Social work school’s financial issues reflect larger problems with Nikias administration

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

The Dworak-Peck School of Social Work was the subject of a Los Angeles Times story last week that uncovered major financial issues at the school that may cause the school to lay off almost half of its staff.

The budgetary concerns arose during the tenure of former dean Marilyn Flynn, who stepped down last year as another alleged bribery scheme at USC was being uncovered: a $100,000 donation made to a nonprofit controlled by a local politician’s son through the social work school.

While the school’s budget issue might seem unrelated to the host of other sexual assault, bribery and misconduct cases the University is facing, it’s reflective of the administrative culture cultivated under former USC President C. L. Max Nikias and Provost Michael Quick that allowed for such issues to go unchecked.

After Nikias stepped down as president, the Times reported in a profile of him that his tenure marked a shift in how administrative decisions were made. He and Quick increased the responsibility of deans and faculty in their individual units within the University, creating a “federated system” that allowed for little limits on the self-governance of every school and department within USC.

The Times’ recent report said that after Flynn’s departure, University officials discovered the Dworak-Peck school had been losing money for years, and that it had lowered admissions standards in an attempt to create more tuition revenue.  

But University officials shouldn’t have found this out after the former dean left. They should’ve known about these issues from their start. They should’ve seen the warning signs — a budget that was dipping into reserve accounts to keep the school afloat and a national ranking that dropped from No. 12 to No. 25 in just two years, according to the U.S. News and World Report.

It’s easy for USC to blame these issues on Flynn — already having been ousted from the University, she’s the natural scapegoat. But the real blame lies in the “federated system.” With little oversight, Nikias and Quick didn’t care to ensure that Flynn was running her school properly. Administrators at USC often claim that they had no knowledge of the many alleged scandals the University has faced, but in reality, they chose not to know.

It seems ironic, because a University administration’s job, first and foremost, should be to ensure its schools are running smoothly — to ensure that students are provided a valuable learning experience at USC. In creating their “federated system,” Nikias and Quick shirked one of their most important responsibilities.

So, it comes as no surprise that Dworak-Peck, the Keck School of Medicine, the Roski School of Art and Design and USC Admission (among other University departments) all saw unchecked misconduct or structural issues during Nikias’ administration.

2019, however, marks the start of a new era for USC. Nikias, Quick, Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry and a number of other Nikias-era administrators have left or are leaving the University. President-elect Carol Folt is set to lead the University when she officially starts on July 1, and her administration will include new positions such as a vice president for human resources and a chief communications officer.

The University’s newest leaders all come from outside of USC — they have a chance to bring a new perspective to the University and upend the floundering administrative culture Nikias built.

Folt must recognize that as president, she not only has to clean up the messes Nikias made, but also establish a system of oversight that will ensure issues like those at the Dworak-Peck school don’t continue to haunt the University. Folt’s new administration must take a hands-on approach to leading USC. By taking on a more involved role, Folt can restore the University’s reputation and re-establish credibility among disillusioned students, faculty and alumni.

USC is in a state of disarray because of Nikias. If Folt truly wants to change that, she must learn from and correct his errors — and that ultimately means serving USC’s students and faculty first.