A tale of two USCs: the good, the bad and the ugly of Nikias’ reign

Among the Trojans · Former President C. L. Max Nikias’ presence at the University will endures as he assumes the role of President Emeritus and Life Trustee. (Daily Trojan file photo)

During his inaugural address in 2010, C. L. Max Nikias made a bold promise to USC: “My own commitment to you is to run the next marathon at a sprinter’s pace.” These words marked the beginning of a rocky eight-year presidential run — one defined by astronomical growth and plagued by scandal.

Nikias agreed to resign in May 2018 after faculty, students and alumni circulating various petitions demanding he be ousted from his corner office in Bovard Administration Building. The petitions largely began after sexual abuse allegations against former Engemann Student Health Center gynecologist George Tyndall surfaced in a Los Angeles Times report. This marked the end of a year in which Nikias’ presidency withstood and eventually fell to unprecedented outrage.

“President Nikias gave up many years of service to the University,” Gould School of Law professor Ariela Gross said. “[His resignation] is currently not about his personal qualities or his personal culpabilities. This is about a great leader taking responsibility for the things that happened on his watch.”


The final stumble in Nikias’ race

Tyndall, who worked at the health center for nearly 30 years, is accused of inappropriately touching patients during pelvic examinations, among other allegations of misconduct. The Times reported that said allegations dated as far back as the 1990s and continued until he was quietly removed in 2017. Since the report surfaced, more than 500 women have come forward with allegations against the doctor, many filing lawsuits against the University and doctor with renowned lawyers blaming USC for ignoring and downplaying Tyndall’s alleged actions.

Several hours before the initial Times report was published, Nikias sent a three-page letter to the community, but divulged no plans regarding his upcoming resignation. He stated that the University “should have made this report eight months earlier when [Tyndall] separated from the University,” but that his administration was “finalizing a comprehensive action plan in which the entire university community will work together to build a foundation based on respect, care, and ethical behavior.”

Less than two weeks later, as national headlines were inundated with hundreds more allegations and demands for University accountability, Nikias agreed to resign.

In many ways, the Tyndall report was the last nail in Nikias’ coffin, but it was far from the first time his moral authority to lead was questioned.

In July 2017, the Times released a bombshell report exposing former Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito’s illicit drug use and double life.  

“One individual and his actions, in no way, reflect our core values, nor define who we are as a university,” Nikias wrote in a letter to the community following the Times investigation on Puliafito, who Nikias said had multiple behavioral complaints against him during his deanship.

Three months later, Puliafito’s successor Rohit Varma also resigned after the Times discovered  USC had quietly reached a settlement deal with a student researcher who accused the then-professor of sexual harassment. Varma served as dean for less than a year.

He was the first of three high-profile USC employees to either leave their posts or go on administrative leave for sexual abuse allegations over the span of the next month. The other two were Erick Guerrero, a professor at the School of Social Work, and David Carrera, the University’s vice president of fundraising.

“We do not tolerate behavior that violates our strict policy and take appropriate disciplinary action when it does,” Gretchen Dahlinger Means, the executive director of the Office of Equity and Diversity, told the Daily Trojan last October.

The scandals also bled from academics to athletics when former men’s basketball assistant coach Tony Bland was indicted by federal authorities on fraud and corruption charges in a scandal involving bribes offered to student-athletes.

“We are still learning the facts of this matter, but these allegations, if true, are profoundly upsetting to me,” Pac-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement in September.

Breaking ground · Nikias poses at the USC Village groundbreaking ceremony with Los Angeles elected officials and former USG president Andrew Menard (far right). (Daily Trojan file photo)

The legacy he hoped to leave behind

One of the last triumphs of Nikias’ presidency was the opening of USC Village in August 2017. Its opening marked the beginning of his final year as president, a period characterized by soaring achievements and critical lows.

Puliafito’s legacy continued to loom over Trojans as they arrived on campus and witnessed the ribbon-cutting in a ceremony the L.A. Times described as “Disneyland meets Hogwarts.”

The $700-million complex became the largest redevelopment project in South L.A., providing additional housing for over 2,500 students and mixed-use spaces for the surrounding community.  

“We built this village to show our enduring commitment to our exceptional students and our beloved neighbors,” he said at the village’s opening ceremony.

USC Village was a byproduct of the “sprinter’s race” mentality Nikias had when he set a goal in 2011 to raise $6 billion for the University by 2019. The feat was daunting — it had never been done at USC, and had only been achieved by a handful of the most prestigious universities — but he reached it. Eighteen months ahead of schedule.

Upon the fulfillment of Nikias’ fundraising goal — perhaps at the pinnacle of his presidency — the Daily Trojan profiled Nikias and dubbed him the “Six Billion Dollar Man.”

Before then, the University saw the additions of two new programs: the Iovine and Young Academy, funded by music moguls Jimmy Iovine and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, and the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, both of which have reached prominence since their respective establishments.

“When you look across the landscape of USC’s history, you can point to a handful of milestones that have transformed our entire academic community,” Nikias told reporters when Iovine and Young pledged $70 million to start the academy in 2013. “Today we mark the beginning of something revolutionary.”

The University broke ground for the Academy last year, while the Kaufman school’s new building opened in 2016.

Nikias’ tenure also saw the opening of several new buildings, including the Ronald Tutor Campus Center in 2010, Wallis Annenberg Hall in 2014 and Michelson Hall in 2017. Michelson Hall, an expansive biotech center, is currently the largest building on campus, taking up 190,000 square feet of the University Park Campus.

“The greatest advances in human history occur not merely when the sciences collaborate, but when they converge on a particular problem with strategy and purpose,” Nikias said at Michelson Hall’s groundbreaking in 2014.

The new structures exemplify Nikias’ doctrine: to strive for collaboration and innovation.


A lifelong membership to the Trojan Family elite 

While Nikias’ presidency has come to an end, his involvement on campus has not. He has stepped into the role of President Emeritus and Life Trustee of the University, and still enjoys respect from members of the community who value his educational and fundraising capabilities.

His position as Life Trustee does not give him voting power at board meetings, but he “may attend meetings of the Board and its Committees and participate in discussions,” according to University bylaws.

Although his presidency was marred by a flurry of scandals, not everyone believes Nikias should fully disengage with USC.

“I have been pretty frank and straightforward saying it’s time for the president to step down, but he’s a tenured professor at this university,” professor William Tierney wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “He’s certainly welcomed to stay at the university and continue his research and I hope teaching. He’s a wonderful teacher.”

Nikias will retain limited power in the administration as the school year commences. As former trustee Wanda Austin gets acclimated to her role as the University’s interim president, Nikias will assist her transition as well as that of the president after her.

“Dr. Nikias has tremendous experience with the people we do business with, and I think that the new president would be at a tremendous disadvantage if he or she didn’t have access to our previous president,” Austin said in an interview with the Daily Trojan.

His continued involvement with the University is not unusual for past presidents; former president Steven B. Sample also assumed an advisory role after his presidency. Austin says Nikias, like others before him, has earned a sabbatical, which would be a “natural and important” step for a refresh.

“He has an excellent reputation as an engineer, a scientist, a philosopher,” Austin said. “Why wouldn’t you want your students to be able to have access to someone like that and for him to bring that wealth of talent to this campus?”

In the end, the “Six Billion Dollar Man” will be back doing what he does best: fundraising.

Eileen Toh contributed to this report.