The University of Southern California is looking to rebuild its reputation—and the first steps include its president’s resignation.
On Tuesday, its Board of Trustees said C.L. Max Nikias’ resignation was effective immediately. The move comes months after Nikias announced that he would resign in the wake of a crisis involving a former campus gynecologist.
More than two months ago, Nikias had agreed to step down following a scandal involving Dr. George Tyndall, a former campus gynecologist accused of sexual misconduct and using racist language while examining patients.
That announcement came after thousands of students and alumni signed an online petition demanding his resignation, alleging that USC failed to act after complaints of misconduct involving Tyndall, who worked at a university clinic for decades.
Several women have filed lawsuits against Tyndall and USC.
The school appointed Wanda Austin to be the school’s interim president.
On Monday, USC tweeted:
In a letter to the Trojan Family, Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso shares that Trustee Wanda Austin (formerly President and CEO of The Aerospace Company) will serve as USC’s interim president. https://t.co/dpSZMSrYwi pic.twitter.com/PM6kTtXap6
— USC (@USC) August 7, 2018
A lengthy letter from board chairman Rick J. Caruso read, in part:
The Board and I are committed to an ambitious, aggressive agenda for change. 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.
Along with announcing Nikias’ resignation and Austin’s appointment, Caruso said the process to select USC’s next president is underway. The law firm that USC hired after the allegations surfaced is continuing its investigation.
Though Caruso used firm language in the letter, he refused to level blame against Nikias.
“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,” Caruso said in a separate statement.
… The university hired the law firm O’Melveny & Myers in May conduct an independent investigation into the allegations. Caruso said Tuesday that investigators have interviewed more than 100 witnesses so far but that “more work needs to be done.”
“From our investigations, which are not yet completed, we have found absolutely no wrongdoing on Max’s part,” he said.
Caruso outlined additional changes the university is making to address the crisis and rebuild the school’s reputation:
Some actions that will help us achieve a profound and sustainable shift in our culture will take time to implement, but they will indeed take place. We continue to improve our student health center, with Dr. Sarah Van Orman, Chief Health Officer at USC Health, leading this transformation. In August 2017, USC brought student health systems under the auspices of our academic medical center, Keck Medicine of USC, in order to further professionalize our care and to bring the resources of our academic medical center to provide the best services to our students, whose well-being and safety is our top priority. We will not tolerate anything less than exceptional and professional health care, and Dr. Van Orman’s team is continuing to drive forward initiatives to achieve this.
Our newly formed Office for Professional Ethics (OPE), led by vice president Michael Blanton, is now operating as a central hub for monitoring, investigation, and tracking of complaints to ensure that, going forward, any issues are rapidly identified and addressed.
These are just two of the important changes underway, and we look forward to sharing further updates with you.
Nikias also made a brief statement following his official resignation.
NBC News reported:
Nikias said he regretted that his 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.”
Those left picking up the pieces at USC hope that the recent moves will effectively put the school on the path to rebuilding trust.
Caruso closed his letter with the following:
… [A] member of the faculty, addressing the very purpose of a University, said to me that “we are the light of the human mind.” Our light has dimmed recently. By working together, with passion and commitment, we will restore trust and heal our community. It is because of that Trojan passion and commitment that USC will light the human mind more luminously than ever before.
The incident highlights the increasing stakes for executive communicators and how the chief of an organization can have misconduct or poor performance tarnish the entire outfit’s reputation. Other recent examples include the precipitous fall from grace for Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter and the recent woes of NASCAR’s top executive Brian France.
The latter has been removed from his leadership role after receiving a DWI.
Per NASCAR, Vice Chairman and Executive Vice President Jim France has assumed the role of interim chairman and chief executive officer. Jim France is the son of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and the uncle to Brian France.
Brian France also released a statement following his arrest: “I apologize to our fans, our industry and my family for the impact of my actions last night. Effective immediately, I will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from my position to focus on my personal affairs.”
A release from the Sag Harbor Village Police Department says that France was arrested at 7:30 p.m. local time, not long after Chase Elliott secured his first career win in the NASCAR Cup Series at Watkins Glen. France was reportedly driving a 2017 Lexus and passed through a stop sign. Officers pulled France over and deemed that he was driving the vehicle while intoxicated. Officers reportedly found oxycodone on France during a search.
These executive departures show the value of a crisis communications plan that is prepared for the removal of a high-profile executive.
What do you think companies should do when ushering out a problematic leader, PR Daily readers?