USC Ousts Popular Business School Dean

USC Marshall Dean Jim Ellis

The University of Southern California has fired the popular dean of its Marshall School of Business over allegations that he failed to properly deal with a series of racial and gender bias complaints at the school over the past eight years. The decision, made by interim USC President Wanda Austin, has aroused a major controversy on campus and a strong show of support for Marshall Dean Jim Ellis who will remain at Marshall as a faculty member.

The decision to terminate Dean Ellis, effective on June 30th of 2019, and three years before his current five-year ends, was made only two months after he was awarded a $70,000 performance bonus from the university. It also occurs in the same year that Marshall became the first prominent business school to reach gender parity in its full-time MBA program (see USC Marshall Reaches Gender Parity). It also, in fact, occurs only a month after a highly favorable 13th place finish in the new Bloomberg Businessweek MBA ranking of U.S. schools. The magazine’s surveys of alumni, moreover, showed that the school’s culture was “extremely positive” in its treatment of racial, religious and ethnic minorities as well as women and people of all sexual orientations.

Austin, in the job as university president for all of four months, has argued that the removal of the 71-year-old Ellis was part of a move to repair campus culture after a series of embarrassing scandals at the university. But Ellis’ supporters counter that the dean was never accused of inappropriate behavior and that he had only been aware of a small minority of complaints between 2009 and 2017. “Of these complaints, only about 10%—an amount you can count on both hands—were deemed sufficiently worthy of being passed on to the dean for further investigation and resolution,” wrote Lloyd Greif, a major benefactor of the Marshall School in a letter to the university’s board of trustees. “Jim dealt with all of those timely and appropriately. None of the complaints alleged any egregious misconduct, and none of them involved inappropriate behavior by Jim.”

TRUSTEE BOARD MEMBERS ALLEGEDLY CALLED A STUDY THAT LED TO DEAN’S OUSTER AS ‘A PIECE OF SHIT’

Greif, who has emerged as one of the dean’s strongest advocates, says that the university decided to fire Ellis on the basis of a study of the racial and gender bias complaints by Cooley LLP, USC’s outside law firm. According to Greif, Dean Ellis has not been allowed to see the report which was made available to board of trustee members who upheld the ouster yesterday (Dec. 12). According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, less than half a dozen of USC’s 57 trustees voted to support Ellis.

A statement issued by the university yesterday confirmed the trustees’ support of President Austin. “Following previous board discussions in October and November, today interim president Wanda Austin presented to the executive committee and to the full board of trustees the facts in the matter involving USC Marshall School of Business dean Jim Ellis,” according to the statement. “Following the presentation, the board discussed the issue at length and overwhelmingly passed the following resolution: The Board supports the decision of Dr. Austin in the Ellis matter.”

Even so, in his Dec. 6 letter to the board, obtained by Poets&Quants, Greif said that “the handful of trustees who have been permitted to review the Cooley report have variously described it as ‘weak,’ ‘made as instructed,’ ‘garbage in and garbage out,’ ‘junk’ and ‘a piece of s—t.’ They have all stated that it does not provide any reasonable grounds for terminating Jim.”

‘NO EVIDENCE OF RACIAL, SEXUAL OR AGING DISCRIMINATION AT THE SCHOOL OR BY DEAN ELLIS’

Grief, who has given $5 million to the school, is not the only supporter to come forward. Trustee Ming Hsieh, a Pasadena entrepreneur who has donated more than $85 million to USC, opposed Ellis’ termination. Hsieh told the Los Angeles Times that he had read thousands of pages of USC records about Ellis, including the 2016 review that led to his reappointment as dean, the Office of Equity and Diversity report and the study by the law firm Cooley that examined harassment and discrimination cases in the business school.

“There was no evidence or conclusion from any documents I read that there was racial, sexual or aging discrimination at the Marshall School or by Dean Ellis or his senior administrators,” Hsieh told the newspaper. He said the only administrative direction the dean had been given when he was appointed two years ago concerned improving the school’s ranking and faculty hiring. “Dean Ellis did everything he was required to do. He did it. He deserved dignity.”

Ellis’ dismissal also has caused an uproar on campus. On Friday, nearly 150 students, faculty, staff and alumni gathered on campus to protest the decision, chanting “Keep Ellis” and wearing “I Stand with Dean Ellis” shirts. When the board of trustees met on Wednesday, some three dozen students, faculty and alumni, including Greif, staged a protest in front of Bovard Administration Building, where the trustees were meeting.

ELLIS WON DEANSHIP OVER MORE THAN 250 CANDIDATES IN 2007

USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis

Ellis was named dean of the school in April of 2007, after joining the school’s faculty a decade earlier. A Harvard MBA and former executive for both Broadway Department Stores and American Porsche Design, he was selected after a search that included more than 250 candidates from academia and industry. At the time, the university noted that that Ellis was a frequently nominated candidate, popular among students, faculty and alumni alike. He had been one of Marshall’s most highly rated teachers, named professor of the year by numerous student organizations. When he was appointed to his first five-year term, he also had been an active member of the USC Marshall administrative team, having served as vice dean for external relations and associate dean of undergraduate business programs, as well as the university as vice provost for globalization.

In the 11 and one-half years that Ellis has served as dean, he has raised half a billion dollars on behalf of the school and significantly improved the reputation and stature of the business school (see P&Q’s One-On-One Interview With Dean Ellis). In the latest 2018 Poets&Quants‘ ranking of the best full-time MBA programs in the U.S., Marshall placed 22nd, up four places from its year-earlier position. Bloomberg Businessweek gave the school its highest ranking, placing it 13th best in the U.S. this year. The school’s newly launched online MBA program was ranked first in the U.S. by Poets&Quants as well.

It was five days after Thanksgiving, on Nov. 27th, that Ellis was pulled into an 11:30 a.m. meeting with President Austin and the university’s general counsel, Carol Mauch Amir. During a terse 10-minute session, Ellis was given written notice that he was being terminated as dean, effective June 30th of next year. Austin told the dean that the university would pay out his salary for the remaining three years of his term. University tax documents show that Ellis had a compensation package worth more than $630,000 in 2017.

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.