Board of Trustees expresses support for decision to terminate Marshall dean

USC Marshall faculty, students and alumni gathered at Tommy Trojan on Wednesday morning for another protest against the termination of Marshall Dean James Ellis. (Photo courtesy of Greg Autry)

The USC Board of Trustees announced its support of the decision to terminate Marshall School of Business Dean James Ellis after a three-hour board meeting Wednesday. The meeting followed after protests from students, faculty, staff and alumni who said Ellis’ term was wrongfully cut short.

“Following previous board discussions in October and November, today Interim President Wanda Austin presented to the executive committee and to the full Board of Trustees the facts in the matter involving USC Marshall School of Business Dean Jim Ellis,” the Board of Trustees wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan.

Nearly 30 students, faculty, staff and alumni gathered outside Bovard Auditorium to protest Austin’s decision before the board meeting. Protestors wore “I Stand with Dean Ellis” shirts and held “I Love Dean Ellis” signs.

Thomas Papa, former president of the Marshall Alumni Association, attended the rally and said he hopes that the Board of Trustees will disclose more information regarding the grounds for Ellis’ termination to the public.

“It’s hard to understand why the decision by the interim president was made,” Papa said. “I hope that’s the first thing that comes out — that we get some facts. Secondly, [I hope] that there is a way forward to keep Ellis as the dean of the business school until sometime when he wants to step down voluntarily.”

Ellis announced in an email to the USC community last week that he would step down in June 2019. He said administration reached the decision from records of complaints against Marshall faculty and staff from the Office of Equity and Diversity.

“This is surprising and disappointing,” said Skip Miller, an attorney representing Ellis. “There’s never been any hint that Jim Ellis personally did anything wrong, and he hasn’t. In fact, he’s responsible for putting the Marshall school on the map.”

This is the USC community’s second rally calling for greater University transparency and due process regarding the decision to terminate Ellis in June 2019, three years before the end of his contracted term.

Currently, a petition on directed to Austin and Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso has garnered over 2,830 signatures by the time of publication.

Lloyd Greif, benefactor of the USC Marshall Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, said the second rally was intended to grab the attention of the Board of Trustees and ask for their support before they heard Austin’s reasoning behind the decision.

“The only difference [at] the rally today [was] as trustees walked by, we tried to get their attention and talk to them to try and let them know that [Ellis] is a good dean and he should stay,” Greif said. “On Friday, there were no trustees around. That was more about the administration.”

Greif said that by approving Austin’s decision, the Board of Trustees demonstrated a lack of transparency, shared governance and due process.

“It’s a sad day for USC,” Greif said. “I think transparency, due process and shared governance died in the boardroom today at USC. For them to support the decision made by the interim president to remove this dean when that decision was criticized by the academic senate for lack of transparency and a lack of shared governance, they just rubber-stamped that lack of transparency [and] lack of shared governance.”

Sonny Astani, benefactor of the USC Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Viterbi School of Engineering, criticized the lack of due process regarding the University’s handling of Ellis’ firing in a letter he wrote to the USC community.

“All of us in the USC community who are concerned about the treatment of Dean Ellis have no choice but to demand a full accounting of how the Dean’s dismissal was judged and adjudicated,” Astani wrote. “If the Dean’s ‘punishment’ does indeed fit his ‘crime,’ so be it. If the Dean broke the rules, so be it. Let the rules of our university speak loud and clearly. But if Dean Ellis was terminated on account of rules that were suddenly created on the spot, this should be revealed.”

Astani also expressed concern over some of the members on the Board of Trustees, who he believes are straying away from University values.

“Being on USC’s Board of Trustees is not a license to use the Board for a platform of political gain outside the University … Great Board of Trustees are known for their focus on the universities they serve,” Astani wrote. “It is time for the Board to serve the University and to fully disclose the process that led to Dean Ellis’s dismissal. If the standard of evidence is lacking, Dean Ellis’s termination must be rescinded, immediately.”

Greg Autry, assistant clinical professor at the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, said he fears that the Marshall school could be negatively affected if the Board of Trustees does not release more information on Ellis’ termination and the charges against him.

“We would expect that they would have had to frankly put up or shut up,” Autry said. “They should have to show the evidence of why this decision was made or I think they might’ve had to find a compromise. If they don’t do that, if they continue to force [this on] the Marshall school with no explanation… I’m very concerned about what it will do with alumni, donors and faculty morale.”

However, some members of the USC community agree with the Board’s decision in light of the OED complaints the Marshall school received.

“I hope the Board’s concurrence with Dr. Austin renews the campus’ resolve to promote accountability and foster a proactive campus culture,” said Alec Vandenberg, a junior majoring in public policy.

Edward Mack, a junior majoring in international relations, said the arguments questioning Austin’s authority as interim president are unfounded.

“Some argue that because she’s only an Interim President, she does not have the authority to take an action such as this one,” Mack said. “I say this is ridiculous: if that goes beyond her authority, then her title should be changed from ‘Interim President’ to ‘Figurehead,’ as that’s essentially what her role becomes.”

Mack said it is Austin’s obligation to execute these decisions during her term, even though her position is temporary.

“The responsibility of an Interim President isn’t to sit by and do nothing, particularly at a time in which the University has been rocked by scandal after scandal,” Mack said. “President Austin was brought in as a direct response to the growing number and depth of these scandals … Serious and fundamental change was and is necessary to achieve this goal, but it is imperative that we do not shy away when these changes might be painful.”