In July, a month after a donation his father made to the University was disclosed to federal investigators, USC fired Ridley-Thomas. The details of his hiring and admission were made public in a Los Angeles Times report in August.
In an email to Ridley-Thomas on July 18, Vice Provost Martin Levine told the former state legislator that due to Faculty Handbook policies “that faculty members shall not be candidates for degrees in the same program in which they have an appointment,” the administration had “determined that appropriate corrective action … is immediate termination of [his] faculty appointment.”
However, email correspondences among Ridley-Thomas, former School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn and other administrators from the Dworak-Peck and Price schools suggest that University leaders were aware of Ridley-Thomas’ status as a student when they hired him.
Communication between Flynn and Ridley-Thomas dates back to May 2017 — over seven months before he enrolled at USC as a student. In an email on May 26, 2017, Flynn wrote that she had “a chance to talk with Dean [Jack] Knott at the Price School,” stating that the two schools would support his tuition. The School of Social Work would later fully cover the legislator’s tuition.
In January the following year, he was formally notified of a full-tuition scholarship and started an online social work program that semester.
One month after becoming a student, Ridley-Thomas received a letter signed by both Knott and Flynn informing him of his appointment as Professor of Practice of Policy and Social Work where his “service to both schools” would include “classroom presentations related to the political process, and assisting in organizing events involving both local and state governments.”
“Like all other new students and people who are offered employment, Mr. Ridley-Thomas relied on the deans and academic administrators at USC to know and follow the university’s rules,” wrote Lance Olson, Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, in an email to the Daily Trojan. “Naturally, he believed that everything was in order.”
Approval for Ridley-Thomas’ position even went through the Provost’s Office. On Feb. 13, a Price School official wrote to Ridley-Thomas, saying that the school had “received Provost approval of our request to waive our usual hiring process.” Ridley-Thomas accepted the appointment on March 10.
According to a source in the University administration, this procedure is normal for professors of professional practice. Typically, those hired under this process are individuals who are practicing or retired and may not have the same academic credentials that other professors hold, so waiving the usual process means they don’t have to be reviewed by faculty committees, the source said.
The latest revelation came after a string of stories from the Los Angeles Times regarding Ridley-Thomas’ resignation from the state Assembly and his role at the University. The Times reported that his father, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, made a $100,000 donation from his campaign fund to the School of Social Work, which was later funneled to a think tank unaffiliated with USC and led by Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.
“[Ridley-Thomas’] enrollment and employment at USC began months before the donation was even made,” Olson said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “Any suggestion that there is a connection between the two is patently false.”
Last month, Ridley-Thomas accused the University of violating student privacy laws by disclosing information regarding his scholarship and status at the University.
“Of particular concern is the fact the Times was clearly told of the Compliance Office interview of my client,” Olson wrote in a letter to USC’s attorney in August. “That information could only have come from one of the three persons from USC who participated in the interview.”
USC and several administrators from the School of Social Work declined to comment on Ridley-Thomas’ hiring, citing privacy protection laws for students and faculty and the pending nature of the federal investigation.