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Marshall Dean Ellis: No Anger, Just Sadness By A Firing He Considers Unjust

USC Interim President Wanda Austin and Board Chair Rick Caruso

LAW FIRM URGED A SERIES OF FOLLOW-UP INTERVIEWS THAT NEVER OCCURRED

Though Ellis did not know it at the time, the report by two junior associates of the law firm would conclude that there was no “pervasive culture of discrimination at Marshall or that the dean or other leadership actively discriminated on the basis of gender.” Yet, despite reaching this seemingly exonerating conclusion, the lawyers left open the possibility for Ellis’ dismissal. “The Provost,” the summary said, “should intensively determine whether Ellis should remain dean,” though they also recommended “further investigation, such as live interviews” to be conducted “to determine whether a culture of systemic discrimination currently exists at Marshall.” In fact, the Cooley investigators warned of the “natural limitations” to their report and noted that “live interviews – even limited ones – would go a long way toward fleshing out and/or validating our conclusions.” To Ellis’ knowledge, not a single member of his staff or the faculty was ever interviewed by either the law firm, the provost or the general counsel’s office.

Word of Ellis’ dismissal quickly spread outside the school. Letters, emails and phone calls supporting Ellis were pouring into the university, reaching Austin, Quick, Caruso and members of the board of trustees. Ultimately, more than 3,000 people would contact the university to advocate for the dean. An online petition was put up and would garner more than 4,200 signatures from those who supported Ellis. Lloyd Greif, a Marshall alum whose name is on the school’s entrepreneurship center, helped to spark and organize the opposition (see The MBA Leading The Fight To Save A Dean).   “Jim Ellis did nothing wrong and should still be dean for the next three years,” says Greif. “He doesn’t deserve the disrespect and mistreatment accorded him by the university.”

When the administration discovered that a major protest on campus was being organized for Dec. 7, a board member called Ellis and asked him to intervene. Recalls Ellis: “He said, ‘Jim, you’ve got to send out a note and tell everybody to settle down. We’re not going to get this negotiated unless you do this.’ So I did it and that was just a complete hoodwink on their part to get me to send out that note. It was on the premise that something reasonable would have been negotiated.”

‘CALM DOWN, TAKE A BREATH’

Ellis dispatched an email asking supporters to “calm down, take a breath.” As it turned out, roughly 150 people still showed up, wearing “I Stand With Dean Ellis” t-shirts, to protest the university’s decision. “It could have been 500 people because after I sent the note out a lot of people said maybe I shouldn’t have.  So they backed away.” Greif, who helped organize the rally, agreed.  “Jim’s last-minute message sowed confusion at a critical juncture in the protest movement, which is exactly what the administration wanted.”

But Ellis’ ouster had now become yet another scandal-generating controversy for USC. To put it to rest, Board Chair Caruso called a Dec. 12th meeting of the Board of Trustees which would back the interim president’s decision after Caruso warned that failing to do so could lead to her resignation, additional negative publicity that the university wanted to avoid at all costs. One board member who supported Ellis was booted out of the meeting by Caruso during the discussion.

Over the course of the next six months, Ellis would abide by Provost Quick’s December 3rd gag order and refuse to comment publicly about what had happened to him. He went about his job as if he had never been fired. In February, Ellis met with Austin and former board chair John Mork in an attempt to reach some sort of settlement.

The dean hoped that he could gain one more year so he would still be dean to help organize and celebrate the Marshall School’s Centennial.

‘I WANT YOU TO LEAVE IN JUNE’

USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis

USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis

“‘No,’” he recalls her saying, “‘I want you to leave in June.’”

“Why don’t you let me stay until the new dean comes onboard?,” asked Ellis.

Ultimately, she agreed that he would remain as dean until a successor took office, following a “thorough national search” and that Ellis would be paid for the remainder of his five-year term.

But when the written agreement was sent to him, the university wanted Ellis to sign a confidential settlement in exchange for both the payout and the extension to allow him to stay until a successor arrived. He refused. “I will not be bought off,” Ellis wrote in his farewell letter. “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.”

Austin was none too amused. In a letter to Ellis dated March 13th and obtained by Poets&Quants, she attempted to get him to accept the deal. “Jim,” she wrote. “One, we can proceed with the settlement agreement as drafted and we can jointly issue the statement to which we’ve already agreed. As part of that, you would continue to serve as dean until the new dean takes office, and receive the additional payments that the agreement provides. Two, you can choose not to sign the agreement, and we will simply follow the terms of your contract and my November 2018 notice of termination. In that event, your term as dean would end on June 30, 2019, and you would receive only what your contract provides.”

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