OPINION: Defenses of Marshall dean ignore inclusivity issues

Last month, the USC Board of Trustees voted in support of Interim President Wanda Austin’s termination of Marshall School of Business Dean James Ellis, prompting several University alumni and the USC Marshall Board of Leaders to pen strongly-worded letters criticizing Austin’s decision. These pieces are the latest additions to an outpouring of public disapproval from hundreds of Marshall community members since Ellis announced his removal in December. In their rush to defend Ellis, however, his supporters risked overlooking a key issue: whether or not his actions perpetuated a culture of exclusion at the Marshall school.

The vast majority of the letters and editorials published on the “I Stand With Dean Ellis” website focus on Austin’s lack of transparency and the strength of Ellis’ character. These are reasonable emphases, as justifying the removal of a high-ranking University official requires indisputable evidence of wrongdoing. Their consideration of Ellis’ contributions to diversity and inclusion at Marshall, however, remains surface-level, with only a handful of letters even mentioning them. Within these few, concrete evidence for Ellis’ work centered on  diversity and inclusion efforts were lacking.

This omission of discernible evidence fails to address the official rationale behind Ellis’ removal, which is based on his character flaws but on his alleged mismanagement of complaints to the Office of Equity and Diversity. While transparency remains an important issue, Ellis’ supporters ought to remember that the purpose of University administration engaging in open communication is to reveal the extent to which Ellis’ actions promoted racial and gender equality at Marshall.

Given that the administration’s ostensible motive behind firing Ellis was advancing equity, Ellis’ supporters should examine how -— and if — his leadership fostered a culture of inclusivity at Marshall. In the long run, Ellis’ removal could potentially negatively impact minority students. Therefore, appraising Ellis’ contributions to Marshall’s diversity must be the administration’s first priority.

The few responses that argue Ellis was the solution to Marshall’s equity problem generally resort to listing diversity statistics, such as the Marshall student body’s relatively high representation of minorities, the incoming MBA class’ achievement of gender parity and the majority-women composition of Ellis’ board. They often cite the Bloomberg Businessweek report, which ranks Marshall as the 13th best business school in the U.S. in 2018, which found that a strong majority of women, racial minorities and other underrepresented groups rated the climate at Marshall as “extremely positive.”

While facts and figures serve as valuable tools to gauge an institution’s ability to serve its students’ needs, they are by no means an all-encompassing representation of student experiences. Vague rankings such as “extremely positive” are inherently incapable of conveying the everyday slights and insults that a minority student may face. The Daily Trojan previously reported that alumnus Joshua Ogundu studied under professors who “made ‘racially charged’ jokes.” It is reasonable to assume that many more stories of institutional hostility toward minorities potentially remain untold.

Ogundu’s experiences may not be representative of those of all students, but they do indicate a pattern of unacceptable conduct that Ellis had the responsibility to investigate and resolve. Marshall’s enrollment of minorities does not necessarily entail that these students feel included in campus culture, and Ellis’ supporters have the burden of proving that Ellis achieved not only diversity enrollment, but inclusion as well.

In addition, these defensive responses place diversity statistics next to national rankings instead of examining their implications on student life, framing them as simply another item on the University’s laundry list of achievements. This treatment ultimately prioritizes institutional prestige over the inclusion of marginalized students, an incredibly warped and hardly winsome framework to use in criticizing  Austin’s initiative.

As long as Ellis’ defenders continue to content themselves with surface-level examinations of Marshall’s approach to diversity and inclusion, they not only lose an opportunity to persuade Austin but also contribute to a campus discourse neglectful of the comprehensive needs of racial and gender minorities. The Marshall community must stop hiding behind statistics and start listening to the members it has systematically excluded. As long as everyone works toward building a culture of inclusion, the Trojan Family can move beyond scandals like Ellis’ downfall.