USC Ousts Popular Business School Dean

USC’s Marshall School of Business became the first major U.S. school to reach gender parity in its full-time MBA program in 2018

‘IT CAME COMPLETELY OUT OF THE BLUE. IT WAS A TOTAL SURPRISE. HE DIDN’T DO ANYTHING WRONG’

USC Interim President Wanda Austin

Ellis apparently left the room in shock. On Oct. 4th, the university had awarded him a $70,000 performance bonus for the job he had done as dean. “It came completely out of the blue, says Louis ‘Skip’ Miller, a leading trial lawyer who is representing the dean. “It was a total surprise. He didn’t do anything wrong. If he did they would have taken action immediately. There are no complaints against him. Nothing.”

Yet, sometime in October, several other university officials—including University Provost Michael Quick— began meeting with Ellis in efforts to convince him to quietly retire. While the university was using the Cooley study to justify their actions, they refused to show the dean a copy of the report that was cited as evidence of his being unfit to lead the Marshall School. Ellis, not surprisingly, repeatedly declined to retire.

On Monday, Dec. 3, Ellis dashed off an email to faculty and staff announcing that he had been asked to leave his job. “To the best of my knowledge,” he wrote, “this decision was not based on anything I personally had done, but rather a cumulative record of OED cases from Marshall. The vast majority of these cases were never brought to my attention. Nevertheless, this apparently has led university leadership to believe that we do not have a positive culture here. Therefore, they feel a change in leadership is in order. The Faculty Council is asking for a meeting with the President to understand how we came to this, and there are many external stakeholders who have sent in concerns for the school. There are concerns about process, transparency and reputational damage…I will communicate more as I learn it.”

‘YOU SHOWED AN ALARMING LACK OF JUDGMENT’

University officials quickly reprimanded Ellis for informing staff of the interim president’s decision. Less than 12 hours after the dean sent his note, university provost Michael Quick sent a memo to Ellis expressing his disapproval. “With that communication,” wrote Provost Quick, “you misused the Office of the Dean to advance your own personal agenda, and you placed your personal interests over the interests of Marshall and the University. Moreover, your email put faculty in a position where they may feel pressured to show support for you because of your current role, and out of fear of retaliation. That showed an alarming lack of judgment. I realize you disagree with President Austin’s decision. However, you cannot abuse your role to try to change her mind. If you do that again, you will be subject to further action.”

The next day, Dec. 4, President Austin send a letter through the university’s alumni decision with her first public acknowledgement of Ellis’ ouster. “Jim Ellis will step down from his position as dean of the USC Marshall School of Business, effective June 30, 2019…[but] will continue to serve as a member of our faculty,” she wrote. “Because this is a personnel matter, we are limited in what we can share about this decision. The decision regarding Dean Ellis’ role at the university was made after careful deliberation. I personally met with Dean Ellis as did several others. In addition, we consulted with outside legal counsel to the Board of Trustees and external human resource experts. At the end of this process, I informed Dean Ellis that he would remain as dean through the end of this academic year, but that a new dean would be appointed for the coming school year.”

The letter offered no other details as to why the dean was fired and did not mention whatever recommendations were made in the Cooley report. Greif, who also serves on the Marshall School’s advisory board, believes the dean is being railroaded out of his job. “Among the Cooley report’s many flaws, it is based entirely on OED’s written records,” wrote Greif in his letter to the trustees. “No interviews were conducted by Cooley of any of the people involved or implicated. Yet this is the basis for ending a good and decent man’s career? Is it any wonder I have made reference to the Cooley study as being reminiscent of Senator Joe McCarthy’s imaginary list of 205 Communists in the U.S. State Department, a since-debunked list that nevertheless ruined countless lives just like this opaque document is ruining Jim’s?”

Meantime, Ellis is still the dean, at least until June 30th of next year. “He is still there doing his job but he’s not talking to the press,” says attorney Miller. “Nobody has ever remotely suggested that he has done anything wrong or insensitive. He is over 70. Maybe if they said it’s time to think about a transition, he would have been happy to entertain that. But that is not the way it was presented. Jim just cares about the school. He wants to do well by the Marshall school. The way it was handled and the way it was done is a pretty bitter pill to swallow.”

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.