“Every victim needs a champion,” insists Lloyd Greif.
And the MBA alum of the University of Southern California certainly has found a victim to fight for these days. The aggrieved party is James Ellis, the embattled dean of the Marshall School of Business
The university’s interim president fired the highly popular dean over allegations that he failed to properly deal with a series of racial and gender bias complaints over the past eight years. USC is allowing the dean to serve out this current academic year until June 30th and to remain at Marshall as a tenured professor (see USC Ousts A Popular Business School Dean).
ONE TRUSTEE WAS ALLOWED A MINUTE TO SPEAK ON BEHALF OF THE DEAN
But the decision by interim President Wanda Austin cuts his deanship short by three years and has resulted in an uproar of protest from students, faculty, staff and alumni. More than 3,200 people have signed a petition in support of Ellis, and hundreds upon hundreds of letters, emails and phone calls have gone to the university’s board of trustees which voted on Dec. 12 to back their interim president who has been in the job for all of four months.
At the trustee meeting, one board member—Ming Hsieh—who has also donated $85 million to the university and has served as a trustee for more than ten years was given only one minute to speak in support of Dean Ellis. He was then asked to leave the meeting room. After the half-hour discussion, he was allowed back in only to cast his vote against the resolution backing Austin’s decision.
Hsieh says Austin told trustees she would resign if she were asked to change her position. “She should have recognized her mistake and apologized for it,” he says. “This university is run by dictators, and the university has been damaged tremendously by all this. They think the donors will be angry for this week. They will be angry forever.”
‘I CAN’T LET AN INJUSTICE HAPPEN TO AN INNOCENT MAN’
For Greif, the support of his friend is a matter of principle. “I was brought up not to look away when you see something wrong,” he says. “I recognize there was personal risk in standing up for him. But I’ve got to sleep at night. I can’t let an injustice happen to an innocent man. I am not that kind of fair-weather friend. This is unjust.”
What has especially galled Greif is that no one is accusing Ellis of inappropriate behavior. Instead, the university appears to be blaming him for the number of complaints at Marshall. During his 11 and one-half years as dean, sources say, there have been roughly 70 written complaints against the school’s faculty and staff lodged by either students or faculty with the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity (OED).
The complaints ranged from a female student who called the university hot line after having an argument with a boyfriend to a female teacher who was demoted after a poor performance evaluation and another faculty member who was terminated after failing to meet the terms of his job, says trustee Hsieh, who looked at the full file of OED reports. Of the nine complaints that came to the dean’s attention, sources add, Ellis found three to have merit requiring remedial action. Those were dealt with promptly and efficiently by Ellis, according to Greif. Ellis found five of the complaints to be without merit, while one was deemed to be inconclusive.
“He is being hung out to dry over Title IX complaints made in the last decade to the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity,” insists Greif. “None of them were made about him. The Office of Equity and Diversity does not report to the Marshall School but to the Provost and Senior Vice President of HR (Human Resources). We see Jim as a scapegoat for the university’s failings. He is being blamed for things he had no knowledge of. He doesn’t even know the charges against him so how can he defend himself?”
THE CLASH PITS AN ALUM & DONOR AGAINST AN INTERIM UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT
The battle has spilled out into the public onto the pages of The Los Angeles Times and other media outlets, replete with leaks from university sources who are trying to spin the story their way and organized protests on campus. A female LA Times columnist sided with the university’s decision on Friday, accusing trustees, professors, alumni and students of throwing a tantrum and congratulating the full board of trustees in triumphing over “bullying and hyperbole” in support of the dean.
The clash has pitted the investment banking entrepreneur and USC donor against a newly named interim head of USC. An alumna retired from a job as CEO of a federally-funded nonprofit, Austin was a trustee member plucked from the board in August to temporarily take the job as president. The first African-American and female to lead USC, she succeeded C.L. Max Nikias in the wake of a series of headline-producing scandals, including the administration’s handling of a campus gynecologist accused of sexually abusing patients.
Greif calls her a “lame duck president” who made a “wrongheaded” move. He has also questioned her authority to fire Ellis. “Since when is an interim president given the same unfettered power to make personnel decisions as a permanent president who is selected by a search committee after a nationwide search and given a five-year mandate to steer the university?”
THE NEW INTERIM PRESIDENT WALKED INTO A HIGHLY VOLATILE SITUATION
Austin, however, stepped into a highly volatile situation. Before being forced to leave by the trustees, her successor had to fire two medical school deans, the first of whom had been known to use hard drugs and party with a circle of criminals and addicts, and the second, his successor, who had been accused of sexual harassment by a female researcher in a lawsuit that was quietly settled by the university for more than $100,000.
It could not help that Austin has never worked in academia and spent nearly her entire professional career at The Aerospace Corporation, a think tank of sorts that does R&D on military space programs. When she became CEO of the organization in 2008, it reported a surplus of $21.2 million on revenue of $843.6 million. When she left in 2016, the organization’s expenses exceeded its revenue by $23.9 million, a negative $45 million swing. Austin walked away with a compensation package valued at $9.8 million from the nonprofit, according to public tax filings. A university spokesperson says the compensation includes “the present value of future retirement payments.”
Austin, believes Greif, had been in the USC job for all of eight weeks when she had several direct reports begin to pressure Ellis into early retirement. “It doesn’t make any sense,” sighs Greif. “USC has been in damage control for 18 months. They bring in this person who has no experience in academia. She was brought in as a stop gap measure and out of left field she goes after the most prominent and successful dean the Marshall School has ever had. We are just baffled.”
‘WE LEARNED OUR LESSON’
With the university still reeling from multiple scandals, Austin became aware of the number and nature of the complaints at the Marshall School soon after being named the interim president. She dispatched her provost and other administration officials to meet with Ellis and turned to both an outside human resources consultant and a law firm, Cooley LLP, to review the grievances. In her only unscripted comments on the case (Austin declined to be interviewed for this story), she told the Los Angeles Times that “we learned our lesson” from the earlier scandals.
“The commitment we made to our university community to improve our campus culture sometimes requires us to make difficult decisions,” she said in a statement. “We understand that there will be those who disagree, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t the right decisions to move the university forward.”
In yet another statement issued by the university, Austin denies that the decision to terminate Ellis was made without thoughtful deliberation. “This was not a hasty or rash decision. It was made after many meetings and discussions, along with reviews by several external, objective sources,” she added. “Because this is a personnel issue, we have not shared specific confidential information – even as that approach brought greater criticism. Any of us would hope for that same consideration from our employer.”