USC’s Rick Caruso promises openness and honesty

Top trustee outlines search for new president amid investigation of sexual-misconduct scandal

Two weeks ago, the University of Southern California's trustees elected billionaire businessman and real estate developer, Rick Caruso to be their new chair. Caruso takes the position at a tumultuous time for the university, just six days after the resignation of President Max Nikias in the wake of the scandal involving former on-campus gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall.

Caruso, a USC alumnus, will continue to lead a special committee of the board of trustees overseeing the investigation of Tyndall and the USC student health center. In a letter to "members of the USC Family," he announced that the special committee hired O'Melveny & Myers, an international law firm, to investigate the conduct and reporting failures of the student health center. Caruso also pledged to bring accountability and transparent reporting practices to the university.

Caruso previously served as president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and as a member of the L.A. Board of Water and Power Commissioners. He is the founder and CEO of Caruso, one of the largest private real estate companies and owner of shopping centers such as The Grove and The Americana at Brand.

In a wide-ranging telephone interview Friday morning, Caruso touched on his commitment to more transparency, defended his fellow trustees and shed light on the search for a new president.

Where am I reaching you today?

I'm in my car, on the way to the office.

I have some easy process questions and then some that are a little bit deeper about problems facing USC. When will President Nikias formally be resigning?

We've already announced that there's going to be a transition. So that's in process. He is on an extended vacation for a couple months so the acting president by the way of protocol, whenever the president leaves or goes on vacation, the provost becomes the acting president. We're starting the search and then there will be a formal transition to the new president once the search is completed.

Do you expect that will be before the fall semester?

I don't think we'll have the search done by the fall semester. I wish we could. It's probably going to take four to six months to do a national search.

Do you know when President Nikias will return from his vacation?

I do not.

What does the transition process look like exactly from President Nikias to somebody else? Will he continue teaching or working at USC in any capacity?

I do not know. None of that has been discussed, decided what his plans are going to be.

Is anything known yet about the presidential search committee?

No, I have not selected a committee yet. I am interviewing search firms. That process is beginning on Monday. We are going to go from there. So once I select a search firm, then I'll put together a search committee and then we'll kick off the national search. The search committee will have a number of different representatives from our constituents. You know I would imagine it's eight to 10 people, maybe 12 people total. But at the end of the day, it's important to remember, it is the board's job to pick the president. We want to be able to get a lot of input and hear people's ideas and thoughts and concerns as we go through the search process. That's a very important aspect of it, probably holding a lot of meetings and some town halls. Then based on all of that and based on the candidates who have applied and who we've interviewed and liked, that will help inform the decision and a recommendation will be made to the board.

Will a town hall include students or will that be internal for the committee and the board?

I think the town hall should include students. Absolutely. I think the students have an important voice in this process and we're gonna want to hear that voice.

You said the board will take recommendations from the search firm. Will it be the entire board of trustees or a select committee within the board of trustees who picks the president?

Well, the actual hiring of the president will be a vote of the full board.

Have you spoken to Annenberg Dean Willow Bay about taking on the interim or permanent job as president? There has been some hearsay about that.

Well, I think Willow Bay is an amazing dean and she could certainly take on that position and do it with great dignity and grace and intellect. But I have not had that discussion with her.

Are there any other people right now that you're considering for the full time or interim president?


Will Michael Quick be serving as acting president until the permanent president is selected? Or will there be an interim president as well, after Michael Quick?

All of those options are on the table. I do not know. It just depends how things proceed.

You mentioned transparency in your letter to the community, pledging to bring accountability and such. I'm wondering how you plan to do this.

I don't know, it seems pretty simple to me. You just be open, honest and transparent. It's the way I run my business. It's the way I ran LAPD, when I ran LAPD, a very large organization. It's the way I ran the Department of Water and Power when I ran the Department of Water and Power. It's a culture that you set and you put in procedures and policies. But more importantly, it's how you conduct yourself, how leadership conducts themselves. So as you've seen with everything that I've done so far in the last couple of weeks, we've been very open and honest and forthright about what we're doing.

Will the findings of the investigation reports be made available to the public, for both Tyndall and Puliafito?

The findings on the report for the healthcare issue are going to be made public, subject to patient rights. There's a whole bunch of state and federal laws that govern privacy rights. So we have to be very sensitive and careful for the patients and the victims etc. But other than that, yes. The Puliafito matter, the answer is yes, too. The complication there is privilege and we're working with the lawyers to make sure that we don't violate some of the privilege restrictions. I wish it was an easier yes, with no question, but it's legally a little bit more complicated than that. But the goal is to get as much or all the information out there that we can.

How do you change the culture of an institution where the board of trustees have other jobs and priorities, and don't wield much control over day-to-day activities? How do you revamp that to make them accountable to students and stakeholders?

So you're making an assumption that they're not accountable. What leads you to believe that the board isn't accountable?

I guess in the beginning when everything was coming out about Tyndall, when a lot of the board members said they fully stand behind President Nikias, it didn't feel like they were accountable to the students, the patients of Dr. Tyndall. It felt like they were protecting the president or the school's name.

I think that's a misperception to be honest. I was in those meetings. The concern that the board had wasn't with the president or any of the administration. The concern was, 'What has happened here? Why wasn't there more information released sooner? What are we doing to help the students?' And we made all the changes to protect them. You got to remember the president has lost his job over this so that's an enormous amount of accountability that was imposed by the board of trustees.

The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.