200 USC professors demand Nikias step down; trustees express ‘full confidence’ in president

Two hundred professors at USC called on President C.L. Max Nikias to step down in a letter sent Tuesday to the university’s Board of Trustees. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Two hundred USC professors on Tuesday demanded the resignation of university President C. L. Max Nikias, saying he had “lost the moral authority to lead” in the wake of revelations that a campus gynecologist was kept on staff for decades despite repeated complaints of misconduct.

In a letter to USC’s Board of Trustees, the faculty members wrote that they had come together to “express our outrage and disappointment over the mounting evidence of President Nikias’ failure to protect our students, our staff, and our colleagues from repeated and pervasive sexual harassment and misconduct.”

“We call upon President Nikias to step aside, and upon the Board of Trustees to restore moral leadership to the university,” they wrote.

About an hour after the faculty members sent the letter, board Chairman John Mork released a statement saying that while trustees were “troubled by the distressing reports” about the campus doctor, he and others on its executive committee “strongly support” Nikias.

“The executive committee of the board has full confidence in President Nikias’ leadership, ethics, and values and is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward,” wrote Mork, a Colorado energy mogul who graduated from USC.

Nikias sent the campus community a 20-page “action plan” Tuesday that he said was prepared at the request of trustees. It called for a wide rethinking of university ethics that will include a rewrite of USC’s Code of Ethics and a new presidential commission on improving campus culture. In a statement, Nikias said he understood “the faculty’s anger and disappointment.”

“I am committed to working with them as we implement this wide-reaching plan and to rebuilding their trust,” he said.

Those signing the letter represent 14 different schools within the university and include some of USC’s most prominent academics — former deans, department chairs and distinguished professors.

Ariela Gross, a nationally known expert in race and slavery who holds the title of John B. and Alice R. Sharp professor of law and history, helped draft the letter and described it in an interview as “a there’s-no-turning-back, regime-change letter.”

She and several law school colleagues began circulating it to tenured professors Sunday and had little trouble getting signatures, she said. USC has about 1,200 tenured faculty members.

“There’s a deep well of frustration across the university that the university has lost its way. It is harming our students and it is harming our reputation,” said Gross, who has taught at USC for 22 years.

The voting members of the Board of Trustees — 42 men and 17 women — are an elite group that includes billionaire tycoons, Hollywood power players and philanthropists. They have strongly backed Nikias, who has served as university president since 2010 and overseen a major expansion of the university as well as an aggressive fundraising effort.

Before Mork’s statement, none of the trustees had publicly commented on how Tyndall’s case was handled.

Tyndall was the subject of numerous complaints from students and staff beginning in the 1990s, according to former patients and clinic staffers interviewed by The Times. He was removed from the clinic only after a frustrated nurse reported him to the rape crisis center in 2016.

In a letter Monday, USC Provost Michael Quick said that the university’s senior leadership had not learned about the complaints against Tyndall until 2017.

An internal university investigation last year concluded that Tyndall’s pelvic exams were outside the scope of current medical practice and amounted to sexual harassment of students. Campus administrators told The Times that they believe the physician had for years been making sexual comments and touching patients inappropriately during exams.

“He felt around by moving his fingers around inside for a few minutes,” Mohazab said. “He said this was part of an STD test.”

The scandal is also drawing scrutiny in Sacramento. Prompted by the revelations about Tyndall, state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) announced Tuesday that he will hold a hearing next month into the reporting of sexual misconduct in the medical profession.

“The Medical Board cannot do its job as a regulator or fulfill its responsibilities for consumer protection if it is not alerted to these cases as they emerge,” Hill said in a statement.

The Times reported last year that Carmen Puliafito, a prolific fundraiser whom Nikias helped select as dean of the medical school, used methamphetamine and other drugs while overseeing the school and treating patients. His successor, Rohit Varma, was forced out after the newspaper discovered that USC had settled a sexual harassment claim against him by a female researcher.

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