EDITORIAL BOARD: Scandal after scandal, USC fails to hold itself accountable

In recent years, it seems that USC is rocked by new revelations of a scandal or cover-up every other month. And like clockwork in the hours following the breaking news, students receive emails from University officials offering flimsy solutions and weak promises of change. It’s hardly surprising that USC is at the epicenter of a national investigation into college admissions fraud, demonstrating the indisputable need for sustained cultural reform at the University.

Last week, three former coaches, along with former senior athletics associate director Donna Heinel, were indicted in a nationwide college admissions bribery case. Wealthy parents were accused of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to athletic officials to portray their students as athletic recruits, or conspiring to boost their children’s standardized exam results by feigning learning disabilities or having other individuals sit in for tests in their child’s name.

The initial FBI investigation into the case detailed 27 instances of parents cheating or bribing their kids’ ways into college. Of those, 16 involved USC, while most other universities were involved in just one or two instances.

Sixteen instances of misconduct occurred at the top level of USC Athletics. Yet Athletic Director Lynn Swann claimed he was “blindsided” by the revelations of the investigation in a Los Angeles Times interview. Interim President Wanda Austin claimed the University was the “victim” of the scheme in an email to the USC community. Again and again, the University rolls over and acts helpless after it has turned a blind eye toward the systematic abuses of power happening under its own roof.

It’s clear that this wasn’t a small mistake that flew under the administration’s radar. This was a methodical, years-long operation that Heinel, a top administrator, was able to carry out because the University lacks meaningful checks and balances to prevent corruption at the highest levels of its administration.

Heinel allegedly accepted up to $1.3 million in bribes to admit unqualified students posing as athletic recruits. From the start of her employment at USC, it was clear that the University didn’t care to keep track of her ethical lapses: Heinel was able to advertise her own consulting business to prospective student athletes, making a profit off of a service that most college athletic departments offer for free, the Los Angeles Times reported.

USC lacks a cohesive system of oversight to ensure accountability at all levels. It’s the same reason former campus gynecologist George Tyndall was able to practice for 30 years despite the complaints made about his alleged sexual misconduct. It’s the same reason former Keck School of Medicine dean Carmen Puliafito was able to allegedly use methamphetamines on the same days he saw patients.

Scandal after scandal, USC consistently claims it isn’t at fault — even going so far as to pin itself as the victim in this most recent case — because it supposedly had no prior knowledge of these incidents. But this purported oblivion does not grant USC a clean slate just as the administration would like to have us believe. On the contrary, the University’s ignorance to egregious corruption reflects a gross, unforgivable negligence that further implicates USC for all of these scandals on its own.

Under Austin’s leadership, the University has taken steps to increase accountability at the school. This included the creation of an Office of Professionalism and Ethics, the establishment of the USC Office of Ombuds and the hiring of a new vice president of ethics and compliance.

But these changes feel cursory, and seem to place the onus on students, faculty and staff to submit complaints and serve as the watchdogs rather than actively holding University departments accountable.

At present, every department at USC seems to operate on its own accord, with little to no central regulation or accountability. Without significant structural changes, the University’s penchant for scandal will see no end.

USC should implement protocols throughout all departments to ensure that no one person or body is responsible for making major decisions — that means running such decisions through the Office of Professionalism and Ethics and the Office of the Ombuds to establish a system of checks and balances on every school, office and department at USC.

Furthermore, the University needs to conduct comprehensive internal reviews of its top employees and decision-making bodies on a regular basis, perhaps annually or every six months — from the Office of Admission to the Board of Trustees. Naming offices to uphold ethics and accountability means nothing unless the University shows students and the USC community that it is truly enforcing both the University rules and the federal and state law.

When former President C.L. Max Nikias was inaugurated in 2010, he claimed he would “run the next marathon at a sprinter’s pace.” And that’s exactly what he did — under Nikias’ leadership, the University reached its goal to raise $6 billion in just over six years and enjoyed a meteoric rise in national college rankings and prominence.

But Nikias’ tunnel vision on fundraising and improving the school’s reputation allowed a culture rife with misconduct to fester below the surface, and the University is still reeling from its consequences, nearly a year after Nikias’ resignation.

Even without Nikias at the helm, the mindset among top University administration officials and the Board of Trustees remains focused on maintaining USC’s reputation and prominence, rather than making structural changes within the University. At the end of the day, they only attempt damage control. There’s still little transparency with students and employees, and this series of scandals illustrates that the changes the University claims to have made don’t have much tangible effect.

USC is made up of more than the rich kids described in the college admissions bribery case.  We are low-income students who work multiple jobs to pay our own ways through college. We are legacies who grew up fantasizing about one day donning cardinal and gold. We are first-generation students whose parents struggle to fund the elite educations they themselves could only dream of. We are transfers who applied multiple times because we believed so strongly in the value of getting an education here. We have worked hard to get here and we have placed our trust in USC.

There are thousands of prospective students across the world just like us who are dreaming of getting into USC with wide-eyed anticipation. We were once those kids, but now, we can only look upon our University with disgust and outrage, while retaining an unwavering hope for improvement. Until USC brings about tangible changes to its mindset and culture at the top level, its students — past, present and future — cannot see it as the elite educational institution it claims to be.

Daily Trojan Spring 2019 Editorial Board