Nikias to resign as USC president after year defined by scandals

C. L. Max Nikias has agreed to resign after serving as USC president for eight years. (Katie Chin/Daily Trojan)

C. L. Max Nikias has agreed to resign as USC’s president Friday after nearly 500 faculty members, the Academic Senate and members of the USC community called on him to step down. His resignation comes after multiple scandals at the University, including, most recently, sexual misconduct allegations against former health center gynecologist George Tyndall.

In a letter to the USC community, Trustee Rick Caruso said the Board of Trustees heard the message that “something is broken and that urgent and profound actions are needed.”

“We recognize the need for change and are committed to a stable transition,” he wrote. “Please know that our actions will be swift and thorough, but we ask for your patience as we manage a complex process with due diligence.”

No timeline has been set for Nikias’ departure, and a successor has not yet been named.

The trustees’ decision was contrary to a statement released earlier this week by Board of Trustees Chairman John Mork. In that statement, the Board said it would continue to support Nikias’ action plan and leadership following the allegations against Tyndall.

Tyndall is accused of touching his patients inappropriately during pelvic exams, making inappropriate sexual comments during patient visits, and of exhibiting discriminatory behavior toward Chinese student patients who were unfamiliar with American medical practices. His alleged misconduct dates back to the 1990s, according to the Los Angeles Times.

While Tyndall has denied all allegations against him, a University hotline has received over 300 complaints from former patients in the last week.

In hindsight, we should have made this report eight months earlier when he separated from the university,” Nikias wrote in a letter sent last week informing the USC community about the allegations against Tyndall.

Several women have also filed lawsuits against Tyndall and the University. In one lawsuit, four plaintiffs will be represented by John Manly, the lead attorney who helped settle a sexual assault case against Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar.

Manly, who received his bachelor’s degree from USC in 1986, said he was pleased with Nikias’ resignation, but that it was overdue.

It’s a stain. It’s not only a stain on President Nikias but it’s a stain on our school,” Manly said. “I’ve never been more embarrassed or ashamed to be associated with an institution as I am right now.”

Manly also said that around 70 women have contacted his office regarding allegations against Tyndall and called the situation “a tragedy of epic proportions.”

The Tyndall accusations were only the most recent in a number  of controversies that have taken place in the past eleven months during Nikias’ presidency.

Last July, a Los Angeles Times report revealed that former Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito had participated in drug-fueled parties and misconduct while serving as dean. The report also found that Puliafito had been using methamphetamines while seeing patients.

His successor, Rohit Varma, filled Puliafito’s vacant deanship despite the University disciplining him following an allegation that he had sexually harassed a colleague. Varma would go on to resign after less than a year as Puliafito’s replacement.

“Our leaders must be held to the highest standards. Dr. Varma understands this, and chose to step down,” USC Provost Michael Quick said in a statement after Varma’s resignation.

The University also faced sexual misconduct accusations involving professor Erick Guerrero and the University’s vice president of fundraising David Carrera. Carrera left his post and Guerrero was put on leave.

Now with the news of Nikias’ departure, Caruso says the University’s new focus will be to offer support, investigate what happened and listen to the community as more information becomes available regarding Tyndall and the University’s handling of the accusations.

“Our thoughts are with the families that have been affected by this situation, and our pledge to this community is that we will rebuild our culture to reflect an environment in which safety and transparency are of paramount importance, and to institute systemic change that will prevent this from occurring in the future,” Caruso wrote in the statement.

Academic Senate President Paul Rosenbloom echoed Caruso’s sentiments in a statement addressed to USC faculty, emailed to the Daily Trojan.

With this change, we have cause to be optimistic,” Rosenbloom wrote. “We second the request from the Board of Trustees for patience, and we look forward to working together with them to ensure the healing of our students, staff, faculty, parents and alumni, and towards the betterment of the University.”

In addition to the Academic Senate’s vote in favor of Nikias stepping down, nearly 500 other faculty members signed a letter earlier this week calling for his resignation.

Undergraduate Student Government President Debbie Lee said in a statement to the Daily Trojan that she respects Nikias’ decision to leave his post as president of the University.

“This situation has definitely brought to light some of the deeper fissures within the university, and I hope that moving forward, we can work closely with the new administration to ensure that students, their safety, and their well-being are always the top of the priority list, regardless of what’s at stake for the university,” Lee wrote.

Prior to Nikias’ resignation, USG and the Graduate Student Government released a joint statement Friday expressing their concerns with allegations against Tyndall, and how the  University responded to them.

“Why should students find any comfort in the knowledge that University administrators did not act sooner because they ‘didn’t [know]’ about the extent of the abuse for two decades, reflecting either an unwillingness or inability of leadership to thoroughly investigate and identify problems, as well as a deeper cultural problem in which University sexual assault allegations go uninvestigated and students are discouraged from reporting?” the statement asked.

Former Undergraduate Student Government President Rini Sampath said that his resignation is “step one for the University.” Sampath created a petition calling for Nikias to step down. Her petition garnered over 4,000 signatures.

“I think that what has transpired is a result of students, alumni, faculty and parents all banding together saying that this should never happen again,” Sampath said, referring to the accusations of misconduct against Tyndall. “This is unacceptable leadership. We want a culture of care at USC and in order for that to happen, there needs to be top-down changes.”

Trojan Advocates for Political Progress, a student organization that called for the Board of Trustees to evaluate President Nikias’ conduct last week, also said they welcome his resignation.

“We hope this solution not only addresses past abuses but also works with the entire USC community, including victims, students, faculty, staff, alumni and the Board, to foster a culture and campus characterized by safety, accountability, transparency, and restored trust,” the TAPP executive board said in a statement to the Daily Trojan.

Nikias was selected as USC’s 11th president in 2010. Nikias joined the faculty in 1991, served as the dean of the Viterbi School for Engineering from 2001 to 2005, and served as provost under former president Steven Sample from 2005 to 2009.

Under Nikias’ leadership, the University saw its admission rate fall to a historic low of 12.9 percent this past year.

During his tenure, Nikias led a historic fundraising campaign raising more than $6 billion in less than six and a half years, 18 months ahead of schedule. The campaign has led USC to rank among the top three universities for fundraising, along with Stanford University and Harvard University.

Nikias also oversaw major developments at the University, including the construction of USC Village and Wallis Annenberg Hall, and created two new schools at the University: the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance and the Iovine and Young Academy.

In his statement, Caruso said that the Board of Trustees will work to ensure that the USC community can move forward.

“We will work with faculty, staff, student leadership, and alumni, and our focus remains on offering support and counseling to those impacted, investigating what happened, and listening to and healing our community,” Caruso said in his statement.

Kate Sequeira and Allen Pham contributed to this report.