At USC’s Marshall School, An Enraged Faculty Tries To Understand Their Dean’s Ouster

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

‘SHOCKED AND APPALLED BY THE ENTIRE PROCESS’

“If the case against him was that there is a culture of bias, exclusion and discrimination, that is a very serious allegation against the entire school,” the professor adds. “It crushes the core values we all hold dear. So if a decision was going to be based on that, she should have done more diligence and reached out to faculty and staff to find out what we think. That is why I am shocked and appalled by the entire process. The process was really non-transparent and did not inspire confidence. There was no reason for anyone to expect he would not be able to complete his third term.”

That view is universally shared among the faculty. “If you could have asked me about any inconceivable thing that could have happened that would have been right up there with an alien invasion,” says Greg Autry, a professor who teaches entrepreneurship at Marshall. “I couldn’t believe he would personally do anything wrong and it is obvious he didn’t. There can’t be any victims. The secret and bizzare way they handled the process implies that something else is going on.”

Many faculty are unwilling to speak publicly because they fear retaliation from Provost Quick who is regarded by some as a petty bureaucrat who bears at least some of the blame for the multiple scandals at USC that claimed his boss, President C.L. Max Nikias. Those headline-producing embarrassments included the administration’s handling of a campus gynecologist accused of sexually abusing patients. “My general nature is to be fearless and speak my mind,” confides one of the school’s female professors. “But I am genuinely afraid of what could happen to me given the environment at USC right now.”

FACULTY SPECULATION IS THAT ELLIS WAS FIRED TO DIVERT ATTENTION AWAY FROM THE PROVOST

USC Interim President Wanda Austin

Speculation is rife about the motivation for the decision. Several professors believe that President Austin was led astray by Quick who was trying to divert attention from himself. If Austin wanted to clean house at USC, they believe, she should have fired the provost who as chief operating officer of the university was as responsible for USC’s scandals as its president. It did not go unnoticed when earlier this summer, a former vice dean of USC’s medical school testified that he had told Quick of his concern about the well-being of then med school dean, Carmen A. Puliafito.

The vice dean met with Quick about his suspicions after getting reports in early 2016 that Puliafito was taking drugs and partying in hotels with people of “questionable reputation.” He said he told Quick he was shocked that USC did not require Puliafito to seek treatment. USC did not report Puliafito to the medical board, allowing him to remain on the faculty and continue seeing patients for another 16 months. Quick would later say in a statement that the information from the vice dean led him to investigate Puliafito and to end his deanship. But Quick insisted that the vice dean did not share any information with him about drug use.

Among the school’s faculty and staff, the anger directed at Austin, Quick and Caruso runs deep. Many believe all three of them should be fired. “Wanda has zero experience running a university and she didn’t have a great track record before,” says one female official at the school, referring to her time as CEO of a nonprofit which went from a surplus to a loss. “I had dozens of people tell me that Jim should have been the interim president. But for someone who comes in and doesn’t know anything about a university and fires the most respected dean on campus is crazy. A lot of my co-workers don’t want to stay here, and I personally don’t want to stay either.”

THE OFFICE OF EQUITY & DIVERSITY COMPLAINTS

As far as anyone can tell, the university appears to be blaming Ellis for what would appear to be a large number of complaints lodged by either students or faculty with the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity (OED). 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. The lawyers who authored the Cooley study did no benchmarking on the volume of the complaints, either to other USC schools or major business schools.

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 Ming 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 the dean’s supporters. Ellis decided that four of the complaints were without merit, while two were deemed to be inconclusive.

THE OED IS VIEWED AS SECRETIVE, NON-RESPONSIVE & NOT ACCOUNTABLE TO ANYONE

Some faculty, however, view the university’s OED office as a secretive and non-responsive, unaccountable to anyone. “Professors generally think it’s a place where students lodge complaints when they don’t receive good grades,” adds one professor who has been at the school for nearly eight years. “Everyone has personal experiences or knows someone with personal experiences that are negative.”

The professor recounts an example in which one of his colleagues,  a female faculty member, caught a student, a woman of color, in plagiarism. “It was clearly major plagiarism,” he says. “My department chair reviewed the case and agreed. The student lodged a discrimination complaint through OED. The case dragged on for nearly a year, and my colleague received all types of messages from OED with frightening statements such as, ‘If there is merit in the the case, you may need to receive sensitivity training or may even be terminated.’

“In the end, the case was deemed without merit, but it created significant stress for my colleague. With Jim being dismissed, one reason people are commonly saying variations of the statement ‘If they can do this to Jim, they can do it to anyone’ is they don’t trust the OED.”

‘THE CULTURE AT MARSHALL IS SOMETHING WORTH PROTECTING’

Cardon adds that it is “nerve racking for many” to be outspoken. “But I genuinely believe that the culture at Marshall is something worth protecting,” he says. “I believe we’re on a positive path, and I believe Dean Ellis is the solution not the problem. I’m really nervous that the dismissal of Dean Ellis–especially in this way–will hurt us tremendously. People will certainly feel less safe saying what they really think. I also see what looks like a huge injustice to a man who has given so much to Marshall. Jim is a man of integrity, and I hate to see his reputation suffer.”

The hastily called meeting on Nov. 30th occurred only three days after Ellis was told he was being terminated in a terse ten-minute meeting with President Austin and the university’s general counsel, Carol Mauch Amir. During the session, Ellis was given written notice that he was being terminated as dean, effective June 30th of next year, and would be allowed to remain on the faculty. Austin told the dean that the university would pay out his salary for the remaining three years of his term.

After the dean’s brief comments to faculty, Vice Dean Nandini Rajagopalan took over the meeting. “For an hour,” recalls Cardon, “everyone talked about the issues of faculty governance and due process. The immediate decision was that the faculty council should request a meeting with the president and the provost. We wanted to understand what was happening.”

‘INSTEAD OF ENGAGING WITH THE FACULTY, THE PRESIDENT TALKED TO THE LA TIMES’

USC Provost Michael Quick

Within two hours of the meeting, the faculty sent a email to the president. “We wanted to understand the reasoning behind the decision and asked the president not to make any public announcement,” says Cardon. “Not only did she ignore the email,  she then sent an announcement out. And instead of engaging with the faculty, she talked to the Los Angeles Times.”

President Austin, moreover, never acknowledged the email or responded to it, according to several Marshall faculty. “As a matter of courtesy we wanted to know more about why he was dismissed especially because there was the insinuation that it had to do with diversity and inclusion issues,” adds Cardon. “People have seen him as an advocate for those issues. I bet 20% of every speech he has given in the past five years is about diversity.”

Provost Quick would ultimately agree to a meeting on Dec. 3. In anticipation of that session, the school’s Faculty Council dispatched an email survey to the school’s 296 active full- and part-time professors to get an overall sense of the faculty’s perspective. Some 210 responded in less than two days. The survey found that many faculty feel “concerned,” “shocked,” “troubled,” “disturbed,” “fearful,” “dismayed,” “upset,” and “outraged” about the process and outcome. Many perceived a lack of due process and transparency and support Ellis as fair, unbiased, and supportive of a positive culture. The mean scores for the four quantitative measures used to solicit perspectives regarding faculty desire for more input, faculty interest in more information, and faculty assessment of the dean’s performance and desired retention ranged between 4.5 and 4.8 out of 5.0.

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.