Federal investigation says USC ‘failed’ its students in its handling of Tyndall scandal

USC is expected to make sweeping changes following a U.S. Department of Education investigation into the University’s Title IX procedures, which revealed that USC failed to protect students from sexual abuse and misconduct by former campus gynecologist George Tyndall, the department announced Thursday. 

The Office for Civil Rights, a sub-agency of the Department of Education, is ordering the University to restructure its Title IX procedures by conducting a formal review into previous and current employees to gauge if they properly responded to sexual misconduct complaints. The office will also monitor the University, which signed an agreement complying with the reforms, for three years to ensure compliance, according to documents.

“What we have found at USC is shocking and reprehensible,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus said in a press release from the Department of Education. “No student should ever have to face the disgusting behavior that USC students had to deal with. I am pleased that President [Carol] Folt is now committing to major changes, and we will closely monitor the University to make sure that it complies with our agreement.”

The investigation, which began in May 2018, was opened after a Los Angeles Times investigation brought to light hundreds of accusations of sexual misconduct against Tyndall. Since then, Tyndall has been accused by more than 600 women of performing improper pelvic and breast exams, making inappropriate comments during exams and photographing women’s genitals.

“We share OCR’s mission to foster a campus environment free from discrimination and harassment. There is no higher priority for me than protecting the health, safety and well-being of our students, faculty, staff and patients,” Folt said in a USC news release. “I will continue to work diligently to restore trust in this institution and build a strong foundation of integrity and accountability. By signing this agreement, we are confirming our commitment to work in partnership with OCR to further a culture and climate where students, faculty and staff can learn, work and thrive.” 

USC will have to provide a plan to restructure its Title IX procedures and improve its record keeping by April.

During the 21-month investigation, the OCR found that USC lacks a recordkeeping system to effectively keep track of multiple complaints against one employee and said the current system has failed to ensure accountability when reporting and responding to Title IX cases, particularly with those involving Tyndall. In addition, the OCR report raised the concern that the Office of General Counsel had possibly undermined the independence of one of the Title IX coordinators by going beyond its advisory role.  

According to a letter sent to Folt from the OCR, the Office of Equity and Diversity, which oversees Title IX, failed to conduct Title IX-compliant investigations into cases involving Tyndall. The Department of Education’s investigation found that the University failed to respond appropriately and in a timely manner to allegations of sexual harassment, citing three instances in which Tyndall’s patients reported his abuse to the OED and the office did not launch Title IX investigations. The University also failed to provide a notice of outcome to five patients, along with not investigating two cases of digital penetration without the patients’ consent, according to the letter.

“Since at least 2000, the University had notice of possible sex discrimination in the form of sexual harassment by Employee 1 [Tyndall] of patients and systemically failed at multiple points in time and at multiple levels of responsibility to respond promptly and effectively to notice of the alleged misconduct during gynecological examinations; its failure may have allowed female students to be subjected to such discrimination for more than a decade,” the letter stated.

In a press release about the resolution, United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called USC’s systemic failure “heartbreaking” and “inexcusable.”

“Too many at USC turned a blind eye to evidence that Dr. Tyndall was preying on students for years,” DeVos said. “We are grateful to every survivor who came forward to share their story with our OCR investigators. Because of your bravery, we can now work with the University to ensure this never happens to another student on USC’s campus.”

The University has not provided all of the documents requested by the OCR. According to the OCR, the University has withheld 3,638 emails and documents from investigators, stating that the documents are confidential attorney-client communications.

John Manly, who represents 234 women in lawsuits alleging abuse by Tyndall, said the manner in which DeVos denounced the University’s procedures shows that this must be taken seriously, especially considering her track record with Title IX. Devos altered Title IX guidelines in 2018 to give those accused of sexual misconduct more rights during the investigation process. 

“We have a federal agency actually run by somebody who’s got a terrible reputation with Title IX saying, ‘This is as bad as it gets,’” Manly said. “Maybe it’s time to stand up and take notice.”

Manly said he believes that despite this step toward accountability, the University still has a long way to go to remedy its management of the complaints against Tyndall. He said the Board of Trustees should resign for its failure to address the alleged abuse. 

“[Board chairman Rick] Caruso has a lot to answer for, as does the rest of the Board,” Manly said. “They’ve decimated the University’s reputation. They’ve allowed hundreds if not thousands of women to be subject to abuse.” 

Former President C. L. Max Nikias resigned in May 2018 due to pressure from Concerned Faculty of USC, which was angered at his mishandling of various scandals, including Tyndall’s sexual misconduct and former Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito’s partying with prostitutes and usage of drugs while seeing patients.

“Remember, Rick Caruso promised an independent investigation of Tyndall that was supposed to be disclosed a year ago, and they’ve decided to keep it secret,” Manly said. “This is not something you can fix with a policy. You need a change of culture, and you need to change the personnel at the top.”

Manly also said he thinks all Title IX Office employees should be fired for their participation in covering up the alleged abuse by Tyndall. 

This is not the first time the OCR has investigated USC’s compliance with Title IX. The office investigated the University’s adoption and execution of Title IX procedures for student complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence from 2010 to 2016 as well as its response to complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence made from 2010 to 2015 for the five individual complainants, according to the letter. The OCR is currently monitoring the 2018 agreement.

Shaylee Navarro, Raymond Rapada and Sarah Yaacoub contributed to this report.