Marshall’s Advisory Board Asks New USC President For A Public Apology

USC President Carol Folt

USC President Carol Folt, formerly Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, took over USC on July 1

The Board of Leaders of the Marshall School of Business today asked the newly-installed president of the University of Southern California to make a public apology to the ousted dean of the business school. The 17 members of the board’s Executive Committee, who represent a diverse group of C-suite executives and entrepreneurs from Wall Street to Main Street, are asking President Carol Folt to clear Ellis’ name of reported allegations that he had mishandled race and gender bias complaints filed at the Marshall School during his 12-year term as dean.

The letter from the committee members, many of them alumni who speak for the entire 116-member board, comes little more than a week after Dean Jim Ellis lost his job after he had been fired by former Interim President Wanda Austin and Provost Michael Quick. It also brings the newly arrived president, the former CEO and Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, into a long-simmering controversy that has outraged most of the business school’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

“We believe USC should make a formal apology to Jim Ellis and set the record straight with respect to his deanship and the entire Marshall School—both his good name and the Marshall School’s reputation should and must be cleared,” according to the committee, a diverse group of executives and entrepreneurs from Wall Street to Main Street that speaks for the Board of Leaders. “We strongly encourage you to do so, for the good of the Marshall School and the very institution you lead.”


USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis

Former USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis

The group also expressed “our equally serious concern over the lack of process followed in securing a replacement for Dean Ellis.” The interim president, with the approval of Folt, named Wharton Dean Geoff Garrett as Ellis’ successor only last month, effectively replacing a 71-year-old white male with a 61-year-old white male. Garrett will complete the current academic year at Wharton before taking over at the Marshall School (see USC Steals Wharton Dean To Head Marshall School Without A Full Search).

While the committee said it believed Garrett is “eminently qualified for the job,” the advisory board took issue with the lack of a thorough search that would have brought forward a diverse slate of candidates. Citing statements by both Interim President Austin and Provost Quick that USC would conduct “a thorough national search for the new dean of the USC Marshall School of Business,” the executive committee noted that “no search was actually conducted and no other candidates were interviewed other than Dr. Garrett. No position description was ever finalized, posted and advertised, nor were candidates solicited, screened or interviewed.”

A spokesperson for USC had earlier told Poets&Quants that the university disagrees that a thorough search wasn’t done. He says the university engaged the search firm of SpencerStuart and the university held “listening sessions for the Marshall community” and “provided a way for the community to contact the search firm and provost directly.” Asked if the search committee interviewed more than a single candidate for the job, the spokesman said only “the details of the search are confidential.”

“USC simply needs to drop the pretense and come clean—there was no search,” according to the letter to Folt. “Why the continuing lack of transparency? Alarmingly, members of the dean search committees were not only sworn to secrecy as to the identity of any candidates being considered, which is normal for such high- profile searches, they were also sworn to secrecy about the process itself. Why was this unusual protocol put in place, unless an actual search was never intended to be conducted in the first place? Anything less than a thorough, exhaustive search is potentially compromising to the school, and to the selected candidate. It is unwarranted, unfair to all concerned, and, frankly, unnecessary,” a reference to the fact that Garrett will not be taking office until July 2020, leaving ample time for a proper search.


This is not the first time the Board of Leaders has waded into the controversy. In January, the group demanded the immediate resignation of Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso and the placing on leave of three senior USC officials, including Interim President Austin, and Provost Quick and General Counsel Mauch Amir. All three of those officials have since resigned their posts, though Caruso still remains the chair of the Board of Trustees.

If the outgoing president, provost and general counsel—who were all directly involved in cutting Dean Ellis’ third term short by three years—hoped that the appointment of Garrett would put an end to the controversy, they were badly mistaken. On the last day of his deanship on June 30th, Ellis publicly spoke out about his firing for the first time in a highly critical op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and a letter to the Marshall community (see Marshall’s Ousted Dean Assails USC For ‘Fabrications’).

Ellis blasted what he called “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.” 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.”

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 failed to provide any evidence that Ellis or his leadership team tolerated inappropriate behavior during his tenure as dean.


Ellis also revealed 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.”

Now the executive committee of the board of leaders has weighed in, dragging the new USC president into the fray. The group cited what it called serious fault in the decision to dismiss Ellis in at least three respects: A lack of due process, no shared governance between faculty and the administration, and no transparency.

“Jim Ellis,” the committee wrote, “was given no opportunity to defend his record, or even to examine the case against him. To this day, he has not been given or shown a copy of the Cooley report that supposedly was used by former General Counsel Carol Mauch Amir and Provost Quick as justification for his dismissal. When Jim was finally given access to the OED records of gender and racial bias cases that he allegedly mishandled, he assembled a team of three impartial Marshall administrators to review them—two of whom were both ethnic minorities and female. They were appalled by what they found: a total lack of grounds for requiring his departure, no pattern of discrimination by faculty or staff, and no misconduct whatsoever by the dean himself, either through acts of commission or omission.”


The group also argued that the Marshall faculty was wrongly kept in the dark on the administration’s decision to fire Ellis. “The Marshall School’s faculty, arguably the most accurate barometer of whether there is a culture problem at the school, was not consulted in advance of the decision to terminate Dean Ellis and was ignored after the decision,” the committee wrote. “Marshall faculty voiced their overwhelming support for Dean Ellis in a survey conducted by the school’s Faculty Council within days of when the news broke that the dean was being removed. The faculty gave the dean high marks, rating him between 4.5 and 4.8 on a scale of 5.0, on a variety of important metrics, and was extremely critical of the lack of process in the decision to dismiss him. The university’s Academic Senate, the governing body for all USC faculty members, also unanimously denounced the decision as lacking in shared governance and transparency Unfortunately, USC’s administration not only chose to ignore this information, they buried it: Marshall’s Faculty Council offered to present the survey results to the Board of Trustees in its December 12th meeting at which Dean Ellis’ termination was to be discussed and debated, but Board Chair Rick Caruso inexplicably refused to let them present their findings. For reasons known only to Mr. Caruso, the board was asked to deliberate about so momentous a decision as the removal of the dean of the largest and most prominent school on campus with incomplete information.”

The group also said there was no transparency over the decision to sack the dean. “Neither the dean himself nor the faculty and staff of the Marshall School were ever provided a rationale for why he had to go. The administration’s repeated response was, ‘it’s a personnel matter so it’s confidential.’ USC has come under intense criticism in recent years for its lack of transparency and vain attempts to sweep personnel problems under the rug. Cases in point include Keck School Dean Carmen Puliafito and Engemann Student Health Center gynecologist George Tyndall—failed coverups that exploded in the university’s face. We applaud Dean Ellis for refusing to agree to a confidential settlement with USC—he does not deserve to be in the same company as Messrs. Puliafito and Tyndall. We also suspect that the real reason for the lack of transparency by the administration, despite repeated pledges by your predecessor and the chairman of USC’s Board of Trustees that the university was resolutely committed to a new era of transparency, is that the facts—as the entire Trojan Family has now learned—do not support the dean’s dismissal, so best not to go there. Jim Ellis declined a multi-million-dollar settlement with USC because he didn’t just talk the talk about transparency, he walked the walk. This university’s leadership should aspire to be as ethical and principled as he is. “

The committee said it believes a statement from Folt and the new Marshall deans would represent “the first critical step in reestablishing leadership legitimacy at USC and will set the tone for the strong, clear-eyed leadership to come from Bovard under your administration. You can count on the Marshall School Board of Leaders, its faculty and staff to support you every step of the way in this regard.”


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