A USC board of trustees member was temporarily removed from a board meeting on Dec. 12, 2018 after sharing his thoughts on the abrupt firing of the USC Marshall School dean earlier that month.
In an interview with Annenberg Media, Ming Hsieh said he requested 10 minutes to speak about the termination of Dean James Ellis, which is expected to be effective June 30, but Hsieh was limited to one minute by interim President Wanda Austin. Once he went over time, Chairman Rick Caruso told him to leave the room.
According to Caruso's statement Wednesday, the namesake of USC's Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering was removed because he and Ellis share the same attorney, creating a conflict of interest.
"I said [the removal] was okay because I hired the same attorney [James] Ellis hired," Hsieh said. He added that if Caruso was "worried about conflict, at least let me tell fellow trustees something they didn't know [about Ellis' termination]. I wanted to tell the truth. Give me 10 minutes, let me present my case and then leave."
Hsieh wanted to discuss the Cooley report, an investigation conducted by outside counsel. He said the report made no recommendation to remove Ellis and didn't find any wrongdoing.
Louis Miller, the attorney representing Ellis, told Annenberg Media that there was no evident conflict of interest present at the meeting, so Hsieh had every right to attend.
"Representing [James] Ellis and Ming Hsieh does not put me adverse to either one of them," Miller said. "You have a conflict of interest if you are adverse to one of your clients, and they are both happy with my representation."
Hsieh addressed a letter to Caruso on Jan. 11, after the meeting, accusing him of an inability to successfully lead the university and of hiding information from the board. The letter was also sent out to the Board of Trustees and 79 others, including large university donors such as Wallis Annenberg, Andrew J. Viterbi and David H. Dornsife.
"You preach the importance of 'transparency and accountability' as the way to address the multitude of issues facing USC, yet your actions and practices are just the opposite," Hsieh wrote in the letter. "I think your 'words' are part of a self-serving agenda that does not have USC's best interest at heart."
Hsieh said that it was unfair for Austin to fire Ellis or any university employee without giving specific reasons.
"Dean Ellis is one of top 10 employees of the University of Southern California," Hsieh said. "He has done tremendous work for diversity, academic excellence, fundraising and teaching students. This person dedicated his life to the university. Is there justice, is there ethics [for this termination]?"
Early last month, Dean Ellis sent a schoolwide email saying his firing came in response to the handling of unspecified complaints filed by USC's Office of Equity and Diversity.
"To the best of my knowledge, this decision was reached not based on anything I personally had done, but rather a cumulative record of OED cases from Marshall," Ellis wrote in an email obtained last month by Annenberg Media.
Austin has previously said the decision was made after much consideration.
"This was not a hasty or rash decision. It was made after many meetings and discussions, along with reviews by several external, objective sources," she said in a statement in December.
The removal of Hsieh created controversy among other USC trustees who attended, especially with USC trustee Edward Roski, a major donor whose name is on the USC Roski School of Art and Design. He wrote a letter to Caruso Dec. 19 reprimanding him for his actions.
"I have never before witnessed a member of the board behave so unprofessionally and recklessly as you did last Wednesday, let alone a chairman of the board," Roski wrote. "You abused the trust and authority vested in you by removing a trustee from the meeting for no discernible reason other than their position differed from your own."
In the letter, Roski wrote that Hsieh's time to speak was unfairly shortened and accused Caruso of bullying and disrespecting the race and speaking style of Hsieh. He called on Caruso to apologize to Hsieh and the rest of the Board of Trustees for his irresponsible actions. Roski also questioned Caruso's motivations for targeting Hsieh.
"Are you going to silence the entire board, or just the members who disagree with you or come from a different ethnicity or nationality?" Roski wrote.
Hsieh also felt race was a factor in his removal.
"I strongly felt, I was discriminated, humiliated, embarrassed and singled out from the board the meeting because of my race and my knowledges of the facts related Dean Ellis performances and ethics."
Hsieh called for the board to reinstate Ellis and promote greater transparency in Thursday's interview.
"Our University, our students, our alumni, our faculties and our supporters need the truth," Hsieh said. "This new chairman and new interim president talk about transparency and responsibility … they never do anything. They are hiding dirty work under the rug."
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated James Ellis as "former dean." James Ellis is expected to be the dean of USC Marshall Business School until June 30, 2019. (corrected at 9:05 p.m. on Jan. 17)