The USC community responded with mixed reactions to Interim President Wanda Austin’s decision last week to terminate Marshall School of Business Dean James Ellis in June 2019, three years before the official end of his term.
On Friday afternoon, a crowd of nearly 150 students, faculty, staff and alumni gathered at Tommy Trojan to protest the decision, chanting “Keep Ellis” and wearing “I Stand with Dean Ellis” shirts provided by the USC Marshall Alumni Association.
In an email to Marshall faculty on Dec. 3, Ellis said the decision was reached from a cumulative record of complaints against Marshall faculty and staff reported to the Office of Equity and Diversity since 2009.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Ellis, a tenured professor, will remain a Marshall faculty member and that the University will pay out the remaining three years of his contract. Ellis received an annual salary of $636,000, according to the Times.
Currently, a petition on Change.org directed to Austin and Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso has garnered over 1,950 signatures by time of publication. Marshall’s Board of Leaders, a group of more than 100 prominent senior-level executives, has also penned a letter urging trustees to rescind Austin’s decision, according to the Times report.
Lloyd Greif, benefactor of the USC Marshall Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, started the rally, criticizing administrators for their lack of transparency and urged the University to publicly release reports that led to Ellis’ termination.
“This is about Dean Ellis, and more importantly this is about transparency, due process [and] shared governance,” Greif said at the rally. “This is about a university that has gone backwards in a new administration instead of forwards … This is their first definitive action. I can tell you based on knowing this man and based on the fact that nobody has provided us any information that would justify his departure this is a bad start.”
In a statement to the Daily Trojan, Austin said that the decision was reached in partnership with the University’s Office of Professionalism and Ethics, which was launched in September.
“The commitment we made to our University community to improve our campus culture sometimes requires us to make difficult decisions,” Austin wrote. “We understand that there will be those who disagree, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t the right decision to move the university forward.”
Former USC Marshall Partners Chairman Heather Kline said that University administrators should have disclosed the charges made against Ellis before making any decision to terminate him.
“The reason that we assembled here today is we are calling for due process, and we are calling for shared governance,” Kline said. “We do not understand why this happened, we do not understand how it happened and with due process, we should be able to evaluate the evidence. Jim and his family should be owed all of the evidence.”
Kline, also a Marshall alumna, served as the first female leader of Marshall’s fundraising society from 2015 to 2017. Kline said she met Ellis at a Marshall Partners event nine years ago, and Ellis supported her when she was nominated to serve as chairman.
Joshua Ogundu, who graduated from Marshall in 2018, said he does not believe the charges needed to be released to the public before a decision was made. He did not attend the rally, since he said he trusts the Board of Trustees and Austin to make the right decision to improve the school’s leadership.
“I don’t believe he is being asked to step down for small transgressions,” Ogundu said. “There has to be a pattern of things that have happened over time that he may have mishandled, maybe not known about and should have had more oversight over.”
As a student, Ogundu said he had professors who made “racially charged” jokes in class, and he believes many people who attended the rally focused more on the school’s rankings and prestige than the students’ needs.
“Whoever comes in as our next dean should care about rankings and prestige and also care about having oversight needed when it comes to the racial or gender or sexual harassment types of situations,” Ogundu said. “We need oversight over all of the student experience and not just the experiences that are outward facing.”
Greg Autry, an associate professor at the Lloyd Greif Center, called out the University’s “guilty until proven innocent” process when dealing with internal matters.
“This process problem has been beyond just Dean Ellis,” Autry said. “I can tell you I have seen the exact same process occur with student organizations that I’ve been an adviser for and with the fraternity my son is in … And that is unacceptable.”
Dean James Ellis declined to comment.