OPINION: USC’s lack of response to Dennis Kelly harassment allegations shows it hasn’t learned from Tyndall

Three months ago, six USC alumni came forward with sexual harassment allegations against Dennis Kelly, a former medical provider at the Engemann Student Health Center. These students identify as gay or bisexual and alleged that Kelly had targeted his abuse based on their sexuality. In recent weeks, the number of plaintiffs has climbed to 50, and USC has yet to issue an apology or announce what actions will be taken. By failing to act in response to the allegations, USC proves that it hasn’t learned from its past failures involving campus sexual violence. 

Illustration by Yasmin Davis

Following the outbreak of sexual harassment allegations against former campus gynecologist George Tyndall, the University made several administrative changes with the intention of establishing more transparent, accountable leadership. They created the Office of Professionalism and Ethics, established the Office of Ethics and Compliance and hired new staff to oversee these departments.

Despite the changes, the University’s response to the Kelly lawsuit is alarmingly reminiscent of the fallout of the Tyndall case. 

USC must recognize that it is the University’s duty to mitigate the pain of the victims and mend the rift between the school and its LGBTQ community, a rift caused by its own negligence and failure to protect its students.

Reporting sexual harassment is an emotionally taxing process, and having those reports reach national headlines, as they did in the Kelly lawsuit, can make it even more difficult. According to researchers at the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, satisfaction with the reporting process is directly associated with well-being. More specifically, when victims feel that their reports are validated and addressed by authorities, they show fewer symptoms of PTSD and better overall post-harassment outcomes.

USC has failed to validate and address these reports properly, undoubtedly compounding the renewed stress that victims experience after reporting their sexual harassment. University authorities must recognize that their stalling causes further damage to the victims’ well-being, which was already jeopardized by the school’s failure to protect them.

It is possible that in these months of silence, the administration has discussed the lawsuit internally. However, by not revealing the nature of such discussions, the University is proving that it will still operate behind closed doors despite calls for transparency. For an issue with such a profound impact on the safety and wellness of the student body, especially an underrepresented group, students have the right to know the University’s planned course of action.

University leaders throw around words like “accountability” and “integrity” in much of their communications with the campus community, so the administration’s refusal to address the allegations against Kelly defies the values that USC espouses. 

In an email to the USC community following a $215 million class action settlement USC agreed to in response to lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by Tyndall, Interim President Wanda Austin promised that USC’s leaders “are listening carefully, learning from these experiences.” Despite this, it seems that testimonies from Kelly’s alleged victims and outrage from the USC community have gone unheard, and the administration has yet to learn how to respond to sexual abuse allegations.

While the President’s Office acted and communicated more promptly than it had in the past when allegations of admissions bribery emerged in March, it seems that the same diligence does not apply when it comes to sexual harassment. This is worrying, considering the prevalence of sexual abuse cases on college campuses, and it sets a disturbing precedent in how future cases of sexual misconduct will be handled.

Carol Folt’s presidency begins on July 1, ushering in a new era of leadership at USC. She, along with the current administration, must take responsibility and provide the justice that victims of Kelly’s alleged abuse deserve.