Here's What USC Is Looking For In Its Next President

USC Board of Trustees Chair Rick Caruso hosted the first of three university forums for president. (Photo by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

It's been the most tumultuous year in USC's recent history.

To recap:

  • The medical school dean was removed after he was found to have been a meth user.
  • The campus' former gynecologist is facing criminal charges and lawsuits alleging he abused patients during exams.
  • And longtime president Max Nikias left under intense pressure from both his faculty and student body.

And it's that departure that has the prestigious university searching for its next leader.

On Thursday, faculty, staff and students had the opportunity to say what they wanted in a new president in the the first of three forums planned for this month.

Those who attended (reporters were not allowed in the room) said later it was basically a listening session for those doing the presidential search.

USC Board of Trustees Chair Rick Caruso called it "a monumental search."

At stake, he said: "The future of the university... we're going to listen to what everyone has to say."

People who attended said everyone was given just one minute to comment but some took more.

NOTHING SHORT OF A CULTURE CHANGE

Over more than a century, USC's presidents have been white men. That needs to change, several people said. The desire for culture change was one of a number of clear themes that emerged from interviews before the event.

USC law school professor Ariela Gross is a leader of the Concerned Faculty of USC. That group drafted a petition that led Max Nikias to announce his resignation in May.

"The really important thing is that we have somebody to come here and make change in the culture," she said. "Somebody who has experience running a great university."

Currently the university is being run by Wanda Austin, an African American woman and a member of the board. After Nikias resigned, the trustees picked her to serve as interim president.

Michele Medina, a faculty affairs coordinator on campus, said who ultimately gets the job could send an important signal.

"I would like to have a woman [of color] president. It's important because with all the scandals that have been happening I think it would send a message to everyone," Medina said.

Another theme? Complaints that university policies and practices were unclear and sometimes ignored.

"There needs to be more straightforward communication," said Debra Lawler, an associate dean at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The issue of transparency played a major role in the scandals involving both Tyndall, the former OB-GYN, and Carmen A. Puliafito, the former medical school dean who the L.A. Times reported had a history of drug use and troubling relationships.

The alleged abuse of patients by Tyndall, in particular, looms large on the selection process.

"While I do not hold the former president responsible for that," Lawler said, "I just think we need to get better systems in place to catch this stuff sooner."

Nikias' resignation came after a faculty forum in which professors raised the warning that the administration's failings were putting students at risk.

"I think the number one job overall is to take care of the students," said sophomore Serena Allen. The outcome of the presidential search, she said, is a high stakes process for both students and staff.

"I think for a lot of faculty here at USC, this experience for them is a 9-5 job that feeds their families," Allen said. "For undergraduate students here, it's our entire lives for four years."

Some in attendance praised board chair Caruso for creating a process that includes more input than previous presidential searches.

"One recurring theme in the comments was that the next president should put people before buildings and should put people before fundraising," Gross said.

Besides the two other forums scheduled this month, trustees said there would be other, private "listening sessions," with student groups, staff, alumni and leaders from the neighborhoods surrounding the campus south of downtown Los Angeles.

The trustees, faculty and administrators on the Presidential Search Advisory Committee will take input from these meetings and give them to Isaacson Miller and Heidrick & Struggles, the search firms hired by USC to find candidates for the job. Caruso said he wants the board to pick a new president by the Spring.


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