USC President Defends Decision To Oust Marshall School Dean

USC Interim President Wanda Austin and Provost Michael Quick met with Marshall’s Faculty Council (Photo courtesy of USC)

More than 40 days after telling Marshall School of Business Dean Jim Ellis that he was being terminated, the Interim President of the University of Southern California finally met with the school’s faculty to defend a decision that has caused an uproar on campus. According to sources, however, members of Marshall’s Faculty Council left the session with President Wanda Austin with no better understanding of why their highly popular dean was ousted.

Austin met with council members on Tuesday afternoon in the Bovard administration building on Jan. 8. She said her responsibility as the interim president is to make changes that set up the next president for success, with a focus on the university’s well-publicized scandals and potential areas of exposure.

Austin said that organization for a search for Dean Ellis’ successor will start immediately, with the goal of having a new dean in place on July 1 of this year when Ellis is scheduled to give up the job. She added that she has no intention of naming an interim dean at Marshall until a successor is chosen. That would appear to be an unusually short time to search for a new dean, particularly because USC has yet to name a search committee or hire an executive search firm to lead the effort.

Dean searches typically take up to a year or more. At neighboring UCLA’s Anderson School, former Dean Judy Olian announced that she was leaving last January yet the university is still trying to successfully identify and secure a candidate after the provost rejected the search committee’s slate of three dean hopefuls this month (see UCLA Dean Search Hits A Snag & Gets A Redo). It has been 17 months since former Dean Sally Blount announced that she would be leaving Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, yet Kellogg has yet to name a new permanent leader.

‘WE’RE CONCERNED THE SEARCH IS A SHAM’

Several faculty members expressed skepticism over Austin’s timeline. “We’re concerned the search is a sham and the president has already chosen someone,” a Marshall professor told Poets&Quants. “It seems highly unlikely a search can be completed by July 1 when a committee hasn’t been formed,” added another faculty member. “It seems like an ersatz committee will be assembled in my humble opinion.” A longer discussion about Marshall faculty participation in the search was scheduled with Provost Quick for Friday afternoon.

Drafted off USC’s board of trustees in August to be Interim President, Austin is the retired CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded nonprofit that does R&D for national security space programs. The board turned to her after a series of embarrassing scandals forced the resignation of C. L. Max Nikias who quit after more than 650 professors issued a letter demanding that he step aside.

Among other things, Nikias and his senior leadership team came under heavy criticism for how it handled reports that a long-time gynecologist at the campus health center had mistreated students for decades, making offensive remarks to patients and conducting pelvic exams inappropriately. USC officials settled the matter quietly, failing to report it to the state medical board. In yet another scandal, the former dean of the medical school was dismissed after he reportedly used drugs on campus and partied with prostitutes. But the dean named to replace him was then forced to resign after USC admitted that it had settled a sexual harassment case with one of his former researchers.

NEW ALLEGATIONS EMERGE OVER PROVOST QUICK’S OVERSIGHT IN PREVIOUS SCANDALS

Some Marshall professors believe that Austin, in the interim job for all of two months with no administrative experience in academia, was led astray by Provost Michael 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. 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 also was the provost who named Varma as Puliafito’s replacement as dean, only to have to rescind his appointment less than a year later.

New allegations over Quick’s lack of oversight have emerged as a result of the Ellis controversy. In a letter written to the board of trustees this week, the former associate dean of women in the Keck School of Medicine revealed that she reported her misgivings and mistreatment by Puliafito in 2010 to then Vice-Provost Michael Quick but that her concerns were “duly noted and ignored.”

“In 2011, I was forced to make the decision to step down from my position…I could not work for Dean Carmen Puliafito,” wrote Erin A. Quinn. “The management style of Dr. Puliafito had become untenable for me. My direct conversations regarding the difficult situation with multiple leaders…were ignored. I left my position because I was being bullied on a constant basis, required to make admission acceptances which were not approved by the committee or myself…I was harassed constantly in words and in actions.”

PRESIDENT MAINTAINS DECISION WAS ‘DATA- AND PROCESS-DRIVEN’

Austin, who attended the faculty council meeting with Quick, defended her decision to fire Dean Ellis, effective at the end of this academic year, cutting short his third consecutive five-year term by three years. Austin told the faculty that her decision was data- and process-driven, based on information brought to her about Marshall. The decision, she added, was also based on two studies that she commissioned on the information from the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity (OED). One study was a legal review, she added, while another was from a human resources perspective.

As reported earlier, the university appears to be blaming Ellis for what it believes is an inordinate 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. According to trustees who have seen a report by the law firm of Cooley LLP which reviewed the complaints, the law firm did not benchmark Marshall’s complaints against other USC schools or business schools. It also pointedly did not find a pervasive culture of harassment or discrimination at Marshall or among its leadership, nor did the report call for the dean’s dismissal.

The complaints ranged from a female student who called the university hotline 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.

PRESIDENT BELIEVES SOME FRUSTRATION IS CAUSED BY ‘MISCHARACTERIZATIONS’

Of the nine complaints that were brought 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.

Austin said she consulted with several other university officials before finalizing her decision, including Provost Michael Quick, personnel in the newly established Office of Professionalism and Ethics, and the board of trustees. The president said she believes that some of the frustration about the decision has been driven by what she called “mischaracterizations.”

But she steadfastly declined to provide any substantive additional information, insisting that the decision was a personnel matter. The meeting left faculty still struggling to understand the justification for the decision. “They’re angry and frustrated they still can’t get any concrete facts,” explained one faculty member with knowledge of the meeting.

According to a faculty council recap of the meeting, obtained by Poets&Quants, Austin left open the possibility of meeting with the entire faculty of Marshall. “President Austin indicated that a town hall remains a possibility, but also indicated that her schedule is very busy, with little flexibility,” council members said in an email. “She affirmed her faith in Provost Quick, as her Chief Academic Officer, to answer key questions. We do not, as yet, have clarity on town hall timing. Provost Quick expressed his hope, additionally, that trust could be rebuilt over the course of the upcoming Dean search.”

DON’T MISS: AT USC’S MARSHALL SCHOOL, AN ENRAGED FACULTY TIES TO UNDERSTAND THEIR DEAN’S OUSTER 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.