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

Faculty first heard of Dean Jim Ellis’ terminating at Hoffman Hall at Marshall

When the senior faculty of the Marshall School of Business were unexpectedly summoned to a Nov. 30th meeting in Hoffman Hall on the University of Southern California’s campus, they were not told why they were being gathered on a Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. The email from Nandini Rajagopalan, vice chair for faculty and academic affairs, acknowledged the unusual nature of the request. “We realize this is very short notice but it is crucial we brief you as soon as possible,” she wrote in an email a day earlier. “We want to share a recent development with significant implications for Marshall.”

And then, the 40 to 50 faculty members who shuffled into the meeting discovered to their dismay that the rumors swirling around the school turned out to be true. Jim Ellis, their highly popular 71-year-old dean in his third consecutive five-year term, had been sacked by Interim President Wanda Austin. The crestfallen dean told the faculty that he would be leaving at the end of the academic year, his term cut short by three years because of the termination. Ellis explained that he was unsure why he was being dismissed because he had done nothing inappropriate.

The dean said he was told there were a significant number of complaints filed with the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity (OED) during his deanship, but that only eight or nine were forwarded to him. Ellis made clear that none of the OED complaints were lodged against him, but rather faculty and students at Marshall and told the professors that he had handled them appropriately.

‘WE WERE DUMBFOUNDED. WHY DIDN’T THE UNIVERSITY SOLICIT OUR INPUT?’

Professor Choong W. Park

“People felt absolutely shocked,” says Choong W. Park, who has been a professor of marketing at Marshall for 21 years. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘What?’ We were dumbfounded. Why didn’t the university somehow solicit our own input when they made this decision? It was really surprising. The second emotion was puzzlement to say the least. And the third was disappointment and anger.”

Dean Ellis seemed hurt but dignified in trying to explain what happened to him, remembers Park and several other professors at the meeting. “He just relayed the facts, and he was very impartial,” remembers Park, who has nothing but high praise for the dean. “There was no attempt from his part to seek any help or support from us. He is a very fair minded, wonderful human being.”

As Ellis spoke, a sense of disbelief hung over the room. “Jim seemed genuinely confused,” recalls Peter Cardon, a Marshall professor and academic director for the MBA for professionals and managers. “The moment I sensed real sadness is when he said something to the effect that he wanted to be around for our 100th year anniversary in 2020. I’ve got to say if everything he said wasn’t true, you have to give that guy an Oscar. He looked absolutely perplexed. My perception of the meeting was that Jim was almost resigned to his fate. I don’t think he thought there was much he could do about it.”

A FIRESTORM OF CONTROVERSY: PETITIONS, PROTESTS, LETTERS, LOBBYING

In the four weeks that have followed, however, Marshall’s most loyal alumni have rallied to the dean’s support as the school’s faculty is painfully moving through all of the predictable stages of grief. First, there was utter and total shock. Then, the inevitable anger, along with trying to come to grips with what is widely viewed as an unfair and unwarranted decision by the university.

The new Interim President and Provost Michael Quick have been heavily criticized for their lack of transparency and failure to consult with faculty. Students have marched on campus in protest. The faculty, returning to school today for the start of the spring semester, are stunned and enraged. Many donors are cancelling or rethinking tens of millions of dollars of pledges to the school. And several board trustees are reportedly seeking to revisit the decision.

Nearly 3,500 people have signed a petition in support of Ellis, and hundreds more have sent letters, emails and phone calls to the university’s board of trustees opposing the university’s decision. Austin has not publicly disclosed the reason for the termination, only that the decision was made “after careful deliberation,” according to an email sent to alumni. “Because this is a personnel matter, we are limited in what we can share about this decision,” she added.

‘HOW IS THIS HAPPENING WHEN HE HAS DONE EVERYTHING RIGHT?’

Professor Julia Plotts

However, unnamed university sources, in spinning the story to the Los Angeles Times, suggested that Ellis was ousted because he had allegedly mishandled gender and racial bias complaints at the school. Rick Caruso, chairman of the board of trustees, has been quoted in the newspaper saying that Ellis’ firing “is part of where the university is today in terms of acknowledging a proper culture that needs to be embraced and practiced on campus.”

Marshall faculty take strong issue with any suggestion that the school’s culture is toxic. “How is this happening when he has done everything right?,” asks Julia Plotts, an associate professor of finance and business economics. “We are at the top of our game in terms of the number of women students and on the leadership staff. It’s frustrating. They say they want to fix the culture, but there is nothing wrong with the culture.”

Several professors, in fact, insist that the culture of the school under Ellis is uplifting and positive. “It is a culture of excellence, growth and inclusion, of supporting people,” says Patrick Henry, who teaches in the entrepreneurship program. “Jim Ellis cares about the school. He takes pride in what Marshall has done. Jim supports more students and alumni in important ways than any dean in America. The one thing about the school is that we help each other. There really is a Trojan family here, and Marshall is the heartbeat of it. We’ve unnecessarily damaged a great business school and that damage will linger on.”

FACULTY ANGERED BY THE DECISION BUT ALSO HOW IT WAS MADE

Faculty members are  still struggling to understand what exactly led to the action. So is Dean Ellis who was never allowed to see a report commissioned by Provost Michael Quick on racial and gender bias complaints during Ellis’ deanship at Marshall. But some trustees who have viewed the report by the law firm of Cooley LLC say that it did not recommend the ouster of the dean nor did it find a pervasive culture of discrimination or harassment at Marshall.

Many of the school’s most senior professors are not only angry about the decision but also how it was made. They say there was no input from the faculty, who would normally be consulted on everything from a dean’s hiring to his reappointment, and certainly no due process afforded Dean Ellis who is highly admired by faculty, staff, students and alumni. When Marshall faculty asked the president for a meeting, she never responded directly to the request and has yet to meet with the faculty over the controversy.

“Deans serve at the pleasure of the president so theoretically there is no reason for the president to consult the faculty prior to asking the dean to step down,” says one senior female professor who declined to be quoted by name. “In this instance, however, the abruptness with which it was done, the lack of a compelling justification, and frankly the fact that Jim is arguably the most successful and beloved dean we have had suggests that there should have been more due diligence.

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.