Letter to the Editor: To avoid future scandals, University must include students in decision-making

Institutions must deal with the exposure of various scandals, and USC is no exception. It is hard to continue to trust any company and its leaders after multiple broken promises and scandals. Broken promises and scandals have marked the University of Southern California over the past several years.

To recap: USC was roiled in scandals for roughly a decade. In Fall 2015, a Los Angeles Times article brought former head football coach Steve Sarkisian’s alcohol use to light. Carmen Puliafito stepped down as dean of USC Keck School of Medicine in Spring 2016, while gynecologist George Tyndall left that summer. In Spring 2017, a student stated she had been sexually harassed by Dworak-Peck School of Social Work professor Erick Guerrero. That summer, the Los Angeles Times broke the story about Puliafito, and the dean hired to replace him, Rohit Varma, resigned due to his own past scandal. That fall, the FBI arrested men’s basketball assistant coach Tony Brand, charging him with bribery and conspiracy to commit fraud. Then the Office of the Provost suspended Guerrero for one semester without pay, prompting faculty members to pen a letter about what they considered a light sentence. In January 2018, revelations of changes to the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund administration sparked student protests. A month later, reports surfaced that men’s basketball players had accepted bribes or participated in illegal conduct. That spring, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was hired as a professor of social work and public policy after stepping down the previous December from his position as an assemblyman. In mid-May, the Tyndall scandal emerged regarding decades of sexual misconduct, after which hundreds of faculty members called for President C.L. Max Nikias’ resignation. The Board of Trustees quickly stated they had “full confidence” in Nikias. Days later, they stated that Nikias was stepping down, though he didn’t officially resign until August.

The Board of Trustees elected Rick Caruso as Chairman at the end of May. In a letter to the community, Caruso stated a desire to collaborate with students, staff, faculty and alumni. In August, the Times broke a story about Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ sexual harassment allegations. Ridley-Thomas stated that the University had violated FERPA by releasing private information about his status as a student.  Throughout all of this, promises were made to the Trojan Family — particularly students — which were then broken as scandal after scandal emerged. Many students have lost faith in the University administration, and are apprehensive about what new scandal the Times will release next.

Despite student leaders’ best efforts, we were shut out of participating on the Presidential Search Advisory Committee. Instead, Caruso asked us to take a “measured” leap of faith and to trust in the entity that has failed us multiple times in the past three years.

When asked what we believe to be in the best interests of students, student leaders always state exactly what we know is in our best interests, based on the constant, daily conversations we have with our peers. At best, our words are ignored. At worst, we are told — by individuals who are not currently students and who have requested our presence precisely to learn what students need — that what we think is in our best interest is actually not.

We. Are. Tired.

I steadfastly think that most — if not all — trustees and administrators believe they act in students’ best interests; therefore I do not write out of animus. The problem is we are ignored when we state what is in our interests. There are exceptions and there have been improvements, but they are an anomaly, not the rule. Instead, assumptions are made about our “best interests” (e.g., banning media from listening sessions due to a supposed participatory chilling effect, despite already having a private online submission option; recently clarified to not apply to student media) when students think otherwise.

Inclusion should be the rule. Democratic university governance should be the rule. Empowering students and student leaders to collaboratively tackle university challenges should be the rule. Right now, these rules are nonexistent. Caruso asks for trust and respect for PSAC decisions.  He and other administrators highlight that things are better due to the “unprecedented access” to his position as chairman, signifying a departure from the norm. However, better is a comparative, not a superlative; therefore, just because USC is “better than before” does not mean it is the best it can be. Similarly, just because something is the “norm” does not mean it indicates inherent goodness. In order to be the “best,” norms often need to change, and drastically so. Though we hope to collaborate moving forward, student leaders feel it necessary to highlight that trust and respect must be earned. Multiple scandals and hundreds of irrevocably harmed students have all but evaporated trust. For many, exclusion from the search committee was the last straw.

Of course, students cannot actually win this battle. If we continue our advocacy, we risk being painted as spoiled children who are throwing a tantrum for not getting what we want, proving Caruso correct that students cannot handle being on the committee. However, if we find advocates from within the committee, it proves that students need not be on the search committee to have their voices heard. We are stuck in a representative Catch-22.

But “Fight On” we must. Years of scandals have shown that the University is, in many instances, unable to fully protect students from within. It is time to let students work to protect themselves.


Kris Coombs, Jr.

Vice President of Programming, Graduate Student Government