Editor’s note: This story was reported by the Beacon Project, a student journalism initiative supported by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to report on USC. It is independent of the university’s administration. KPCC/LAist has an internship program with the Annenberg journalism school, and Mark Schoofs, one of the Beacon Project’s founders, is an adviser to KPCC/LAist.

USC officials were pleased to announce in June that Geoffrey Garrett, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s famed Wharton School of Business, would return to the university and take the helm of the Marshall School of Business. It was a high-profile hire, signaling that USC’s accumulated scandals had not diminished the school’s ability to compete against the Ivy League for top talent. Garrett had been a professor at USC from 2005 to 2009, and he’d also taught at Oxford, Stanford, Yale, UCLA and the University of Sydney.

But details of how Garrett was hired — secretively and swiftly, with those involved in the process saying no other candidate was seriously considered — have raised questions yet again about how USC operates. This latest high-stakes administrative decision has provided fuel to USC’s numerous critics, from faculty to advisors and donors, who assail the university’s leadership for opaque dealings and stonewalling.

JAMES ELLIS OUSTED AMID ALLEGATIONS OF IMPROPER CULTURE

It began on December 3, 2018, when USC Interim President Wanda Austin announced that James Ellis, the dean of Marshall, was going to step down from his position but continue to serve as a member of the faculty. She limited the reasons for her decision to a “personnel matter.”

“I know this news is hard for many to process as he is such a prominent member of our university community,” she wrote, But the decision, “was made after careful deliberation.”

USC board chair Rick Caruso told the LA Times that the decision was “part of where the university is today in terms of acknowledging a proper culture that needs to be embraced and practiced on campus.” The Times, which several months later won a Pulitzer for its coverage of a scandal involving former USC gynecologist George Tyndall, reported that Ellis’s removal was prompted by how he handled “allegations of racial and gender discrimination and hostile workplace conditions” against Marshall school faculty and staff.

At the same time that Austin shared her official letter, Ellis sent his own email to the community.

“To the best of my knowledge, this decision was not based on anything I personally had done, but rather a cumulative record of OED cases from Marshall,” he wrote, referring to the Office of Equity and Diversity. “The vast majority of these cases were never brought to my attention. Nevertheless, this apparently has led university leadership to believe that we do not have a positive culture here. Therefore, they feel a change in leadership is in order.”

The refusal of university leaders to say explicitly what prompted them to remove Ellis has left a void filled by speculation. Prior to Ellis’s removal, USC had commissioned an inquiry into possible racial and gender discrimination at Marshall, but the administration never made the report public.

A PROTEST AND QUESTIONS

Four days after Ellis’s ouster, around 150 Marshall alumni, students, staff and faculty flocked to the Tommy Trojan statue on USC’s campus to voice their concerns with the administration’s decision. The protesters wore shirts and held signs with messages in support of Ellis. Beyond the protest, several high-profile individuals defended Ellis, including Board of Trustees member Ming Hsieh and members of Marshall’s Board of Leaders, an advisory group of business executives.

Letters directed toward Austin and the Board of Trustees began to circulate, and a Change.org petition, “I stand with Dean Ellis,” asking for a reversal of the ouster, quickly acquired more than 2,500 signatures. (The current total is more than 4,300.) Supporters defended Ellis’s leadership and called attention to how many students in Marshall’s MBA program were female (52 percent) and/or from underrepresented minority groups (21 percent).

The Wednesday following the protest, after deliberating for about three hours, the USC Board of Trustees announced its support of the decision to dismiss Ellis. “Following previous board discussions in October and November, today Interim President Wanda Austin presented to the executive committee and to the full Board of Trustees the facts in the matter involving USC Marshall School of Business Dean Jim Ellis,” the Board of Trustees wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan on December 12.

But the board’s decision was not unanimous. Trustee Hsieh told Annenberg Media earlier this year that he had requested 10 minutes to speak at the meeting but Austin limited him to one. Chairman Caruso ejected Hsieh after he went over time, an action Hsieh, who is from China, attributes in part to racial discrimination.

“I strongly felt I was discriminated against, humiliated, embarrassed and singled out from the board meeting because of my race and my knowledge of the facts related to Dean Ellis’s performance and ethics,” Hsieh told Annenberg Media. Caruso has denied the charge of racism.

Hsieh told the Beacon Project he had read the report on the business school, which was commissioned by the university and prepared by law firm Cooley LLP. He said the firm’s investigation of harassment and discrimination cases at Marshall had made no recommendation to remove Dean Ellis. “I did my research,” he said, “I read every document.”

Ellis has stated there were only 58 OED complaints concerning Marshall School personnel during his tenure — and none of them involved misconduct by Ellis himself. But Hsieh told the Beacon Project that the Cooley report considered “123 complaints” against Marshall over the past 10 years. He said “three or four” were related to Ellis: One of those dealt with a faculty termination, and another with a staff demotion. Hsieh didn’t share any further information on the remaining cases, beyond stating that they dealt with “all kinds of things,” not just sexual, gender or racial discrimination.

USC has never revealed the number of complaints from the OED, nor has the university divulged the conclusions of the Cooley report to the public.

In response to Ellis’s firing, the business school’s advisory board released a letter, dated January 21, calling for the immediate resignation of Chairman Caruso and for Austin and USC Provost Michael Quick to be put on leave. They “have lost their leadership legitimacy at the university,” wrote chairperson Gregory R. Hillgren on behalf of the Marshall Board of Leaders’ 116 members, and they “must be immediately replaced for the good of the university.” (Austin and Quick, in moves unrelated to the Marshall fracas, stepped down from their positions in June.)

GEOFFREY GARRETT HIRED IN OPAQUE PROCESS

On February 14, Quick, the provost, announced a “national search” for a new dean of Marshall. An advisory search committee was formed to “identify and recruit the best candidates.” According to the memo released by Quick, the committee included nine Marshall faculty members and would be headed up by Quick himself and Andrew Guzman, dean of the USC Gould School of Law.

In addition to the advisory search committee, read the announcement, a “special group” of advisors was selected that represented “important constituencies” in Marshall, such as undergraduate and graduate students. Quick mentioned still more advisors in the form of associate vice provost Robin Romans and an outside recruitment firm, Spencer Stuart. (Romans and Spencer Stuart declined to comment for this story.)

The “national search” ended after less than four months with the announcement of Garrett’s selection. This is a remarkably short recruitment period compared with the search for other major business school deans. The UCLA Anderson School of Management, for example, had just finished a search for its new dean, Antonio Bernardo, which took a full year, and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University had taken even longer to hire Francesca Cornelli.

Anthony Dukes, a faculty member on the nine-person advisory search committee, told the Beacon Project that the committee had a list of more than 50 possible candidates for the Marshall deanship, but Dukes was only given one person to interview: Geoffrey Garrett. According to Dukes, the committee was given its instructions by then-provost Quick, who critics allege orchestrated Ellis’s ouster.

Quick declined to comment for this story.

Dukes said he would have been included in meetings with any other candidates, so he believes Garrett was the only candidate interviewed. His account matches the conclusion of the Board of Leaders. In a searing letter to President Folt shortly after the announcement of Garrett’s hiring, the Board asserted that “no search was actually conducted and no other candidates were interviewed other than Dr. Garrett. No position description was ever finalized, posted and advertised, nor were candidates solicited, screened or interviewed.”

Folt’s office did not reply directly to the Beacon Project’s request for comment, but another USC public relations staffer replied with an official response from the university: “USC Marshall is continuing to perform at a high level. The number of applications remains consistent with Marshall’s high standards, rankings performance and trends among top business schools. The school is continuing to recruit top-tier faculty.”

When asked for comment, Garrett responded to the Beacon Project via email: “I am looking forward to the academic year here at Wharton and am excited for the opportunity to join USC Marshall as dean next year. Sorry I cannot be more helpful for your story.”

In its letter to USC’s new president, Carol Folt, the Board of Leaders assailed the administration for its lack of transparency and demanded that USC’s new president, Carol Folt, issue an apology to Ellis.

The Board of Leaders did not question Garrett’s qualifications. Even Ellis’s strongest advocates acknowledge Garrett’s star power. But the process of removing Ellis and hiring Garrett has stoked anger and suspicion in the Marshall community, deepening a crisis they blame the administration for making. As the Board of Leaders stated in their letter, “USC continues to double-down on its recent administrative predilection for evasion and hiding the truth.”

Theories have circulated among Ellis’s supporters about the real reason for his removal. There is speculation that Quick and other members of the administration were worried about their jobs and needed to show they were doing something in the wake of USC’s many scandals. There is also the theory that the administration wanted to poach Garrett from Wharton, and Ellis was just in the way.

Regardless, June 30 was the last day Ellis served as dean of the USC Marshall School of Business. (Gareth James, another professor at Marshall, has been appointed interim dean for the 2019-2020 school year.) That day the L.A. Times published an op-ed written by Ellis titled, “James Ellis: Setting the record straight about my departure from USC.” In the op-ed, Ellis brought up the university’s high-dollar payouts to former med-school dean Carmen Puliafito, who was stripped of his medical license after the state medical board found that he’d smoked meth and provided drugs to addicts, and George Tyndall, the campus gynecologist accused of sexually abusing more than 700 patients, in exchange for their silence. Unlike those two men, Ellis wrote, he was refusing to sign a non-disclosure agreement, foregoing the three years of salary left on his contract and giving up the opportunity to serve one more year as dean while the university waited for his replacement.

“I refused to be a part of the university’s deplorable practice of rewarding those who agree to leave quietly in shame,” he wrote. “USC clearly needs the kind of transparent and accountable reform that university leaders say they are pursuing. But the facts and circumstances of my departure demonstrate that university administrators remain desperate to show public ‘progress,’ even as its administrative culture continues to default toward secrecy and cover-up.”

LINGERING CLOUD OF SUSPICION

Because USC has never fully clarified why Ellis was fired, a question hangs over the school: Does it have a problem with gender and racial discrimination?

Supporters of Ellis point out that the school’s MBA program recently became the first of any major university to achieve gender parity. Marshall also has one of the highest percentages of underrepresented minorities among major business schools. Under Ellis, the school mandated diversity and inclusion training for faculty and staff, as well as implicit bias training for recruitment committees.

With adjuncts included, Marshall has more than 300 faculty members. However, the number of black faculty members is below 20.

Carlos Thomas started teaching at Marshall last year. He’s an adjunct professor of data sciences. He’s also black. He describes his Marshall experience so far as “the highlight of my 20 years in higher education,” adding that “the diversity of the students has been something that’s been very welcome from my perspective.” Nevertheless, he said he’s experienced microaggressions while working at Marshall.

Thomas said the school is working to improve its culture by making students take a class in diversity and by hiring racially diverse people. “I’ve never seen that level of deliberative effort to make sure that our students understand that the world is beyond black and white, it’s beyond binary gender, and that diversity is important enough that it’s a mandatory class,” he said. “That’s so important here.”

Others say there have been significant problems at the school.

Carol Wise, associate professor of international relations, said women at Marshall have to endure a “tits and ass culture.”

Wise does not teach in the business school, but said she has worked with hundreds of students who take classes at Marshall. She relayed the story of a female undergraduate who said a male Marshall professor had used vulgar language and had talked about her physical attributes.

“She was absolutely terrified to file a complaint,” Wise said. “She was terrified of him.”

Wise said she ultimately helped the student file a complaint with USC’s Office of Equity and Diversity. (Wise declined to put the Beacon Project in contact with the student, citing privacy concerns.)

When asked about the allegation that Marshall had a “tits and ass culture,” Ellis responded via email: “I have NEVER heard anything referring to such a culture as you mention — hard to believe.”

Michael Blanton, the university’s vice president of professionalism and ethics, said he met Ellis to discuss the findings of the Cooley report. He told the Beacon Project part of his mission was helping the administration become an “even more transparent entity.” However, he declined to answer most questions, citing confidentiality.

“It’s just that that slope gets pretty slippery as soon as I start to disclose anything,” he said, declining to discuss the contents of the report or reveal who had read it beyond himself. He also did not comment on Ellis’s firing, Garrett’s hiring or the culture at Marshall.

Sharoni Little was more forthcoming when it came to the business school’s culture. She is Marshall’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, as well as the vice president of the USC Race and Equity Center. Issues do arise, she explained, but “we have a framework to immediately address that. My personal feeling is that there’s not a toxic culture.”

Little, a black woman, said she has had students in her 20 years at Marshall who don’t respect her in the same way they might a white colleague. But, she said, the school has been improving: “Is there room for growth around diversity, equity and inclusion? Most definitely. Are we in the process of addressing that? Yes, we are. We were in the process under Dean Ellis, and I know we will continue to do that.”


This story was co-published with LAist.