How USC Became the Most Scandal-Plagued Campus in America

Once known as the University of Spoiled Children, USC has had a hard time growing up
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Founded in a mustard field in 1880 when Los Angeles was still mostly ranchland, the evolution of the University of Southern California has mirrored that of the Southland: It grew, got wealthy, struggled with a flaky reputation among the East Coast elites it so badly wanted to impress, and finally started to matter when it began to accumulate serious money and influence. L.A. had finally become a global capital, and the real estate moguls and Hollywood execs that ran it were eager to have a university that could hold its own among the Ivies.

For much of its early life, USC was most famous for its athletic programs and affluent student body—by the early 1990s the Princeton Review noted that the school was best known for its festive fraternity parties and sports teams. It had a nearly 70 percent acceptance rate. A few strong leaders, one with a knack for fundraising and PR, eventually turned the university into a research and academic behemoth that began to shoulder its way among more established East Coast rivals. But respect proved elusive.

Enter Chrysostomos Loizos “Max” Nikias. A Greek-Cypriot engineer, Nikias was an ambitious, self-confident salesman comfortable hobnobbing with billionaires and fond of quoting the classics. Educated in Athens, he loved to play off USC’s mascot, the Trojan, and drolly referred to the school as “Troy.” He often talked of USC as “a new Rome of the West”—and aggrandized its importance at the center of an academic empire that spanned the United States and across the Pacific Rim. He learned early in his career how money could fuel his aspirations. He came to USC as an engineering professor in 1991, and by 2003, he’d managed to coax a $52 million donation from a cofounder of Qualcomm. As soon as Nikias took over as USC’s president in 2010 he launched an audacious campaign to raise money and finally enshrine the school as a top-tier institution. When the highest fundraising goal his advisers supposedly came up with was $3 billion, he impulsively doubled the figure—earning the nickname the “Six-Billion-Dollar Man.” He would meet that milestone 18 months ahead of schedule.

Nikias inherited a school on the rise, and it was already superior, financially and academically, compared to any time in its history. Financial aid was at an all-time high, the endowment was flush, the student body’s test scores had, at long last, surpassed those of its crosstown rival, UCLA. But Nikias had bigger plans—he dreamed of turning the school into an intellectual powerhouse that would achieve “undisputed elite status,” mirroring the ascent of Los Angeles on the global stage. The pace of his climb was dizzying: In just seven and a half years, Nikias oversaw the largest financial aid pool, the largest increase in student applications and international students, the largest hiring spree of faculty and researchers, the most ribbon-cutting ceremonies for research centers, the opening of the largest building on campus, the largest development project, and the start of the longest sustained building boom, driven by the school’s most successful fundraising drive ever (which included the largest single donation in the university’s history).

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Embattled former USC president Max Nikias at a commencement ceremony last year

Ronen Tivony/Pacific Press/Lightrocket via Getty Images

His crowning achievement was an ambitious campus expansion—the biggest development in South L.A. history—which added 25 percent more student housing to the largely distressed neighborhood surrounding the school. It featured a 20-foot-tall bronze statue of Hecuba, the legendary queen of ancient Troy, and buildings that mimicked the Collegiate Gothic style of Yale (or Hogwarts at Universal Studios, depending on whom you ask), as well as subterranean outlets of Target, Trader Joe’s, and Abercrombie & Fitch. The unveiling of Hecuba at a star-studded ceremony in August 2017 was the high point in Nikias’s bold plan to remake USC.

For once it seemed that USC had finally matched the status of elite schools that so preoccupied USC’s president. But Nikias’s haste and hubris led to bad decisions and entanglements with wealthy but unscrupulous donors. Ensconced in his luxe presidential mansion, he ignored warning signals and wound up presiding over what may well be—once the full extent of its toxicity is revealed—the most corrupt university administration in America’s history of higher education. A run that saw an overdosed prostitute in a hotel room, an FBI sting of a basketball coach, disturbing sexual abuse allegations and cover-ups, and a shockingly blatant influence-peddling scheme. As a result it now faces a mountain of pending settlements.

It’s also true that USC is, in many ways, a better institution after Nikias’s tenure, with more resources and a more diverse student body. But his aversion to transparency and his outsize appetites eventually led to his downfall, setting the school’s reputation back decades. Now with USC’s central role in the massive college admissions scandal, the school is once more the butt of late-night television jokes. The “University of Spoiled Children” tag is back. It’s as if Nikias is starring in his own version of a tragedy by Euripides.

In a skit that aired just days after the college admissions scandal broke, Saturday Night Live opened with a scene set at a campus much like USC’s. Cast members played college admissions counselors trying to decide which students to admit from a wait list. They ended up accepting one underqualified student who had photoshopped his face onto a picture of physicist Stephen Hawking in a wheelchair. They also gave the green light to the grandson of actor Lou Ferrigno, star of the ’70s show The Incredible Hulk. “He Hollywood; he fun!” hammed one of the characters.

The school was an easy target: One of the most famous of the 33 wealthy parents indicted, Lori Loughlin, was caught bribing her daughters’ way into USC. And the school’s old reputation as a playground for rich kids was easy to resuscitate once it was reported that Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, an Instagram star who had bragged about going to school only for parties, found out she’d become the wrong kind of famous while sunning in the Bahamas on a $100 million yacht. The vessel belonged to Rick Caruso, the billionaire owner of the Grove retail center and chairman of USC’s board of trustees.

Business and development have played a hefty role at USC ever since a gun-toting, real-estate-promoting teetotaler judge named Robert Maclay Widney founded the college in 1880. On the eve of a land boom in Los Angeles, he and a group of prominent local businessmen opened a white clapboard schoolhouse for 10 faculty members and 53 students, proclaiming it the University of Southern California.

USC’s rise in stature would parallel the ascent of Los Angeles, but in the school’s early years, a lack of funding prevented it from achieving much academic distinction. The trustees built a brand around Trojan athletics, high enrollments, fraternities and sororities, and supplying Southern California with dentists, doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, educators, and, later, film, radio, and TV professionals. The university splurged on Trojan football stars and gold-medal Olympians, but the pay for faculty and the budget for library holdings and research was famously meager.

By the 1920s the school’s rich-kid rap had already begun to take hold. Things finally got more serious under president Rufus B. von KleinSmid, an imperious and autocratic leader who expanded the campus land and tripled the number of academic schools during his long run from 1921 to 1947. He was followed later by Dr. Norman H. Topping, a modern academic reformer who transformed USC into a prominent national research institute by the end of the 1960s. Still, by 1964, USC’s endowment was less than one-tenth the size of Stanford’s—$15.7 million compared to $160 million.

But by 1992, admission to USC was not yet worth the risk of a possible prison sentence. Here’s “What’s Hot” about the University of Southern California, according to the Princeton Review’s guide to best colleges published that year: “intercollegiate sports, fraternities, sororities, good-looking students, college newspaper, and dating. What’s Not: cost of living, town-gown relations, dorm safety, library, dorm comfort, alternative rock, living on campus, and interaction among students.” The school’s academic rating in the review, based on responses that Trojan students gave to survey questions about their college experiences, was 83 (out of 100). The campus quality of life rating was a dismal 71. The review contains a brief narrative explanation of the results in a section labeled student life, which reads: “Fraternities play a huge role in the USC social scene, partly because the surrounding area is perceived as inhospitable, and partly because USC attracts the kind of students that love fraternity parties.” “Wealthy students are ubiquitous,” a section labeled “About the Students” continues. “One student wrote that our reputation as the University of Spoiled Children and University of Special Connections is very fitting.”

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Actress Lori Loughlin and her daughters, Olivia Jade (left) and Isabella Rose, who departed USC in the wake of the admissions scandal

Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for Sephora Collection

Dr. Lloyd Armstrong was recruited from Johns Hopkins University to become USC’s provost and chief academic officer in 1993, the year after the Princeton Review survey, and his recollection jibes with its findings. “In large part, we had been that University of Spoiled Children,” says the now-78-year-old professor emeritus of physics. Those were days of near-open admissions (the acceptance rate in the ’90s peaked at 70 percent) and a mostly white, mostly Californian student body. (At one infamous football game halftime show that took place in the Coliseum, the Stanford marching band memorably spelled out USC’s modest SAT scores.)

Back in the 1990s the crisis at USC was not ethical but financial. “All universities depend on a freshman class showing up, and ours was not showing up,” Armstrong says. He and the school’s shrewd and gentlemanly new president, Steven B. Sample, concentrated on improving academics, steadily building the endowment, and turning around the school’s reputation for affluent mediocrity, which was easier said than done.

The image problem was so pervasive that they decided on a risky PR campaign that winkingly acknowledged the reputation. As USC revamped the general education program, it sent recruitment brochures to high school counselors that said, in effect, “Come to USC, the university that will spoil your children with a great education.”

“It really caught everybody’s attention. It took what was a negative image and turned it around and said, ‘Why shouldn’t your children be spoiled?’” Armstrong recalled. “You have to grab the bad and make it good.”

Sample and Armstrong worked to transform the university, raising academic standards, raising the endowment to new heights, reining in the worst excesses at Greek organizations and football game-day celebrations, and catapulting the school’s national ranking to the cusp of the Top 25. When Armstrong stepped down in 2005, Sample chose Nikias, who had risen to become the dean of the engineering school, to take over as provost.

Sample’s signature is on Nikias’s diploma. The former was president of the State University of New York at Buffalo the same year Nikias completed his doctorate with an expertise in radar and sonar there. They had a rapport as engineers, and many interpreted the appointment as a sign that Sample was grooming Nikias to be his eventual successor, especially since the younger man had a track record of raising eye-popping amounts of money for the university.

Within five years of his arrival in the early ’90s, Nikias won a $12.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to open the country’s first national engineering research center for multimedia. He had beaten out 116 other universities for the award, including Columbia and UC Berkeley.

The prestigious award triggered millions more in commitments that Nikias raised from the corporate and government sectors—an ensuing $46.4 million raised drew notice and gave Nikias the inside track for dean of the school of engineering when the position opened in 2001. Three years later, dean Nikias closed the largest individual donation in the history of the department, a $52 million gift from Andrew Viterbi, PhD (’62), cofounder of Qualcomm and a member of the USC board of trustees. In recognition the school was renamed the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

As provost, Nikias made big-money moves and became an indispensable executive to a powerful group of school officials

Armstrong says that as Sample began to succumb to Parkinson’s disease, Sample became less active and gradually began relinquishing power, making Nikias the de facto president in the eyes of the trustees. “Steve had a hard last set of years,” Armstrong says, “and Max was there to carry the ball.” As provost, Nikias made big-money moves and became an indispensable executive to a powerful group of school officials. What brought the team together, aside from the immense wealth of the trustees, was that since most were West Coast-based, USC’s rise to prominence as a world-class Los Angeles institution reflected well on them all. Nikias tailored his appeal masterfully to what they most desired: to be associated prominently with a great university and academic hub connecting the city to a world centered around the Pacific Rim.

Nikias’s Mediterranean manners and warmth charmed campus notables everywhere from the medical school to the school of cinematic arts. “Max is one of those people who leads so well that he never has to look over his shoulder to see if anybody’s following him,” said trustee Bruce Ramer, an entertainment lawyer who successfully negotiated with Nikias for the school to obtain a video archive of thousands of Holocaust survivors’ testimonies that belong to Steven Spielberg, another trustee.

Nikias oversaw the $275 million purchase of two private hospitals from Tenet Healthcare Corp. It was a prelude to the founding of an academic medical center on the site, named in recognition of a $150 million gift from the family foundation of trustee William Keck II (’64).

By the time Sample made known he was stepping down as president, the accession of Nikias was such a foregone conclusion that some trustees reportedly questioned the point of interviewing other candidates or conducting a national search. On the day of the presidential inaugural ceremony, Edward P. Roski Jr., chairman of USC’s board and chairman and chief executive of one of the oldest and largest privately held real estate companies in the country, introduced Nikias as “a remarkable and inspiring leader, a brilliant scholar, and the best possible person to lead our university forward.”

Donning the University medallion of glittering gold, symbol of the Trojan president, over his heraldic robe of scholar, the bald and bespectacled Nikias laid out a vision for USC that was not a change of direction from his predecessor so much as a dramatic acceleration, a commitment “to run the next marathon at a sprinter’s pace.” People who had known him for years observed a pronounced shift in his personality and management style. It was more top-down, less consultative, less tolerant of bad news. His circle of advisers shrank, and he grew isolated from the university’s day-to-day life. Negative feedback rarely reached his ears. “Sample did tend to listen to people who disagreed with him,” says William Tierney, a professor and scholar of higher education at USC since 1994 who nominated Nikias as provost and recommended him for president. “When Max became president, it became an imperial presidency, and he really stopped listening to people.”

Early in his tenure, Nikias expanded the board of trustees to its largest size ever, adding Hollywood players, L.A. business tycoons, and Pacific Rim financiers and industrialists. The move facilitated billions in additional gifts to the university. Yale has 17 board members; Harvard has 29; Stanford has 31; USC had 49 before Nikias grew it to 58. He handpicked members of a small executive committee to be the decision-makers, with him at the head. “That’s not healthy,” says Dr. Michael B. Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Nikias was the king of the campus. He held afternoon teas with 20 students a couple of times a month. He taught a freshman seminar on Athenian democracy. He marched across the grounds in his dark suits, bearing a Trojan lapel pin and a pocket square. He enjoyed all the trappings of grandeur associated with the USC presidency. He and his wife, Niki, and their two daughters moved into the president’s house, a 13,000-square-foot American Colonial mansion secluded behind a high gate in the Estate District of San Marino. Built in 1932 by the same architect who designed Santa Barbara’s Biltmore Hotel, it housed a swimming pool, rose garden, and a rolling lawn that could fit hundreds of guests. Nikias and his wife hosted a dinner for 400 students who had nowhere to go on Thanksgiving.

In the first six and a half years that Nikias was president, the university raised more money than it had in the previous six and a half decades. USC became one of three schools in the country to rank among the top five largest university fundraisers for five consecutive years; the others were Harvard and Stanford. The trustees awarded his progress with a bonus of $1.5 million in 2015, making him the third-highest-paid university president in the country that year.

In the first six and a half years that Nikias was president, the university raised more money than it had in the previous six and a half decades.

Under his leadership, USC built 19 research centers and institutes for the arts and humanities, social and natural sciences, and engineering and technology. The size of the fundraising staff doubled. Measured in square feet, the academic and residential footprint of the university increased by nearly a third; the average amount of gifts and pledges given annually more than tripled; the university’s endowment nearly doubled. It was, as Nikias declared, “a decade’s worth of progress in just a few years.”

With USC thriving, questions which have since clouded its reputation seemed less pressing. Even after dozens of students and staff accused the campus gynecologist of abuse, he remained at his job. A slew of faculty members complained about the dean of the medical school who had driven drunk from public events and hit on students. Nevertheless, the dean, who Nikias described as “a fundraiser of singular quality,” was reappointed.

For his part, Nikias grew more confident with each annual windfall. He launched a $6 billion capital campaign when USC had only $1 billion in hand. A chaired professor in the business school relayed a story he’d heard around campus that Nikias convened a meeting of fundraising consultants that he’d hired who recommended he set the goal at $3 billion. “All right then,” Nikias said, pounding his fist on the conference table for good measure, “$6 billion it is.”

In terms of dollars and square footage, USC Inc. had seen an immense amount of success in a short time. But administrators also cut corners, ignoring or overlooking the dubious motives and associations of some of the school’s splashier donors and dismissing any clouds that shadowed USC’s ethical guidelines. Nikias secured a commitment of $20 million from the former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to found an institute at the school of public policy, while Schwarzenegger was still facing allegations from six women who accused him of groping them. The school of cinematic arts took $5 million from inside trader and hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen at around the time that Cohen’s twin daughters were admitted to the top-flight school. Nikias made Frank Fertitta, a Las Vegas casino and resort magnate who graduated from USC in 1984, a board member after Fertitta donated a “major capital gift” of an undisclosed amount to the USC Marshall School of Business. Fertitta’s daughter is a 2012 graduate of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Equally concerning was the university’s involvement with many of the #MeToo era’s most egregious figures. The school took $5 million from X-Men director Bryan Singer the year before he was accused in a civil lawsuit of sexual assault of a minor. It has since removed Singer’s name from the film and media studies department and taken down a commemorative plaque that bore his name. Last October, the school of cinematic arts rejected a $5 million scholarship endowment by alleged rapist Harvey Weinstein—intended to fund projects by women filmmakers—after a student-led Change.org petition labeled the gift “blood money in exchange for [USC’s] soul.” Most recently, the school decided not to add Les Moonves’s name on a $59 million Annenberg school media center that he’d helped fund after the CBS boss stepped down amid allegations of sexual assault.

USC’s central role in the college admissions scandal comes at the end of a two-year run of scandal that is unprecedented in the annals of American higher education.

“I can’t think of anything close,” said Michael Useem, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who specializes in catastrophic risk management and corporate governance. “There are very few examples where you’ve had so many different parts of a university affected at almost the same time.”

In 2016 the dean of the Keck School of Medicine, Carmen A. Puliafito was revealed to have been in a hotel room with a drugged-up 21-year-old woman; he was allowed to remain on faculty, continue attending to patients, and go on raising money for the university until July 2017. His successor was ousted just months after it came to light that the university had ignored a sexual harassment and retaliation claim brought against him by a young woman researcher. A vice president who helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars stepped down after the university opened an investigation of multiple complaints of sexual harassment against him. An FBI sting caught the men’s basketball associate head coach pocketing thousands of dollars in bribes from a sports agent.

Most shocking, though, was last summer’s bombshell that campus gynecologist George Tyndall had sexually abused hundreds of young patients over a period of three decades. Though the complaints began in the ’90s—before many of the doctor’s later victims were even born—Tyndall continued seeing patients until 2017, when top administrators allowed him to resign quietly with a financial payout. School officials declined to inform his patients or report him to the state medical board. It wasn’t until a health center nurse went outside standard reporting channels and filed a complaint about the doctor to an on-campus rape crisis center that the university finally acted. The school’s eventual settlements with plaintiffs in the Tyndall case will likely top the record-breaking sum of $500 million that Michigan State University paid to the victims of disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar. USC’s eventual settlement of the Tyndall case will likely top it—conceivably hitting upward of $1 billion.

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Patients of USC gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall call for a state investigation of USC

By August 2018 the Tyndall scandal would prompt Nikias to step down as president. But the move was akin to closing the barn door after the horses had escaped. The contagion of shaky oversight and money grabbing had long ago metastasized into the university’s DNA. The blow delivered by the admissions scandal wouldn’t just tarnish USC’s academic reputation, it would aggravate the rawest spot in the Trojan psyche: As Trevor Noah quipped on The Daily Show, “The whole country has been rocked by the news that hundreds of parents have been accused of bribing their kids’ ways into elite colleges—and also USC.”

USC was one of eight schools targeted by the mastermind of the admissions scam, a Newport Beach-based private life coach and college counselor named William “Rick” Singer, but its role easily overshadowed the rest of the institutions implicated in the indictment. Of the five schools that accepted falsified athletic recruits, USC let in twice as many as all the other schools combined. It also had the most university employees charged, including current and former coaches, as well as the lone administrator.

The contagion of shaky oversight and money grabbing had long ago metastasized into the university’s DNA.

The university’s immediate response to the crisis was to assure Trojan faithful that this scandal stood apart from the rash of scandals that preceded it—this time, USC was the victim. Interim president Wanda Austin, who stepped in after Nikias was removed from office last May, said in a statement, “The government has repeatedly informed us that it views USC as a victim and that these employees purposefully deceived USC.”

But with USC’s track record, few were inclined to give the administration the benefit of the doubt. Concerned Faculty of USC, a prominent group of hundreds of professors that formed to call for Nikias to step down and was instrumental in bringing about his eventual resignation, said in a statement: “We bear an extra burden to act on this case with the highest level of transparency, accountability, and faculty governance.”

Singer helped wealthy and, in some cases, famous parents sneak their academically underqualified children into Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas at Austin, and UCLA. He helped children cheat on exams to earn higher SAT and ACT scores, and bribed college coaches to knowingly misrepresent middling applicants to the admissions boards as prospective athletes, even when it was doubtful they ever played a sport. But in no other school was Singer so confident in the likelihood of the scam’s success as he was with USC. “If you want [U]SC,” he said in an email to actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, who allegedly paid $500,000 in bribes in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team, “I have the game plan ready to go into motion.”

The “game plan” involved USC associate athletic director Donna Heinel, third in command in the athletics separtment, who allegedly accepted more than $1.3 million in bribes from at least 16 parents from 2014 to 2018. The scheme required parents to make a $50,000 down payment to “USC Athletics” once they received preliminary notification of their child’s acceptance to the school. As Singer explains in an intercepted phone conversation with a parent transcribed in the indictment, Heinel works the scam by placing the names of his student clients on a list of “recruited walk-ons,” or nonscholarship athletes. When they don’t show up for practice, Singer says, “Coaches are OK with that because, essentially, donations are going to help their programs, and they know that.”

Six days before the federal indictment was released, the USC Athletics Department announced that it had raised $748 million for the Nikias-led campaign. Its original goal was $300 million.

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Former USC athletic director Pat Haden (center) was forced to step down after a scandal involving a children’s charity

John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Kirk Brennan, USC director of undergraduate admissions and second in command to the dean, raised concern last year about a male student who was accepted to play water polo for USC—the NCAA’s national champion that year—who had attended a high school with no water polo team. The student’s father was the CEO at an L.A.-based provider of drinking water and wastewater systems and had allegedly paid $250,000 to secure admission for his son; a guidance counselor at the high school the student attended had raised concerns with USC admissions staff.

In response, Heinel sent a tersely worded email telling Brennan the boy “participates in tournaments in Greece, Serbia (how he met Jovan [Vavic]) and Portugal” and “[h]e is small but he has a long torso but short strong legs plus he is fast which helps him win the draws to start play after goals are scored.” To which Brennan replied, obligingly, “If you don’t mind, I’ll pass an edited/paraphrased version of your note along to the school, to assure them we’re looking at this stuff. They seemed unusually skeptical. … I read a good deal about tennis, some basketball, but not much else in the way of athletics.”

Since the departure of Nikias, board chairman Rick Caruso has stepped into the breach, putting out fires and pledging to root out what Caruso called systemic misconduct on campus. A handful of major donors who remain loyal to the ousted president have resisted the implications of the push. But USC’s leading role in the admissions bribery scandal has strengthened Caruso’s mandate as chair: The university’s reputation is now very much at stake.

Caruso has won the support of Concerned Faculty of USC, the group of professors pushing for an administrative overhaul. This despite what one chaired professor called Caruso’s “Gilligan moment”—a TMZ report that placed Olivia Jade Giannulli on the developer’s yacht in the Bahamas at the time news of the scandal broke.

Still, some faculty members are hopeful that an unofficial policy of suppression has reached its end. “Rick Caruso has made it known he wants people to come forward,” said Ariela Gross, a professor of law and history and the head of Concerned Faculty of USC. “Since there had been this culture of cover-up, it seems inevitable to me there’s going to be more before this is over. It all has to come out before we can move forward.”

Some faculty members are hopeful that an unofficial policy of suppression has reached its end.

In August, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was removed from the school of social work’s faculty after an investigation raised concerns involving a $100,000 donation from a campaign fund controlled by his father, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas, whose district includes USC. In December Austin fired the dean of the school of business, James Ellis. At issue was Ellis’s nonresponse to sexual harassment and discrimination claims made against faculty and staff in the business school, but the facts of the case remain confidential.

On March 20 Caruso introduced biologist and educator Carol L. Folt as the university’s 12th president. “If nothing else,” he said, “this last nine months have shown us that this university can handle whatever’s thrown at us. We are as ready, we are as strong, we are as courageous, we are as clear-eyed and principled as that Trojan warrior sitting out in front of Bovard [Auditorium]. And we are ready to move forward.”

Folt, 68, is the first female president in USC’s 139-year history. A native of Akron, Ohio, and the granddaughter of Albanian immigrants, she softens up tough crowds with tales about the seafood shack where she waited tables during her studies at Santa Barbara City College and later UCSB. She was a professor of biological sciences on the faculty at Dartmouth College and later became a dean and chief academic officer before taking on a supercharged stint at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Folt softened up the crowd at her introductory press conference with a story about working at Moby Dick’s restaurant as she earned a degree in aquatic biology from UC Santa Barbara. It was a humble departure from the “destined reign of Troy.”

Folt is no stranger to scandal. At UNC, she inherited a mammoth case of academic fraud, possible NCAA infractions due to misreported athlete attendance, and the politically charged removal of a Confederate memorial statue known as Silent Sam. All the issues were handled with relative aplomb: She dodged athletic sanctions, got the school reinstated to a regional commission on colleges after firing nine employees, and ordered Silent Sam’s commemorative plaques and pedestal relocated amid threats of violence from alt-right protesters.

Folt was the unanimous selection of a search committee that interviewed 100 candidates, according to the Los Angeles Times. Something that may have tipped the balance in her favor: She says experience has taught her that “heavy-handed, top-down determination” doesn’t reform anything.

On March 27 Gross and other members of the USC faculty group met with the new president, whom Gross described as “personable and energetic.” Folt surprised them by expressing support for a key demand of Concerned Faculty: involving members of faculty, staff, and the student body in the oversight and investigation of admissions and athletic recruitment.

USC is hoping that Folt is the down-to-earth, battle-tested president the university needs to get beyond the crisis and get it back on course, but she’ll have her work cut out for her. The federal probe into the college admissions scandal continues, and in a separate but related matter, the U.S. Education Department informed USC in late March that it is opening a preliminary investigation into possible violations related to federal financial aid programs. On the Tyndall front, a federal judged stalled an attempt by USC’s lawyers to settle the $215 million class-action suit by hundreds of former patients. The law firm that USC’s board hired to investigate the allegations against the doctor has not finished its work; it is unclear if the physician’s alleged victims will ever see the firm’s findings.

“Clearly we have issues that are being dealt with in the immediate time frame by president Austin and others,” Folt said via phone, “but they’re going to continue, and I’ll have to be intimately involved with the decisions made so that we can focus on the future.” Two weeks after speaking with Folt, Austin announced that provost Michael Quick and general counsel Carol Mauch Amir, both close advisers to Nikias, would depart before Folt takes office in July. As Folt said, “It’s up to me to determine if we need to put in checks and balances.”

Nikias was officially removed from office last August. The now-president emeritus is taking a sabbatical and plans to return to USC in 2020 to teach classes and resume research, a university spokesman says. The statue of Hecuba that Nikias commissioned as the centerpiece of the university’s campus expansion still stands proudly in the central piazza of USC Village; the inscription chosen for its base seems almost prophetic. It’s a phrase in Greek from Euripides’ play Hecuba, in which the dethroned queen admonishes the head of the triumphant Greek army. “Those who have power ought not exercise it wrongfully,” she says, “nor when they are fortunate should they imagine that they will be so forever.”


NOTE: This story was updated after publication to identify Concerned Faculty of USC on first mention.


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