USC will be defined by its response to scandal

For the past two decades, USC has risen from being a regional power to a world-class institution. And with increasingly selective admissions, big-name donors and Ivy League-educated faculty, the University is determined to continue its conquest of becoming an academic powerhouse comparable to Harvard University, Stanford University and other elite institutions. But as USC prepares to welcome its largest freshman class in recent history, questions swirl about its ability to maintain this rate of expansion while remaining true to the core values upon which the University was founded.

Over the years, the University has been the subject of scrutiny in multiple scandals — former USC football coach Steve Sarkisian, an embattled Roski MFA program and a failure to foster inclusivity on campus spotlighted by former USG president Rini Sampath. The most recent scandal involving former Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito may be an obvious indicator of USC’s tendency to turn a blind eye to underlying problems with faculty hires and employee misconduct before drawing national attention in the news.

Prior to the Puliafito case, USC’s narrative revolved around the meteoric rise of an institution into the upper echelon of academia, but now the growing pains are becoming more and more pronounced. If USC wants to become a world-class institution, it must be committed to changing its reactionary approach to managing internal conflict. No longer should USC be the University of quick hires, red flags or bureaucratic procedure rejection. Growth and improvement must be motivated by a strong code of ethics that aligns with USC’s values. And these changes must start with our senior administration.

After a series of Los Angeles Times reports on Puliafito’s drug use, partying and association with criminals, the University’s sluggish response has only amplified the scrutiny.

Since the news of Puliafito’s misconduct surfaced, USC has taken a few measures to address the situation: one being an internal investigation conducted by an outside firm, and the other being a task force led by Provost Michael Quick and Senior Vice President of Administration Todd Dickey. President C. L. Max Nikias assigned the new task force to an investigation of the reporting of employee misconduct. And in doing so, the University needs to take its commitment a step further.

Yes, presenting recommendations is a good step, but there also needs to be an enforcement mechanism. The University needs to describe in tangible ways how it will not only prevent a situation like this from happening again, but also ultimately be proactive in changing the way it handles employee misconduct in the future.

After all, this is not the first time USC has been caught in a reactive stance when faced with criticism over employee misconduct. In 2015, USC was marred by yet another employee-related scandal when head football coach Steve Sarkisian was fired midway through the season for conduct related to heavy drinking. Similar to the Puliafito case, there were telltale signs of Sarkisian’s condition leading up to the very public midseason firing. At the Salute to Troy, a booster event before the start of the season, he took the microphone while intoxicated. But then-Athletic Director Pat Haden did not reprimand him, and only fired Sarkisian two months later after he demonstrated erratic behavior at the Arizona State game. Haden claimed that USC vetted Sarkisian before hiring him in 2013, but The Los Angeles Times released receipts and spoke with former players who testified Sarkisian had a history of drinking at his previous stint at the University of Washington.

In both of the aforementioned cases, there is sufficient evidence that at the bare minimum, senior administrators were aware of at least some instances of employee misconduct, and yet chose not to act. That being said, if presented with only recommendations for change, what will propel the default reactionary stance of administrators to be transformed into action?

If USC is really committed to change and not just a Band-Aid solution to displace the scandal, the University must set goals and provide a timeline. It is not enough anymore to recommend change or request action: Action must be planned and shown.

This year marks a critical period in USC’s history. The University is approaching a line of demarcation between a future tinged with notes of corruption and scandal, and one whose values are upheld and enforced in every facet of university life. If USC does not make a conscious effort to reassess its priorities, the results will be devastating to the University’s legacy, and impact its ability to redeem itself in the future.


— Daily Trojan Fall 2017 Editorial Board



3 replies
  1. BostonTW
    BostonTW says:

    IMO, Dickey and Nikias need to resign or be fired. They both were involved in the football scandals of recent past, including the “lack of institutional control” about which the NCAA wrote. Both were clueless about how to develop and maintain a strong NCAA compliance program, and instead of being censured or disciplined for their complicity or failure to protect USC, they each were promoted. Change begins at the top, and for USC to move forward, it must clean house, especially now that USC has completed the University Village and fundraising campaign.

  2. bonesmccoy
    bonesmccoy says:

    To the DT Fall 2017 Editorial Board

    I appreciate the passion of your assessment within the Trojan Community and Family. Allow me to express myself as an alumnus of many decades and as a person who’s life was improved by scholarship, experience, and life-long relationships at this university.

    President Nikias and the USC Board of Trustees are entrusted with a 130+ year legacy of leadership in the City of Angels.
    I have every confidence in that leadership, in the honesty of the discussion, and in the heartfelt commitment to the educational process.

    Readers of other media are entitled to their judgment outside the walls of Troy. However, inside the walls of Troy, we all know that there are times when we fall short of our goals on the athletic field of competition, the laboratory of science, the study field of the humanities, and the stage of art. But, in such conditions, we do not turn personal on each other. Such would be weakness itself. Instead, we remain faithful to friends and colleagues, focus on the scholarly needs of you the student, carry on with redoubled skillful discourse, stand with courage in the face of scrutiny and sometimes undeserved ridicule to strive with our ambitions to further perfect the work in progress. Such is the Trojan ideal and quality. You and I both know where those ideals originate.

    The university community will certainly not allow these transgressions to stand. In fact, in every situation you cited, the university leadership took action without public discourse while maintaining and honoring the privacy of the employees and/or administrators involved. The USC Administration had to take these steps without public discourse due to the legal liabilities and employee rights involved with such matters.

    University leadership has already acknowledged shortcomings publicly ridiculed by the Los Angeles Times. What more is possible under these difficult circumstances? When the legalities are addressed and the administrative actions taken, is it really the need of the student body to understand the details of these administrative decisions?

    In the case of Medical Education at Keck School of Medicine, changes in the leadership of the school do not impact the teaching curriculum, the content of lectures, or the textbooks based upon the personality of the Dean. USC’s long-record of compliance with national standards of accreditation and research excellence will not change. Clinical care continues to improve for a growing network of care. The hospitals grow in communication with innovation a key focus of work between students, faculty, and clinicians.

    In this editorial, DT looks critically at several prominent individuals at USC over the past four years. However, if one looks back over the 130 years of this university and this city, there are innumerable stories of challenges and difficulties in building both the city of Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. I have every confidence that upon extensive investigation and empirical collection of assessment, the reporting of recommendations will be taken seriously. Every USC President and Board since Bovard and VonKleinSmid have had challenges. And, I’m sure Dr. Norman Topping would have his opinions on these challenges himself.

    You can be sure that USC’s Trojan Family will always stand where shall arise again the destined reign of Troy.

    Fight on!

  3. partriot
    partriot says:

    This editorial staff offering is perhaps a bit naive and and melodramatic — L.A.Times style. My understanding is that in the Sarkisian and Puliafito case, the University did intervene to provide support and treatment for impaired professional staff. That does not mean it is always effective, or that very bright impaired folks are not crafty enough to continue with their impairment/addiction sidestepping detection.

    For the Daily Trojan or L.A Times to successfully support their claims, the % of impaired staff provided support who successfully dealt with their problem would need to be known. If it is less than 75%, there is just cause for the castigating claims. If it is a small fraction, that would be comforting, but suggestions of greater support for faculty and staff who develop behavioral problems would be warranted.

    The report by the attorney hired by USC to investigate and report upon the adequacy of USC’s response to Puliafito will be crucial. Perhaps some moderation shown until it is released would be prudent.

    The idealism of college-aged young adults is laudable and excusable if it leads to excess. For the L.A. Times, I have no response!

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