A time of crisis: Reflecting on three years of turmoil at USC

Kitty Huang | Daily Trojan

When Wanda Austin became USC’s interim president in August 2018, her goal was simple — she wanted to talk with University stakeholders to begin addressing the problems USC had faced leading up to former President C. L. Max Nikias’ resignation. 

“You have to learn,” Austin told the Daily Trojan when she started last year. “You have to take the time to get the benefit of your team, to make sure you’re engaging them so that you can make decisions that give you the best chance at a positive outcome.”

Austin took on the interim role to move the University forward after Nikias’ tumultuous reign, which was marked by unprecedented financial growth but plagued by scandals. In his final two years as president, a Los Angeles Times investigation published in July 2017 revealed that former Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito had allegedly used drugs while seeing patients. Another investigation in May 2018 had revealed decades of sexual misconduct and abuse at the hands of former campus gynecologist George Tyndall.

In its resolve to move forward, USC has faced a number of setbacks, and the national spotlight placed upon campus has only mounted pressure on a struggling administration. 

However, what initially seemed like a time of growth was severely stunted in March when news broke of the University’s involvement in the largest college admissions scandal in history.

The FBI in March released a 200-page investigation detailing a college admissions scheme that revealed that 50 celebrities, executives and officials allegedly paid large sums of money to have their children admitted to USC, Yale and Stanford, among other colleges. Of the 12 universities that were indicted, USC had the largest number of students admitted as false athletic recruits and was the only school where an athletics official was involved.

“We understand that the government believes that illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the University,” USC wrote in a statement in March. “USC is conducting an internal investigation.”

In the immediate aftermath of the report, Austin wrote to the University community that the administration would fully cooperate with law enforcement and enact immediate changes. 

“The board, all of us, are obviously very disappointed in what happened,” Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso said then. “It is incredibly unthinkable in my opinion, of what these parents did with these administrators and these coaches.”

In response to the investigation, USC terminated Senior Assistant Athletic Director Donna Heinel in March, along with water polo coach Jovan Vavic — both athletic officials who facilitated the scheme. The University also began investigating each student admitted through the scheme to determine their status. It also announced reforms for the athletic admissions process to include more oversight from coaches and other officials. 

In addition to the college admissions scheme, the University has also received criticism for how it handled the case against Tyndall, who was recently arrested and charged with 18 counts of sexual penetration of an unconscious person and 11 counts of sexual battery by fraud. 

Tyndall, who formerly worked as a gynecologist at the student health center, has been accused of sexually abusing and harassing current and former students. The Times discovered Tyndall targeted Asian and international students during health appointments and unsealed documents that showed USC had known about complaints made against Tyndall for decades. 

The Los Angeles Police Department said in June that this was the largest sex crime case they had ever seen.  Currently, there are over 700 plaintiffs suing Tyndall and USC in both state and federal court. 

In October 2018, USC agreed to a $215 million settlement that would distribute tiered compensation to all former patients, not only alleged victims, and require USC to implement a number of campus-wide reforms including an expansion of student health resources.

USC’s Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Services, which has been headed by Brenda Ingram since September, started a bystander training initiative and the Engemann Student Health Center unveiled plans for a fifth floor dedicated to mental health resources last semester.

“I am encouraged by [the] settlement filing, which takes another important step in healing our community,” Austin wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan in February. “Every affected individual is a member of the Trojan Family, and we care deeply about their well-being.”

Tyndall, however, is not the only former campus doctor to have been accused of alleged sexual assault. There is currently a growing lawsuit against the University and former campus men’s sexual health doctor Dennis Kelly, alleging that he sexually abused and targeted gay and bisexual men. The plaintiffs also allege that the University knew about Kelly’s actions and failed to act. 

The University announced it would offer free counseling services to former health center patients following the L.A. Times investigation of Tyndall and a BuzzFeed News article from August that detailed the experiences of some of Kelly’s victims. 

Now, all eyes are on newly-appointed President Carol Folt, who stepped into her role in July and inherited a University tormented by misaction. 

“I believe so deeply in what [USC] has done and what it can do,” Folt said at a March press conference announcing her presidency. “I also have learned that you take on challenges by never forgetting your bigger mission and the good things that happen. It’s that pairing that I think brings the vibrancy. If we have no challenges, it just means no one’s finding [them].”

With Folt come other new faces to the University’s administration, including USC’s first Senior Vice President for Human Resources Felicia Washington, who worked alongside Folt at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Winston Crisp, who worked as Folt’s vice chancellor at UNC, will be the vice president for student affairs. 

Other appointees include Senior Vice President for Administration David Wright and Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Glenn Osaki. 

The University also announced in July that Geoffrey Garrett will serve as the new Marshall School of Business dean following Austin’s controversial termination of former dean James Ellis. Garrett, who formerly led the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, will join USC in Fall 2020. Current Interim Dean Gareth James will serve as such until then. USC said Ellis was terminated due to a buildup of alleged discrimination complaints among students against Marshall staff. 

Folt’s time in North Carolina was also defined by how she dealt with university issues. When she took over as chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the school found itself in the national spotlight for allowing athletes to enroll in “paper classes” that kept them academically eligible to play. 

Coming into a University facing an athletic scandal, Folt told the Daily Trojan in March that she believes her previous experience, including an NCAA investigation following “paper classes” that allowed Chapel Hill athletes to remain academically eligible, will help her guide the University forward. 

“There are so many wonderful things about [athletics] that are important,” she said. “Yet, we have the same obligation [to investigate]. If we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it right. So I’ve learned a lot [from the UNC scandal].”

Looking ahead at the school year, Folt said in March that she was excited to take on her new role at USC and help point the University in the right direction.

“Sometimes when you have challenges, you are in the best position to make change,” Folt said. “I haven’t heard any voice of complacency … No one is saying, ‘Everything is perfect, don’t tell us we have to change.’”