USC Scandals Claim Two More Top Officials

USC Marshall School of Business

Little more than two months after all 116 members of the Board of Leaders for the Marshall School of Business demanded the placing on leave of three University of Southern California senior officials, two of them today (April 2) announced they would resign their jobs by the end of this academic year.

University Provost Michael Quick and General Counsel Carol Mauch Amir, both closely involved in the decision to remove Marshall Dean Jim Ellis three years before his third consecutive term ends, said they would leave their positions on June 30th. It was Quick who recommended to interim President Wanda Austin that Ellis should be terminated. Austin, who is leaving the school with the arrival of a new permanent president, Carol Folt, on the same date, was the third official that the Board of Leaders recommended be put on leave pending an investigation.

The resignations were announced by Austin in an email to the USC community. “I write to inform you that Michael Quick, our provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and Carol Mauch Amir, our senior vice president for legal affairs and professionalism, have each notified me of their intent to retire from their positions, effective June 30, 2019,” wrote Austin. ” Dr. Quick will return to the faculty, where he is a professor of biological sciences in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. ”

After weathering months of complaints and protests from Ellis supporters, Austin will leave her temporary position on July 1 when Folt is expected to assume the permanent job. The departures of the three most senior USC officials also occurs in the aftermath of a massive college admissions scandal in which four USC coaches have been accused of fraud. More than half of the 33 parents named in a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Boston last month have been accused of paying to get their children’s way into USC and the compliant alleges that 12 students were accepted at USC through admission fraud.


USC Provost Michael Quick

A group of about 350 professors, who call themselves Concerned Faculty of USC, have decried the scam that has led to the firing of an athletic administrator and a water polo coach after they allegedly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. “USC is again at the center of a scandal involving corruption, greed, and a failure of administrative oversight and accountability,” the group said in a statement.

The resignations of Quick and Amir, plus the failure of Austin to turn her temporary position as interim president into a more permanent role, are widely considered a victory for Ellis’ advocates. They have argued that the decision to remove the highly popular dean of USC’s business school was without merit and blatantly unfair. Austin, who had been drafted off the university’s board of trustees to become the school’s interim leader in August of last year, faced severe criticism over her decision to terminate the business school dean. The controversial decision resulted in student protests, hundreds of letters and emails and petitions signed by more than 4,000 alumni, staff and faculty in support of Dean Ellis. The school’s faculty complained about the lack of transparency and failure to consult with them.

Their resignations leave only Rick Caruso, chair of the university’s board of trustees, in place. The fallout from the latest college admissions scam hasn’t helped Caruso. The daughter of two parents–actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli–implicated in the fraud happened to be aboard a $100 million yacht owned by Caruso when the scandal became public. Olivia Jade Giannulli was intending to spend a week on the yacht as it sailed to the Bahamas with Caruso’s daughter, Gianna. Giannulli’s parents allegedly agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team to get them into the university.

It was back on Jan. 21st when Marshall’s Board of Leaders had called for Caruso’s immediate resignation. Gregory R. Hillgren, the chairperson of the business school’s Board of Leaders, maintained that Caruso, Austin, Quick, and Amir, whose full title is senior vice president for legal affairs and professionalism, had lost their “leadership legitimacy” at the university. He urged the board to launch an independent review of Marshall’s culture and Dean Ellis’ role and performance as well as an investigation of Caruso and the three top USC officials.


“Immediately remove Chairman Caruso and place the three senior administrators on leave pending the outcome of that examination,” wrote Hillgren, who earned his undergraduate business degree and MBA from Marshall and is president of CALVEST Realty Advisors, Inc. and Hillgren Holdings, LLC. “During the pendency of this important investigation, they should no longer be in positions of authority at this university. Rick Caruso should be immediately replaced by one or more of your members—he has proven himself to be grossly unfit to serve the best interests of USC–while both an Office of the President and an Office of the Provost can be established on a temporary basis until the investigation is concluded and successors are identified and secured. That office would temporarily consist of their second and third in commands.”

Hillgren took special aim at Provost Quick for USC’s earlier scandals, including the administration’s handling of a campus gynecologist, George Tyndall, who had been accused of sexually abusing patients for years, that led to the resignation of President Max Nikias last August. When Puliafito finally resigned, Quick replaced him with Dr. Rohit Varma, who had been accused of sexual harassment by a female researcher at USC which reached a financial settlement with the alleged victim. Varma was pushed out months later. Then, last August, it was revealed that Marilyn Flynn, former dean of USC’s School of Social Work, was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for inappropriate financial transactions.


Carol Mauch Amir, USC’s general counsel

“The Puliafito, Varma, Tyndall, and Flynn scandals were sufficient grounds to mandate the resignation of President Max Nikias but not Provost Quick, even though it is the Provost’s job to oversee the internal operations of USC as the university’s Chief Operating Officer?,” wrote Hillgren. “And now he has created the Ellis scandal where one didn’t exist? It is unfathomable that Michael Quick is still Provost, a power-position where he can and will continue to harm USC. That trust is not recoverable, so they must be immediately replaced for the good of the university. Accordingly, commission a similar independent examination of these officials, their actions and behaviors in this matter and other recent crises that have sequentially impacted the university.

Other allegations over Quick’s lack of oversight emerged as a result of the Ellis controversy. In a letter written to the board of trustees earlier this year, 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.”


Among the school’s faculty and staff, the anger directed at Austin, Quick and Caruso has run deep. Many of them have believed all three should have been fired outright. “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.”

Austin never 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. 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.”

Unless the board of trustees or incoming USC President Carol Folt reopens the decision to fire Ellis, he is expected to leave at the end of this academic year. Folt, the recently departed chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will become the first female president in the school’s 139-year history. In her email, Austin said that she and Folt would work together to select successors to Quick and Amir.

“For the provost position, we will name an interim provost in the coming weeks, and identify a chair of the search committee, which will include faculty across an array of schools at USC,” wrote Austin. “Our search for both positions will be national in scope and exhaustive in reach.  We will keep you posted on our progress, as appropriate.”


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.