USC President Steps Aside, Months After Announcing Plans To Do So

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - USC President C.L. Max Nikias, who announced in May that he would leave his post following a series of scandals involving doctors tied to the university, officially stepped down today, but he will assume the title of president emeritus and life trustee.

Wanda Austin, a member of the USC Board of Trustees and former CEO of The Aerospace Corp., will lead the university on an interim basis while a search is conducted for a new president, according to Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso.Nikias will continue to serve as a tenured professor and holder of the Malcolm R. Curry Chair in Technology and the Humanities, and will assist with the transition of the incoming president, according to the university.

``The board and I are committed to an ambitious, aggressive agenda for change,'' Caruso wrote in a letter to the USC community. 

``As I have said previously, it is evident that the recent crises have resulted from systemic and cultural failures. Both the behavior and the environment that allowed it to persist are inexcusable and will no longer be tolerated. Most importantly, we must understand exactly why these failures occurred and take bold action to reform what is broken so that they never happen again.

''In a statement released after his letter went out to the university community, Caruso said: ``As a USC alumnus and on behalf of the entire Board of Trustees, I am very grateful for everything Max and (his wife) Niki have done to propel USC into a world-class university. As he has always done, Max is taking this action in what he believes to be in the best interest of the university following controversies that have arisen from the unfortunate and unacceptable acts of others. From our investigations, which are not yet completed, we have found absolutely no wrongdoing on Max's part.''Nikias, in a statement released by the school, said it ``has been a profound privilege for Niki and me to serve as president and first lady of USC, and to work alongside the Trojan Family all over the world. 

I am extremely proud of all that we have accomplished together on behalf of our students, faculty, staff, alumni and local communities. Together, we helped USC become a truly elite academic institution, while increasing accessibility for students, recruiting transformative faculty, and building world-class campuses that meet the needs of our world-class students and faculty.

USC Professors Demand President's Resignation; Trustees Pledge Support - Thumbnail Image

USC Professors Demand President's Resignation; Trustees Pledge Support

``I regret profoundly that those shared accomplishments have been overshadowed by recent events, but I am confident that the USC community will remain strong and resilient, and build on a very solid foundation to take USC to even greater heights,'' he said. ``As I begin a new role as president emeritus and return to the faculty, Niki and I will continue to support our beloved university.''Calls for Nikias' departure escalated earlier this year following revelations that longtime campus gynecologist George Tyndall had been the subject of years of complaints about sexual misconduct during exams conducted at the student health center.In the weeks since, hundreds of former students have filed lawsuits against the university.The scandal involving Tyndall and his removal -- which the university acknowledged publicly in response to a months-long investigation by the Los Angeles Times -- was the third involving physicians tied to USC that came to light in the past year.

Former medical school dean and longtime USC fundraiser Dr. Carmen Puliafito was fired by the school last August the wake of the newspaper's report that he abused heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs, including on days he worked as an eye doctor in university facilities. The Times also reported that a 21-year-old prostitute overdosed while taking drugs with Puliafito at a Pasadena hotel and accused the university of turning a blind eye to complaints about the dean.

Puliafito's replacement, Dr. Rohit Varma, resigned in October as the newspaper was preparing to publish a story disclosing that he had been formally disciplined by USC in 2003 following allegations that he sexually harassed a young researcher while he was a junior professor supervising her work.Following the revelations about Tyndall, Nikias apologized in writing to women who said they were abused by the doctor. He also released an ``action plan'' to address problems and put better safeguards in place, while saying he was struggling to understand how the doctor was allowed to continue treating patients for decades and noted his two daughters were USC students.But the 65-year-old Nikias came under increasing pressure to step down.About 200 USC professors signed a petition demanding his resignation, saying he'd ``lost the moral authority to lead.'' 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.'' The university's Academic Senate also called on Nikias to step down.

Nikias' USC tenure began 27 years ago. He was a professor, director of national research centers, dean and provost before becoming the university's 11th president in August 2010. Caruso said the university has hired education-recruitment firm Isaacson Miller to lead the search for a new president. The university has also retained the international search firm of Heidrick & Struggles in an ``advisory capacity'' to assist with the search, he said. The Board of Trustees has also formed a Presidential Search Advisory Committee that is expected to solicit public input through ``listening sessions'' and the establishment of a presidential search website. 

Caruso said he hopes to have the search completed in four to six months.``As I have said before, it is critical that this process embraces your perspectives to help guide the committee in identifying the most qualified and talented person to lead our university forward,'' Caruso wrote in his letter to the USC community. 

The university, in its statement late today, credited Nikias with pioneering ``strategic initiatives that include recruiting a world-class faculty, accelerating the expansion of the university's academic medical enterprise, broadening USC's international presence, and expanding the breadth and quality of our student body. In addition, under Dr. Nikias' leadership, the university successfully completed one of the largest fundraising campaign efforts in its history dedicated to academic research, student financial aid and campus development, including the development of the USC Village, and has been consistently recognized amongst the top universities in academic rankings.''

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