Correcting course: A look back on Interim President Wanda Austin’s tenure

Parting president | Since being appointed interim president by the Board of Trustees in August 2018, Wanda Austin has left her mark on USC during its most turbulent year yet. (Tucker Judkins/Daily Trojan)

Wanda Austin doesn’t like to sleep in. Every morning by 7:15 a.m. at the latest, USC’s interim president is at her desk in Bovard Auditorium conducting meetings or reading papers. Dennis Cornell, her chief of staff, has received texts from her as early as 3:12 in the morning.

“She is definitely a morning person,” Cornell said. “I don’t think she requires a lot of sleep.”

That’s probably for the best, considering the firestorm that Austin stepped into when she assumed the interim presidency. As she prepares to pass on her title to President-elect Carol Folt on July 1, Austin firmly believes the University has corrected course under her leadership — demonstrating “concern and compassion” to counteract two years’ worth of scandals and cover-ups. And she’s proud of her decision to take the reins at a time of turmoil, despite the controversies that have erupted during her tenure.

“I see people excited about the opportunities that they get because they’re at the University of Southern California,” Austin said. “I feel really rewarded that my efforts to ensure the University continues in a positive way enables them to focus on doing the great things they want to do.”

But 12 days after the Daily Trojan sat down with Austin for an extensive interview about her time as interim president thus far, news of USC’s involvement in a nationwide college admissions scandal broke, adding to the lexicon of controversies that have roiled the University in the past two years. Eight days later, Folt was announced as the 12th president in USC’s history, ensuring that Austin — who had no interest in the permanent position — has an end date to her brief but hectic term.

Under her leadership, Austin has not hesitated to make important decisions, from a $215 million settlement with the victims of former health center gynecologist George Tyndall to the ouster of Marshall School of Business Dean James Ellis. Hours after the news of the admissions scandal broke, she swiftly fired a senior associate athletic director and a highly-decorated water polo coach, both of whom were indicted in the case.

“In her own sort of quiet, soft way, she’s a disruptor,” Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso said. “She has a very clear-eyed view of what needs to be done, and she’s accomplished it.”

Becoming president

Austin, 64, was born in the Bronx, a “barber’s daughter” who displayed an affinity for math early on. She remembers a pivotal moment in junior high school when a teacher encouraged her to pursue her passion despite what others may think.

“Usually girls are told, if you’re too smart, boys won’t be interested,” Austin said. “That wasn’t an issue for me.”

Austin carried that message with her through college — she received a doctorate in systems engineering from USC in 1988 — and into her career as an engineer and eventually CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, a major national security contractor. She joined USC’s Board of Trustees in 2010 and became the first woman and first person of color to lead the University last May, following former president C. L. Max Nikias’ resignation — an event she said inspired a “roller coaster” of emotions.

“The foundational emotion was just pride and honor, and then the secondary reality is, this is a really big job,” Austin said, laughing. “This is a very big job.”

As a former CEO, Austin is used to putting out fires. She felt her focus on ethical leadership was what USC needed at that time, after a Los Angeles Times investigation first reported accusations that a campus gynecologist had abused students for decades. Coupled with Nikias’ refusal to speak to the Times during its investigation and USC’s intent focus on fundraising under his leadership, there was a sense that the University needed to recalibrate its values.

“We were in a state of change, and we did not have a succession candidate for the presidency at the time when we decided that we needed to make a change,” Austin said. “I felt that I could offer to serve in that capacity.”

It’s still unclear how much Nikias knew about former Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito’s alleged drug use on campus or Tyndall’s alleged decades-long sexual abuse of students. But repeated scandals, from an FBI sting operation that charged former USC assistant basketball coach Tony Bland with bribery to revelations that Puliafito’s replacement had previously faced accusations of sexual harassment have tested the University’s commitment to transparency.

Austin has worked to change this trajectory. In one of her first moves as president, she created the Office of Professionalism and Ethics to streamline complaint monitoring and investigation. She followed up by establishing the President’s Campus Culture Commission, a group of administrative, faculty and student leaders working to “raise awareness of our collective values.”

“I think it’s really important that everybody in our community recognizes that if there is an issue they’re concerned about in our community, we want to hear about it,” Austin said. “We want to investigate and follow up.”

Her other major initiative, the USC Office of the Ombuds, was created to offer students a centralized place to go if they wanted to report an issue with a faculty or staff member — a direct response to revelations that students’ and nurses’ numerous reports of Tyndall’s allegedly inappropriate behavior were buried in the chain of command. But more than providing a practical resource, the office aims to send a message that USC is open and willing to listen.

“People are coming through a number of crises that have shaken their confidence in the school, left them uncertain about the future,” said Thomas Kosakowski, USC’s ombudsman for the Health Sciences Campus. “One of our big jobs is to help empower people by explaining their options by coaching them to be effective advocates for themselves so that these issues don’t stay stuck in a corner — they can be brought out into the light.”

Transparency & accountability

Austin’s commitment to transparency was tested in December, when she made the decision to end Ellis’ term starting in June 2019. A number of complaints against the school were received by the USC Office of Equity and Diversity, Austin wrote in a letter at the time, that led her to believe a change of leadership was necessary. But she has never publicly explained what those complaints were and declined to do so in an interview.

The decision drew criticism from numerous trustees as well as faculty, alumni and students. Hundreds of Ellis’ supporters protested on campus and donors threatened to withdraw their contributions, while critics claimed that Austin shouldn’t have the authority to make drastic employment decisions in her interim position.

But for Austin, there was never any question about what she had to do. Cornell explained that she saw part of her role as clearing the way for the next president of USC by dealing with the major issues on the table to ensure a smooth path forward.

“It’s not a holding-place presidency,” Cornell said. “It’s very active.”

Austin said that some misinterpreted the title of “interim” president to imply a more limited role. In her view, she is very much a legitimate leader.

“I am the president until the new, permanent president shows up,“ Austin said. “I think [future presidents] would look with dismay if they had a president who sat and did not move the ball forward on issues that needed to be addressed.”

Austin said she consulted with advisors before making the decision to oust Ellis as dean, but that ultimately, it was hers to make alone.  

“Personnel decisions [are] not done by popular vote,” Austin said. “This is not something that you bring out and solicit input from people publicly.”

Caruso led the Board of Trustees’ move to support Austin’s decision and said he saw Ellis’ ouster as an example of her willingness to put the University’s interests above her own.

“She made a decision and she was personally attacked for it. She knew that was coming, but she also knew she was doing the right thing,” Caruso said. “It’s a very rare quality in the world today to take the right position for all the right reasons, and make the decision knowing that you’ll be criticized for it.”

Austin took a similarly firm stance earlier this month after federal investigators charged a senior USC athletics administrator and four current or former coaches with accepting millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for admitting dozens of students under the guise of athletic recruitment. She announced that USC would deny admission to incoming freshman students who were connected to the scheme, hire an outside law firm to conduct a full review of the scandal and consider revoking the degrees of students who were admitted through fraudulent means.

Caruso said that before Austin’s tenure, there was “very little accountability” for the actions of USC employees. But her decision to fire senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic sent a strong message that the culture at USC had changed — from one of passivity to one of “transparency and accountability.”

“They were immediately terminated because we had concrete evidence that they violated our trust and abused the admissions process, which undermines our academic integrity,” Austin said in an interview with the Daily Trojan last week. “I was disappointed to find that part of our senior leadership and people we put in positions of trust made unfortunate decisions to serve themselves.”

Dealing with the fallout of the scandal, which has made national headlines, is the latest test that her administration has faced. And Caruso is glad that Austin is the one pushing the buttons.  

“There was quick and decisive action on her part to terminate people who were involved,” Caruso said. “I believe that had Wanda not been there, and there hadn’t been a change in that type of culture … it would have been swept under the rug. Those days are gone.”

But her intentions were questioned again when Austin sent an email to the USC community describing the University as a “victim” in the scheme, sparking outrage over what many saw as a further denial of responsibility by the administration. Austin said the phrasing was meant to clarify that in legal terms, USC had been defrauded.

When asked if University leadership should have been aware of the illicit scheme, Austin said she seeks to trust employees, but must verify that their actions are appropriate — and that did not happen.

“We are accountable for the actions of our employees,” Austin said. “Clearly, we did not detect that something was not being handled properly. We will work to make the corrections that are necessary to make sure that will never happen again.”

Passing on the torch

Last October, USC took its first step in addressing Tyndall, the former Engemann Student Health Center gynecologist who allegedly sexually abused patients over the course of nearly 30 years, by announcing a $215 million settlement with his former patients.

Though critics called it premature and some former patients told the Daily Trojan they would not participate in the settlement, Austin claimed the payout will provide closure to Tyndall’s victims.

“It gives people an opportunity to be validated and to be able to say, ‘OK, I was harmed,’ and do that with privacy and respect, without having to relive the specifics or details, or to have to publicly discuss it,” Austin said.

The settlement was one of Austin’s first major decisions as president in an attempt to mend USC’s culture. But in February, USC was hit with another lawsuit — this time from six former students, all gay or bisexual men, who alleged that men’s health doctor Dennis Kelly sexually abused them during their time at USC. The total number of plaintiffs grew to 21 in March, but USC has not released a statement addressing Kelly, who resigned from the University in August 2018.

Austin’s commitment to openness has been championed, though, by those who have worked with her. Austin’s supporters say she’s ushered in a new era of collaboration and is more willing to listen to the advice of those around her than previous presidents.

“She takes in all the input and makes a decision based on the facts,” Caruso said. “She knows she doesn’t have all the answers, but she knows where to find them.”

Cornell described Austin’s first cabinet meeting as emblematic of the radical shift that had taken place at the management level. She instructed her senior officers to come prepared with problems that the leadership should discuss as a unit — but also, Cornell said, to propose three solutions for every problem. This “shared governance” approach is important to Austin, who said she has made it a priority since she stepped into this role to “listen first.”

“One of the nice things about being in an academic community is that you have different voices that can be heard,” Austin said. “I’ve always been one that felt that you can disagree without being disagreeable.”

As Austin prepares to leave office — she is working out a presidential transition before reclaiming her place on the Board of Trustees — she feels the steps taken under her leadership have helped chart a more ethical course for USC’s future. But she has no illusions that the process of change is over. As the recent admissions scandal demonstrated, the lack of accountability that’s built up over decades will have a far-reaching fallout that is difficult to combat.

“You’d like to be able to hit the ‘easy’ button and declare it done,” Austin said. “This is going to be an effort that goes on for quite some time, long after I’m no longer here.”