Posted: Tuesday, August 7, 2018 – 4:18 PM
USC President C.L. Max Nikias, who announced in May that he would leave his post following a series of scandals involving doctors tied to the university, officially stepped down Tuesday, but he will assume the title of president emeritus and life trustee.
Wanda Austin, a member of the USC Board of Trustees and former CEO of The Aerospace Corp., will lead the university on an interim basis while a search is conducted for a new president, according to Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso.
“The board and I are committed to an ambitious, aggressive agenda for change,” Caruso wrote in a letter to the USC community. “As I have said previously, it is evident that the recent crises have resulted from systemic and cultural failures. Both the behavior and the environment that allowed it to persist are inexcusable and will no longer be tolerated. Most importantly, we must understand exactly why these failures occurred and take bold action to reform what is broken so that they never happen again.”
Austin, a longtime member of the Board of Trustees, also serves on the Board of Directors of the Space Foundation and Chevron Corporation, and is on the Board of Trustees for the National Geographic Society.
Calls for Nikias’ departure escalated earlier this year following revelations that longtime campus gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall had been the subject of years of complaints about sexual misconduct during exams conducted at the student health center.
In the weeks since, hundreds of former students have filed lawsuits against the university.
The scandal involving Tyndall and his removal — which the university acknowledged publicly in response to a months-long investigation by the Los Angeles Times — was the third involving doctors tied to USC that came to light in the past year.
Former dean and longtime USC fundraiser Dr. Carmen Puliafito was fired by the school last August the wake of the newspaper’s report that he abused heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs, including on days he worked as an eye doctor in university facilities. The Times also reported that a 21-year- old prostitute overdosed while taking drugs with Puliafito at a Pasadena hotel and accused the university of turning a blind eye to complaints about the dean.
Puliafito’s replacement, Dr. Rohit Varma, resigned in October as the newspaper was preparing to publish a story disclosing that he had been formally disciplined by USC in 2003 following allegations that he sexually harassed a young researcher while he was a junior professor supervising her work.
Following the revelations about Tyndall, Nikias apologized in writing to women who said they were abused by the doctor. He also released an “action plan” to address problems and put better safeguards in place, while saying he was struggling to understand how the doctor was allowed to continue treating patients for decades and noted his two daughters were USC students.
But the 65-year-old Nikias came under increasing pressure to step down.
About 200 USC professors signed a petition demanding his resignation, saying he’d “lost the moral authority to lead.” The faculty members wrote that they had come together to “express our outrage and disappointment over the mounting evidence of President Nikias’ failure to protect our students, our staff, and our colleagues from repeated and pervasive sexual harassment and misconduct.” The university’s Academic Senate also called on Nikias to step down.
Nikias became the university’s 11th president in August 2010.
Caruso said the university has already hired education-recruitment firm Isaacson Miller to lead the search for a new president. The university has also retained the international search firm of Heidrick & Struggles in an “advisory capacity” to assist with the search, Caruso said. The Board of Trustees has also formed a Presidential Search Advisory Committee that is expected to solicit public input through “listening sessions” and the establishment of a presidential search website.
Caruso said he hopes to have the search completed in four to six months.
“As I have said before, it is critical that this process embraces your perspectives to help guide the committee in identifying the most qualified and talented person to lead our university forward,” Caruso wrote in his letter.