The following email was sent to the Marshall School of Business community by outgoing Dean James Ellis on Sunday, June 30, 2019, at 12:11 a.m. under the subject header: “My Departure As Dean.”
Dear Marshall Family:
On this, my final day as Dean, I am writing to express how grateful I am to all of the Marshall family that have made the past 12 years the most rewarding of my career. Over the past months, many of you have asked, “Why are you leaving?” I want to explain for the first time the circumstances surrounding my removal. I have always been completely transparent, and it is in that spirit that I am writing this letter.
It is the prerogative of the university President to terminate a Dean. Had I been asked to step aside for new leadership, I would have done so cooperatively and collaborated in the transition. Instead, university leadership fabricated—and then leaked to the media—damning misinformation about me, all while praising my work in written performance reviews and rewarding me with merit bonuses—which they had done every year for 12 years.
Last December, the Los Angeles Times reported that my ouster “was necessary to repair campus culture after a series of embarrassing scandals.” As recently as June 11, the Times reported that my term as Dean was “cut short last year over [my] response to sexual harassment and discrimination claims against faculty and staff.” These are fabrications, and they can only have come from one source: the USC administration.
Here are the true facts: There was no pattern of harassment or discrimination at Marshall. To date, I and others have seen 58 complaints or grievances filed with the Office of Equity and Diversity (OED) over 10 years. These could be complaints about a student, professor, administrator or staff employee. Almost all 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.
I have heard that the allegations circulated in the media stem from a report prepared by the Cooley law firm. USC never shared a copy of that report with me. However, the report has been reviewed by others under USC-imposed secrecy, and I am informed that the Cooley lawyers themselves issued a caution about the validity of their findings.
That is because they apparently were not permitted to conduct interviews, either of Marshall personnel, students, or administrators. They only reviewed OED files, which they indicated were often incomplete or missing due to slipshod recordkeeping. They admittedly did not perform either a thorough or independent investigation; nor did Cooley lawyers conduct primary research of their own.
After all of this, the administration nonetheless agreed that I would stay on as Dean until a new Dean was hired and started work. However, when USC memorialized this agreement in writing, I was provided with a release agreement that included confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions. The administration had already violated those agreements with me, and yet were asking me to be silent and not defend myself. I declined to do so.
As a result, I was asked to leave on June 30, without compensation for the remaining three years of my contract, as previously agreed to by the USC administration. Former USC employees such as Dr. George Tyndall and former USC Medical School Dean Carmen Puliafito were paid lucrative severance and bonus packages in exchange for their silence. I find this pattern of buying silence disturbing and contrary to the transparency espoused by university leadership.
I will not be bought off. 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 Marshall School of Business is on a tremendous upward trajectory that reflects positively on the entire university. We are renowned for our academic rigor, our strong interdisciplinary research, and attracting the most talented students and faculty from across the globe.
Last fall, the graduate school achieved its highest ever ranking—#14—in the Bloomberg Survey of Best B-Schools, while the undergraduate program has consistently maintained a Top 10 rating. Just last month, U.S. News and World Report ranked the Marshall MBA program #17, our highest-ever rating in that publication.
Recent “firsts” include achieving gender parity, with female students comprising 52% of the 2020 MBA class. We also have the highest percentage of underrepresented minorities of any major business school in the country at 22%. We established the unprecedented World Bachelor in Business and Master in Business for Veterans programs. Our successful capital program has provided some of the finest facilities in higher education. We should be immensely proud.
In the process of showing me the door as Dean, the university’s administration painted a picture of Marshall that is both inaccurate and offensive. The culture of Marshall is as strong, as diverse and as ambitious as ever. Culture is never the result of one person – good or bad – and together we have established an academic environment that is inviting and inclusive.
What is wrong is the way the university administration created a false narrative about Marshall by suggesting we fostered a hostile environment completely at odds with the one we have actually built. The strength of that culture is independently confirmed by: the December 2018 faculty survey that gave the Marshall School ratings of 4.5 – 4.8 out of 5.0 across the board; Bloomberg Businessweek’s December 2018 ranking of the best B-schools that awarded Marshall its highest rating for its treatment of (i) racial, religious and ethnic minorities, (ii) women, (iii) people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, (iv) international students and (v) people with disabilities; and, earlier this month, Bloomberg Businessweek’s survey of graduating students that ranked Marshall among the Top 5 B-schools in the world (a) providing inspiring and supportive instructors, (b) teaching skills directly applicable to real-world business situations, (c) inspiring students to pursue an ethical career, (d) providing recruiters representing a wide range of geographies and (e) providing courses taught by the right mix of academics and business professionals.
The false narrative woven by USC’s administration to justify my ouster mars the thriving, inclusive, and diverse Marshall School we have created together and the excellent education we are providing our students. My commitment to Marshall is without limits. The people I have had the opportunity to work alongside during the past 22 years have inspired me and made me better. I am proud to call you colleagues and friends, grateful for your guidance, humbled by your brilliance and inspired by your passion to build an institution that ignites the flame of knowledge.
I am excited to return to teaching after my sabbatical. I thank you and wish you all the very best—and look forward to working with you in the years ahead.