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Marshall’s Ousted Dean Assails USC For ‘Fabrications’

Outgoing Dean Jim Ellis of USC’s Marshall School of Business

After staying mum about his controversial ouster as dean of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business for eight long months, Jim Ellis apparently has plenty to say—and none of it is complimentary toward the university which forced his departure three years short of a five-year term.

In a letter released to the school’s community on June 30th, the final day of his deanship, Ellis blasts what he calls “the false narrative woven by USC’s administration to justify my ouster.” He is highly critical of the university for forcing him out of his job and releasing what he calls outright ”fabrications” and “damning misinformation about me…The university’s administration painted a picture of Marshall that is both inaccurate and offensive… There was no pattern of harassment or discrimination at Marshall.”

The extraordinary letter, obtained by Poets&Quants, along with an essay published this morning in the Los Angeles Times, represents Ellis’ first efforts to clear his name. While it contains strong language in his own defense, his words also portray a level of surprise, shock, anger, and sadness that he was losing his job when he strongly believes he did nothing wrong. A spokesman for USC told Poets&Quants it has nothing to add to previous statements made by the university “because this is a personnel matter (read the full text of Ellis’ letter here).”

OUTGOING DEAN SAYS USC TRIED TO MUZZLE HIM WITH A CONFIDENTIALITY PACT

The decision last November to fire Ellis yet allow him to complete the current academic term was reportedly based on claims that he had mishandled sex and gender harassment and discrimination cases reported to the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity (OED) during a 10-year period. But a detailed accounting of the 59 complaints reviewed by a team of Marshall administrators fails to provide any evidence that Ellis or his leadership team tolerated inappropriate behavior during his 12-year tenure as dean.

Ellis also reveals that the university attempted to muzzle him permanently with a confidentiality agreement, a non-disparagement clause, and a general release. When he refused to sign the agreement, Ellis says, the university withheld three years of compensation that had been remaining in his five-year contract. “I will not be bought off,” he wrote defiantly. “It is my hope that the new administration will immediately put a halt to USC’s practice of rewarding those who agree to leave quietly in shame. Secrets and shadows are hard to fight. We must be open and transparent at all times.”

The dean’s dismissal, backed by USC Board of Trustees Chair Rick Caruso, is largely viewed as unfair and a form of politically correct discrimination against an older, white male in his early 70s. The vast majority of the school’s faculty and staff, along with many of the students and alumni, have been united in anger over the university’s treatment of the departing dean. More than 4,200 people have signed a petition in support of Ellis, and at least 3,000 more have sent letters, emails and phone calls to the board of trustees and senior officials opposing the university’s decision.

LA TIMES HAS REPORTED THAT ELLIS LOST HIS JOB DUE TO MISHANDLING ‘SEX MISCONDUCT CASES’

LA Times headline on a recent story reporting on Ellis’ successor from Wharton

USC Interim President Wanda Austin has never publicly disclosed the reason for the termination, but in a statement released to the Los Angeles Times last December she said “the commitment we made to our university community to improve our campus culture sometimes requires us to make difficult decisions.  We understand there are those who will disagree, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t the right decisions to move the university forward.  We learned our lesson.”  In an email sent to alumni, Austin further elaborated that the decision was made “after careful deliberation. Because this is a personnel matter, we are limited in what we can share about this decision,” she added. 

When Austin’s decision became public last December, unidentified university sources told the Los Angeles Times that Ellis was being ousted because he had allegedly mishandled gender and racial bias complaints at the school over a ten-year period. Caruso, who many believe leaked that information to the LA Times, 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.”

As recently as June 11, when USC announced that Wharton Dean Geoff Garrett would eventually succeed Ellis, the Times continued to report that Ellis lost his job over the “handling of sex misconduct cases.” In his letter to the Marshall community, Ellis strongly takes issue with those accusations, insisting that he had done nothing wrong.

Ellis argues that almost all of the complaints were “handled exclusively by OED, not me. I’m not part of OED, and OED did not coordinate with me. To the extent a complaint ever did come to my attention, we dealt with it appropriately and followed university policy along with the specific directives issued by the university’s administrators. We never ignored or buried a complaint. Most were either resolved by OED without being brought to my attention, or not disclosed to other administrators, and due to privacy issues, not disclosed to me because of OED rules and guidelines.”

A REVIEW OF 59 COMPLAINTS SHOCKED THE THREE SENIOR MARSHALL OFFICIALS ON A REVIEW TEAM

When he was finally given permission to review the OED complaints, Ellis asked three senior Marshall administrators including a tenured female faculty member to read them on his behalf. What the review team found shocked them. Some of the 59 files consisted of little more than a few lines of handwritten notes. One had nothing to do with the Marshall School at all: the case file involved the university’s Keck School of Medicine. Two cases were duplicates and two others were so incomplete that it was impossible to determine whether any follow-up had occurred.

No less crucial, some 23 cases – or 39% – consisted of allegations made by staff or faculty members against each other. Dean Ellis was copied on eight of those cases. Six were determined to have violated university policy. The disposition of those cases was decided by the university’s central HR or legal departments, including the senior vice president of administration, the provost and the general counsel, all of whom have now left the university.

Another 18 cases – or 31% – were inquiries that never led to investigations. These included a faculty member seeking advice about helping a student with a potential Title IX claim against another student, and a faculty member who emailed seeking a clarification on policy.

About The Author

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.