The MBA Leading The Fight To Save A Business School Dean

USC Marshall Dean Jim Ellis


The letter would quickly go viral and lead to widespread support of the dean from faculty, staff, students and alumni. A petition was posted online. So were dozens of letters. Sara Jensen, Marshall’s senior director of development, was one of several staff members at the school who wrote to support the dean. An MBA student at Marshall ten years ago, she joined the school as its major gifts officer six years ago. Jensen calls Ellis “one of the finest men I know and the greatest leader I have had the pleasure with whom to work…(I) know first-hand that Jim has created and maintained a culture of inclusion, equality and excellence at Marshall.”

A parent of a USC student recalled a meeting his daughter had with Dean Ellis at an alumni function in Northern California that he said still brings tears to his eyes. His daughter, Alex, had left the U.S. Naval Academy after two years when she found her views in conflict with the military. During a 15-minute impromptu meeting, “Dean Ellis immediately started peppering her with questions: Why did you leave, are you a quitter, was it too hard, did the male dominance bother you, what have you been doing with your time off, what do you want to do with the rest of your life, the questions went on and on,” recalled Terrence McGrath in a letter to Austin.

His daughter told Ellis about a military ethics class at the academy in which students were asked what they would do if they witnessed prisoners being tortured. His daughter was the only student in the  class who provided a dissenting voice, saying she could never turn a blind eye on an injustice. The teacher told her that she would be court martialed for insubordination. 


“I witnessed a man whose sole intent was to find and promote young adults to consider USC who would bring a diversity and voice that encompassed all races, religions, genders, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds,” added McGrath. “Dean Ellis saw a strong, accomplished, driven young woman in my daughter who would add her diversity and voice to the school and bring a perspective, different from the mainstream. In that moment, he actually saw her for who she is which meant the world to her. Her love affair with USC began at that moment as did mine.”

The outpouring of support even surprised Greif. “All of the phone calls, emails and texts that I have received have been universally positive and supportive of Jim,” says Greif. “I have neither received nor heard one word of dissent–other than from USC’s administration, which clearly is in a crisis, damage control mode, and board of trustees chair Rick Caruso.”

With word quickly spreading about Ellis’ fate, the dean was urged by his leadership team to issue some kind of message to the faculty and staff. So on Dec. 3rd, Ellis sent an email informing the Marshall community that he had been asked to leave his post due to the  “cumulative record” of gender and racial discrimination complaints. “The vast majority of these cases were never brought to my attention,” wrote Ellis. “Nevertheless, this apparently has led university leadership to believe that we do not have a positive culture here.”


USC Provost Michael Quick accused Dean Ellis of “an alarming lack of judgment” for communicating with the faculty and staff

Hours after Ellis’ email went out, Provost Michael Quick reprimanded the dean for his communication. “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,” claimed Quick. “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.”

Incensed by the administration’s response to Ellis’ email and the growing number of emails and phone calls, Greif was back on his computer until 3:30 a.m., drafting a second letter, this one seven pages in length. That missive, to the board of trustees, accused the administration of “a disinformation campaign” and an effort to “silence critics.”

“Ask yourselves, if Jim really did something sufficiently egregious to warrant termination before the end of his remaining 31⁄2-year term, why is he being allowed to remain as dean for seven more months and as tenured faculty forever?,” wrote Greif. “As I have oft repeated, if Jim is responsible for a serious sin of omission or commission, he should be terminated immediately. If not, then the administration and the Board of Trustees need to right this wrong, reinstate Jim Ellis as Dean of the Marshall School and, most importantly, turn their attention to addressing all that ails the University of Southern California, starting with a culture that requires major surgery before the patient dies from these ever-deeper self-inflicted wounds.”


Ellis, who has declined to speak with the media, felt the need to send an email to faculty, staff and students to calm down the escalating war of words. “I am hoping that we can all calm down, take a breath, and evaluate where we are,” he wrote on Dec. 7th. “We need for this school and this university to continue on an upward trajectory, and we need for all of us to remember that we have students in final exams, faculty who are grading these final exams, and people who are preparing to celebrate their respective holidays with their families. That is who we are. We are Trojans.” 

Then, on the eve of a full vote on the issue by the board of trustees last Wednesday (Dec. 12th), Greif was back in action, drafting yet another seven-page letter to the board. In fact, Greif says, he stayed up until 5:15 a.m. to get it done. By then, the university’s Academic Senate had  unanimously passed a resolution agreeing with Marshall’s own faculty that Austin’s decision “lacked shared governance and transparency as to process.”

Greif took particular aim at the Cooley report which did not recommend Ellis’ dismissal. “Trustees who reviewed the report state that it concluded that there was not a culture of discrimination at the Marshall School and that neither Dean Ellis nor his leadership team discriminated on the basis of race or gender,” he wrote.

“For the sake of USC and for your own sake as fiduciaries, you should not rubber stamp this decision,” Greif added. “If Wanda declines to reconsider her decision, you should have a “no confidence” vote in her administration and ask for her resignation. If she declines to resign, you should terminate her. If Rick opposes the move in his capacity as Chairman, you should seriously question whose interests he is serving and request his resignation, as well.”

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