USC’s Board of Trustees Is Adopting Reforms. Will the Changes Be Enough to Stop the Scandals?

The trustees say they want to be more transparent, even as they withhold reports on gynecologist George Tyndall’s alleged abuse

Since being elected chairman of USC’s board of trustees in May 2018, billionaire retail developer Rick Caruso has pledged to bring greater transparency to USC’s administration–and he has successfully pushed for the board to do away with the unusually secretive practice of not publicly disclosing the members of committees–but the pledge has been complicated by a growing mountain of pending litigation against the university.

Hundreds of former patients of campus gynecologist George Tyndall are suing USC, after Tyndall was allowed to resign quietly with a payout despite alleged crimes dating back three decades.

As recently as April, Caruso pledged to release part of the report on Tyndall being prepared for university leaders by an outside law firm. But with hundreds of former students having filed suit against the university in the case, Caruso says he has since decided against it, at least for the foreseeable future. “I’ve been given very stern advice from our counsel to not release any reports that we have,” Caurso says. “I wish I could do more but as fiduciary I’ve also got to act in the best interests of the university and I have to make sure that we’re managing our affairs the right way.”

On top of the charges against Tyndall, nearly fifty gay and bisexual male former students have accused another USC doctor, Dennis Kelly, of sexually abusing them under the guise of medical exams over the course of more than 20 years. The revelations of those abuses are part of a two-year run of scandal at USC that may be unprecedented in the annals of American academia. It also includes a medical dean found with an overdosed young woman in a Pasadena hotel room; a basketball coach caught in an FBI sting; and several coaches and athletic officials charged with taking bribes to arrange for the college admission of under-qualified children of wealthy and famous parents.

In an effort to respond, USC trustees adopted sweeping changes last week to reform aspects of a governing board that fell short in its oversight responsibilities during the spate of scandals that damaged the school’s reputation in recent years.

Trustees approved a plan that will impose age and term limits on board members, curb the president’s power to handpick members of the high-powered executive committee, and shrink the number of board seats by more than 40 percent. It will also create an independent board to oversee the university’s $1.7-billion academic medical enterprise.

At 60 trustees, USC had a board around twice the size as Harvard (29) and Stanford (31). The unwieldy size, a product of a system of rewarding major donors by making them trustees, made it difficult for it to perform its oversight duties effectively. The main powers fell to a handful of executive committee members chosen by the ousted former president, Max Nikias, with him at the head.

In a letter announcing the move to the USC campus community, board chairman Caruso and fellow trustee Carmen Nava said the changes were part of an effort to “modernize the Board’s structure and operations.” Nava, who headed the board’s Special Committee on Governance Reform, told the Los Angeles Times that she spent 14 months studying the best practices at peer institutions and consulting with faculty, staff, student, and alumni leaders to get a sense of their priorities.

Caruso said the changes were a significant step in the right direction. “The board needs to be set up in a way that’s most effective to govern,” he said.

The new rules, which took effect last week, are the first significant systemic changes by USC leadership to strengthen oversight since the appointment of former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt in April to replace Nikias, who was ousted amid the tide of scandals last summer. But some professors who are members of the Concerned Faculty group at USC have objected the reforms do not go far enough.

William Tierney, a professor of higher education at USC, faulted the university’s aim to reduce the overall trustees to 35 “within the next few years.” “I need us to be rocket-charged in change, not incremental in change. What I see is the board and the president treading water.”

Rebecca Lonergan, a law professor who is president of the academic senate, is part of a task force that is examining how to improve processes for reporting and investigating allegations of misconduct. Lonergan commended Folt and members of the governing board for their collaborative approach to reform.

Other faculty members, like communications professor Larry Gross, disagreed with the university’s decision not to give students and professors seats on the board and committees. Members of the group Concerned Faculty of USC have long argued that involving professors more in matters of governance could have headed off the worst of the scandals.

Even after dozens of students and staff accused Tyndall of abuse, he remained at his job. And a slew of faculty members had complained about the dean of the medical school who had driven drunk from public events and hit on students. Nonetheless, the dean was reappointed.

At a recent meeting, members of the university’s academic senate shelved a resolution that calls on USC to release a report on the alleged misdeeds of former medical dean and prodigious fundraiser Carmen Puliafito. Sources with knowledge of the meeting say that Folt, the newly appointed president, resisted the move. A separate proposal is in the works that calls for a broader, if less specific, analysis of the underlying causes of the host of scandals that have hit the school in recent years.

RELATED: 9 USC Students Have Died This Semester, and the Campus Community Is Searching for Answers

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