Members of the USC community are hopeful that Wanda Austin, the university's interim president, will provide a fresh perspective to the school, which is still reeling from recent scandals. Concerns remain, however, about former President C.L. Max Nikias' continued roles at the university.
In a school-wide email Tuesday, USC Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso announced Austin’s appointment as the interim president and Nikias’ resignation, effective immediately. A “strong advocate for science, technology, engineering, and math,” Austin has worked with organizations such as the Aerospace Corporation, the boards of the National Geographic Society and the Space Foundation and President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology since graduating from USC in 1988. She has served on the university’s board of trustees since 2012, and is now USC’s first black and first female president.
Austin's appointment comes after Nikias agreed to step down in late May in the wake of the L.A. Times investigative report documenting dozens of complaints of sexual assault by patients of former campus gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall that go back nearly three decades. Some 300 lawsuits have been filed against the university since the story broke. Caruso's email said Nikias "will continue to assist with the transition of the incoming president." The former president also teaches an undergraduate class and will remain a faculty member, according to his statement.
In May, USC professors formed a group called the Concerned Faculty, calling for "new moral leadership" at USC. Two hundred faculty members signed a petition in May demanding Nikias' resignation. On August 1, more than 680 faculty members signed another petition calling, again, for Nikias to step down immediately, the appointment of an interim president and a presidential search to begin. The leaders of the group praised the decision to appoint Austin.
"Wanda Austin is extraordinarily accomplished," William G. Thalmann, a USC Classics professor and a leader of the concerned faculty group, said. "Because of her deep experience in management and leadership positions, she is well placed to begin the process of healing at USC after the turbulence of the last year and to build a stronger community of faculty, staff, students, administration and trustees."
Gregory Keating, a professor of Law and Philosophy and another leader of the group, said Austin is an excellent choice.
"In the wake of the Tyndall scandal the choice of a woman is especially appropriate," said Keating. "She embodies both excellence and diversity and she will bring those values to USC as Interim President."
Many student leaders shared in these positive reactions.
"USG is looking forward to working with Dr. Austin," Debbie Lee, the University Student Government (USG) President, said. "We're very excited to be a part of this transition in USC leadership."
Max Geschwind, a USG senator, expressed relief that an interim president was appointed before the beginning of the new academic year.
"I was worried that we would, in a way, limp into the school year with no official leader of our university," Geschwind said. "[Austin's] background in engineering, federal government, and as a CEO for The Aerospace Corporation make Dr. Austin a unique choice with a diverse array of experiences."
Despite hopefulness that the appointment of Austin is a step forward, many remain wary of the role of an interim president.
"Interim presidents usually do as little rocking of the boat as possible," Keating said. "However, because this boat was capsizing, we may see a departure from that norm."
Nikias' continued involvement in the presidential search and the university also remains an issue for some faculty members and alumni.
"The honor bestowed upon [Nikias] as a life trustee is undeserved," Rini Sampath, USG's President from 2015 to 2016, said. "Although Nikias served as a prolific fundraiser for the institution, his failure to protect USC women from Dr. George Tyndall will never be forgotten. He should not have any power at USC moving forward and by granting him such power, USC demonstrates once again they do not take the horrific stories of hundreds of sexually abused female students seriously."
Sandra Ball-Rokeach, Professor of Communication and Sociology Emerita at Annenberg, shares a similar apprehension.
"The USC Board of Trustees needs to re-inspire the confidence of the USC faculty and students in their assessment of their role in the situation that we find ourselves in, and how to reorganize their procedures to fully take on their responsibilities," Ball-Rokeach said.
A new chapter has begun for USC's leadership with the appointment of Austin, and the Concerned Faculty vows to remain vigilant.
"Concerned Faculty certainly should not hang up our protesting shoes and go home," Ariella Gross, professor of law and history and a leader of the Concerned Faculty, wrote in the group. "We plan to call a general meeting early in the academic year to talk about our subcommittees' work, and other best ways for us to help influence change in the right direction both in terms of the Presidential search and long-term governance at the University."
Their goal is to be involved in the conversations surrounding the decision-making process.
"We may not solve every problem in this university," Gross said. "But if we gain representation on the search committee, and help hire someone excellent, things could really be different."