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

Students’ Bridge at USC Marshall

PROVOST QUICK VIEWED THE SITUATION LEADING TO THE DECISION AS ‘EXTRAORDINARY’ 

They conveyed those results in their Dec. 3rd meeting with Provost Quick who told the group that the president was not available to meet with us because she was traveling. Quick told the council that he viewed the situation as “extraordinary” and not indicative of the administration’s longer term commitment to transparency and shared governance. But he declined to share any details because, Quick claimed, “private personnel matters drove the decision.”

The university’s Academic Senate would unanimously pass on Dec. 10th a resolution declaring its agreement “with the Marshall School faculty that the decision concerning Dean Ellis lacked shared governance and transparency as to the process.”

“We are genuinely perplexed,” says Cardon. “Most people assume it’s not something egregious because Jim would have been dismissed immediately and not allowed to stay for six months. It’s very concerning. We are in an environment where some of the recent scandals make people expect openness more than ever before. When people see something that is so closed and opaque, it makes them more distrustful.”

At a holiday party, faculty and staff wanted their pictures taken with Dean Jim Ellis

‘EVERYONE WAS GOING UP AND HUGGING THE DEAN AND CRYING’

On Dec. 15, just after the university closed for winter recess two days earlier, some 200 faculty and staff showed up for an already scheduled holiday party at Marshall. “When Jim came to the podium, he could not stop the people from giving him an ovation,” recalls Henry. “These were people who were deeply hurt by this decision.”

Julia Plotts, a professor who says Ellis’ reappointment was a “slam dunk,” was astounded by the reception the dean received. “It was unbelievable, the number of people who showed up,” says Plotts. “We usually have okay attendance for something like a party. This was packed. He received three standing ovations. Everyone was going up and hugging him and crying. He gave a very inspiring motivational speech. You can tell he loves Marshall and USC and doesn’t quite know what is going on. You’ve got to give him credit. He is still being a leader.”

Autry, a serial entrepreneur before coming to Marshall to teach in 2013, says that “People of all colors and genders were cheering for that man for five minutes. It was a wholehearted embrace of him. That doesn’t happen in a lot of organizations.”

‘JIM IS IDENTIFIED WITH THE EXCELLENCE OF OUR ACADEMIC MISSION’

USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis

The depth of the faculty’s reaction has even surprised some of the most skeptical professors. “At every university, faculty are really loyal to the academic mission,” explains one senior female professor. “I love him and I respect him enormously, but our first and final loyalty is to our scholarship, our research and our students. Loyalty to any dean is secondary. The reason there is such strong loyalty to Jim is because he is identified with the excellence of our academic mission. Scholarship is recognized and rewarded. People are given room for experimentation. The loyalty extends to Jim because of his leadership. The success of Marshall is very closely identified with him. If he had not done what he did, faculty would not be up in arms and willing to fight for him.”

Ellis, faculty and staff say, has made many of them feel part of a family at Marshall. “I know his family,” says professor Plotts. “I’ve taught his son. Everyone loves him and this is going to be a big blow to us. There are a lot of alums now who are ashamed to be Trojans. There is a term we use inside Marshall and it’s called FOJ (Friend of Jim). If you get an email from a friend of Jim’s, you are going to act because he will do whatever he can to help others.“

Business school deans, of course, come and go. Few last as long as Ellis at Marshall, and fewer still have had his kind of impact on an institution or its people. But the ensuing controversy over the President’s decision has many professors deeply worried about the future of the school. “We all feel a sense of uncertainty,” says one female professor. “Faculty are beginning to ask the question, ’Is this a place we want to spend the rest of our careers’? It is distracting. It angers me because the price that will be paid by Marshall is enormous. Over the years we have recruited and retained some of the best faculty in the world.”

Sighs Professor Park, “It’s not clear to me whether we can bring back the momentum we used to have and that really breaks my heart.”

‘IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT? COME CLEAN.’

Cardon believes the “worst case scenario is that people will see that no one listened to anyone in this situation which has amounted to thousands of people and no one ever wants to speak out again. We were in such a positive trajectory. So many of our programs are doing better. Rankings are one reflection of that. This certainly takes away from that positive momentum. I have had several classes with MBA students and they are concerned that this will detract from our public reputation. There is concern about stability in leadership. “

Some of the school’s professors, still struggling to understand the decision, have gently confronted the dean, who has consistently declined to be interviewed for this or any other story. They’ve pointedly asked him if there is something they don’t know about that could justify the president’s decision. They’ve asked him about his previous performance reviews. They’ve questioned him about what he knows about the bias complaints.

“Many of us asked him several times,” says one female professor, ‘Is there anything else we should know about? Come clean. Tell us what is going on?” He said, ‘I don’t know what is going on. There is nothing out there.’ He was never told there were problems,” says one professor. “The only feedback he got in his last review was to focus on the rankings. If there was this negative culture of bias at Marshall, why was the dean not given any feedback for 12 years before he was fired? That tells me the provost has either no clue about what is going on or he knew exactly what he was doing and did it.”

How it will end is anyone’s guess. Ellis’ supporters say he would agree to make the Cooley report public for all to see because he vehemently believes he has done nothing wrong. “(Board Chair) Rick Caruso has made it pretty clear that he and Austin have dug a big hole they can’t get out of,” says Professor Autry. ” There are only two outcomes: one is the present outcome or they (Caruso and President Austin) leave. She failed to do her research on this gentlemen and made a decision prematurely and put herself in a very unfortunate hole.” 

DON’T MISS: DEAN’S DISMISSAL MAY COST USC UP TO $40 MILLION or COMMENTARY: HOW USC’S PRESIDENT AND BOARD CHAIR FLUNKED THEIR FIRST LEADERSHIP TEST

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.