Unable To Silence Critics, USC Resorts To Censoring Them

USC is deleting posts from parents on Facebook that support Marshall School Dean Jim Ellis and blocking parents from the community

In efforts to quell the escalating controversy over a decision to fire the dean of its business school, the University of Southern California is deleting Facebook posts and blocking parents who have expressed a dissenting point of view with USC’s position. The university, meantime, is also attempting to muzzle members of its board of trustees who have spoken out in support of Marshall School of Business Dean Jim Ellis who was fired by USC Interim President Wanda Austin in November.

Several parents confirmed that their posts in support of the dean have disappeared from the university’s parents community page on Facebook.  Even worse, some report being blocked from making any Facebook posts at all after expressing a view different from the university’s decision to fire its business school dean.

“I was kicked out of the group/page for posting articles and letters supporting Dean Ellis and blocked from rejoining,” one mother of a USC student told Poets&Quants.  “I wanted the USC parents community to know what was happening. Unfortunately, my son, a USC student, had asked me back in December to stay out of this situation once I was kicked out of the Facebook USC parents page and blocked.”

‘ORWELLIAN! I’M HORRIFIED. NOT WHAT I THOUGHT WE WERE SENDING OUR CHILD OFF TO’

A screenshot of a deleted post from USC’s parent community on Facebook

Erika Demma, whose daughter is currently a senior at the Marshall School, says she was locked out of the Facebook community three days ago after posting a few letters on the parent’s page. “I was shocked when I couldn’t get back on the site at all,” she says. “I was just letting people know what was going on. I love USC but I am just really disappointed in the way this has been handled.” 

It’s not clear how many parents have been blocked, but screen captures obtained by Poets&Quants from the university’s Facebook page appear to show a systematic effort at censorship as outrage over the university’s decision continues to grow.  “They’ve already turned off the replies to comments on the parents’ page,” wrote one parent on Facebook (see screenshot). “Orwellian!~ What kind of school is this? I’m horrified. Not what I thought we were sending our child off to at all.”

Added yet another parent, Izzy James: “USC is the most expensive university in the U.S., and they’re censoring the USC Parent Facebook page! How ridiculous; maybe we should start emailing copies to all the parents directly. I’d tell you to contact the LA Times, but it appears they’ve become Rick and Wanda’s new propaganda puppet.” The commenter was referring to an op-ed article that supported the decision by President Austin and Board Chair Rick Caruso to fire Dean Ellis.

‘WHAT IS USC AFRAID OF AND WHAT ARE THEY HIDING?’

No less crucial, the university’s deletion of the posts have led some parents to fear retaliation from the school. “Honestly, I’m afraid of retribution,” explained one Facebook poster. “My son doesn’t want me posting anything. I’m already alone on the parents’ board posting these links and the administration apparently turns off the ability to comment. They even kicked off another mother. So next semester will my son be flagged not to get the classes he wants? If my younger kids apply to USC will they not get in because I’m speaking out? Ordinarily, I’d say that’s ridiculous but maybe not given this climate?!”

USC parent posts deleted from the Facebook page for parents

Groused another: “It’s literally scaring me. My child (who of course loves LA has made friends and had a fantastic first semester) wants me to be quiet about it for fear of retribution on an 18-year-old kid who’s mom reposts a few links on a parents fb page. Wow. So frightening.”

The censorship attempt has already raised the ire of Dean Ellis’ supporters. “USC is hitting the panic button and trying to stifle public dissent,” says Lloyd Greif, an investment banking entrepreneur who is a Marshall alum, donor and member of the school’s Board of Leaders. “What are they afraid of and what are they hiding?”

‘DUPLICATE POSTS & OFF-TOPIC COMMENTS ARE REMOVED’

A spokesperson for the university acknowledged that the school was taking down posts and blocking parents. “To keep the page on topic with sharing advice and answers to questions, the content is moderated to ensure it remains consistent with the group’s tenets.” according to a university statement provided to Poets&Quants“Duplicate posts and off-topic comments are removed, and, in rare instances, parents who are unable to follow the group’s objectives may be removed.”

Demma, also a member of Marshall’s Parent Board of Northern California, strongly disagrees. “How is this off topic?,” she asks. “This is the biggest topic at USC. It’s a huge deal and not only for Marshall but for the school’s reputation. I was very vocal about my support of Jim, and I am angry with the way he has been treated.”

‘THEY FEEL A CHANGE IN LEADERSHIP IS IN ORDER’

Though President Austin and Caruso have been purposely vague about the reasons for the dean’s dismissal, reports in the Los Angeles Times alleged that the decision was based on a mishandling by Ellis of gender and racial bias complaints filed with USC’s Office of Equity and Diversity (OED) during this deanship as well as the school’s culture.

The most complete explanation for what happened came from Ellis himself who informed faculty and staff of the decision in a brief email on Dec. 3. “To the best of my knowledge,” he wrote, “this decision was not based on anything I personally had done, but rather a cumulative record of OED (Office of Equity and Diversity) cases from Marshall. The vast majority of these cases were never brought to my attention. Nevertheless, this apparently has led university leadership to believe that we do not have a positive culture here. Therefore, they feel a change in leadership is in order.”

Ever since it became known that Ellis was terminated, effective at the end of the current academic year and three years before his third five-year term ends, thousands of supporters have emerged to make phone calls, write emails and letters, and sign a petition in support of the highly popular business school dean.

MORE THAN 3,800 HAVE SIGNED A PETITION IN SUPPORT OF DEAN JIM ELLIS

As of today (Jan. 24), more than 3,800 people have signed the petition, and hundreds upon hundreds of letters have been sent to the university’s board of trustees to protest the treatment of the dean. The Marshall faculty have overwhelmingly supported the dean and condemned the university leadership for the decision (see What Marshall Faculty Really Think Of The Dean USC Is Firing). In an unprecedented move, all 116 members of Marshall’s Board of Leaders, including Guggenheim Securities Vice Chairman Peter M. Comisar, demanded the resignation of Board Chair Rick Caruso and the placing on leave of President Austin, Provost Michael Quick and Senior Vice President Carol Mauch Amir for their roles in the decision to fire the dean (see Marshall’s Advisory Board Urges Ouster Of USC Board Chair Caruso). Caruso also has come under heavy criticism from several trustees for his handling of a Dec. 12th board meeting at which trustees lent their support to President Austin’s decision (see USC Trustees Slam Board Chair Caruso Over B-School Dean’s Dismissal).

The deletion of supportive emails on a USC parent community and the blocking of parents who posted those emails is not the first time the university has attempted to muzzle its critics or even Dean Ellis. On Dec. 3, when the dean notified faculty and staff of the decision, he was quickly reprimanded and told to cease and desist.  “With that communication,” wrote Quick, “you misused the Office of the Dean to advance your own personal agenda, and you placed your personal interests over the interests of Marshall and the University. Moreover, 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. 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 (see Quick’s memo on following page)”

More recently, on Jan. 11, a long-standing board of trustee member, Ming Hsieh, brought up the issue in a letter to Board Chair Caruso. “I understand that the provost sought to muzzle Jim Ellis from speaking about his removal,” wrote Hsieh, who has served on the board for more than ten years and also donated $85 million to the university. “This action is antithetical to everything for which USC stands. The provost should withdraw this threat and rescind the gag order so that Jim is free to speak without fear or reprisal.”

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.