The MBA Leading The Fight To Save A Business School Dean

A petition to save the job of Marshall Dean Jim Ellis has attracted more than 3,200 signatures to date


Despite their opposite positions on the question of Ellis, the two share Horatio Alger-like stories, with humble beginnings and triumphs over their underprivileged backgrounds. Austin grew up in the crime-infested South Bronx, with a father who was a barber and a mother who worked as a nurse’s aide. A first generation college student, she showed promise as a gifted learner and ended up with four degrees, including two master’s in math and environmental systems and a PhD in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Southern California.

After a two-year stint with Rockwell International, she joined The Aerospace Corp. in 1979 as a member of its technical staff, working her way up to general manager and senior Vice President roles before becoming CEO and president in 2008. Austin would hold that job for the next eight years and ten months until her retirement in October of 2016. When she was asked to become interim president of USC, the appointment seemed like a crowning achievement to a highly successful career.

Greif’s parents were both Holocaust survivors who moved to California in 1947. He lost his father, who had been imprisoned at Auschwitz, at the age of six and spent most of his childhood in a one-bedroom apartment where Greif shared a bed with his older brother and his mom slept on a pull-out couch in the living room.


While working full time at a Ralphs grocery store, first as a box boy and later as an assistant manager, he earned an economics degree at UCLA and an MBA at USC. Higher education changed his life, enabling him to land a job with the accounting firm of Touche Ross and later the investment banking firm of Sutro & Co. Greif rose to become head of Sutro’s i-banking unit until founding at the age of 36 his own boutique M&A shop, Greif & Co., which has specialized in serving mid-sized companies and entrepreneurs since 1992.

Greif first met Ellis when they were both members of the Young Presidents Organization, though a true friendship started shortly after 1997 when Ellis joined the faculty of the business school and Greif pledged a $5 million endowment to establish the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the business school. “The only way I got to be where I am today is because of my college education and working hard,” he once told a reporter. “My family lost everything in World War II. There are no shortcuts to success. The gift was all about creating future generations of entrepreneurs.”

Since his gift to the Marshall School more than 20 years ago, Greif has been actively involved at the school. He has guest lectured, mentored students, judged student competitions, helped to attract top students and star faculty, assisted fundraising and even brainstormed curriculum with Marshall professors. He also sits on several of the school’s advisory boards.

During that time, Greif has watched Ellis closely and his admiration for the job he has done increased, year after year.  He had been favorably reviewed by three consecutive provosts, and his performance resulted in a $70,000 bonus in early October, 93% of the maximum he could have received. During his tenure as dean, Ellis has raised half a billion dollars on behalf of the school and significantly improved the reputation and stature of the  institution (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 ever, 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.


USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis

Greif does not look the part of a rabble-rouser. He seems most at home in conservative dark blue suits and white shirts. He looks more like an accountant than a flashy dealmaker, and as dealmakers go, you would be hard pressed to find one with a higher sense of integrity. Greif & Co.’s mission statement comes right out of the Bible: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Greif first learned that Ellis was in some kind of trouble in late October after a telephone check-in with Ellis about the school’s entrepreneurial center and an introduction Greif would do for the dean at an upcoming Junior Achievement of Southern California event. “A minute after we hung up the phone, Jim called me back to share with me that he was being terminated,” recalls Greif. “He felt bad that he had not confided in me on the earlier call.  At this time, USC was pressuring Jim to ‘retire’ and trying to entice him to go quietly with a lucrative severance package. I was stunned by the news.”

As an investment banker, Greif immediately put his due diligence skills to work. “It was only after I looked into the matter further that my shock turned into outrage for the gross injustice being done to this man,” he says. On campus Nov. 1 for a women’s entrepreneurial summit hosted by the Entrepreneurship Center that bears his name, Greif saw Austin and approached her as she was walking back to her office from the event. 

“I addressed the subject of Jim’s dismissal,” remembers Greif.  “I advocated for his retention and requested the facts surrounding her decision.  She heard me out but did not respond and seemed unfazed by my arguments on Jim’s behalf.”


The brief encounter only strengthened Greif’s resolve to fight for his friend’s job. That very evening, he wrote a letter defending Ellis and immediately sent it to Austin, copying the board of trustees. Greif followed that letter up with emails to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees and two more emails to the full board on Nov. 8th and Nov. 15th. Throughout November, Greif also had conversations and email exchanges with Austin, Provost Michael Quick and Rick Caruso, the chairman of the board of trustees, as well as individual trustees with whom he has had a relationship.  

All of his efforts were behind the scenes, in private, until Austin called Ellis into her office on Nov. 27th. During a terse 10-minute session that morning, 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.

It was then that Greif decided he had been wasting his time dealing with only the president and the board. Three days after Ellis’ meeting with Austin, Greif dashed off a Nov. 30th letter to the university’s nearly 200 members of the advisory boards of both the Marshall School and its undergraduate sibling, the Leventhal School of Accounting.


“As many of you know,” he wrote, “I am a 1979 MBA and benefactor of the Marshall School’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Today, I am also the bearer of extremely bad tidings.”

In the four-page letter, he laid out the facts as he knew them, rattled off Ellis’ achievements and attempted to rally the troops on his behalf. Greif urged the advisory board members to reach out to the interim president and the head of the board of trustees in support of his friend.

“Jim,” he concluded, “has dedicated over 21 years of his life—more than half as dean and vice provost for globalization—to this institution. He has done nothing to deserve this fate. Quite the contrary, Jim Ellis should be celebrated, not censured.”

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