Offering only a week’s notice and little explanation, USC announced on Aug. 24 that Laura Mosqueda would be leaving her role as dean of the Keck School of Medicine and leading the expansion of the university’s geriatrics program. Now, student groups and faculty members at the medical school are expressing their concern about Mosqueda’s departure and asking for more transparency.
An email sent from “firstname.lastname@example.org” to USC President Carol Folt, Provost Charles Zukoski and USC’s Board of Trustees on Monday contained an open letter signed by what it said are more than 270 anonymous Keck staff members. The letter voiced “grave concerns and disappointment” with the dean’s exit.
This came on the heels of two other letters demanding more information a week before Mosqueda was scheduled to officially depart— one by the Keck faculty council and the other authored by the Social Justice in Medicine Coalition (SJMC), a student group whose aims include fighting inequity and promoting diversity in the medical world. In the SJMC’s letter, which was signed by more than 60 student groups, the group wrote that they believe Mosqueda was fired.
“We use the word ‘fire’ because it is important to use precise language,” the letter reads. Asserting that Mosqueda learned of her departure only a week before the news was made public and that Keck administrators learned only the day before, SJMC added, “that is not a ‘transition.’ That is a firing.”
A senior staff administrator at Keck confirmed in a phone interview with Annenberg Media that Mosqueda was fired from her dean position. The staff asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the administration, adding that “[the school] has a history of punishing staff” for speaking out.
“We’ve been left out of these decisions,” the staff member said.
Mosqueda is an expert on elder abuse and neglect and a leading voice on the issue of elder justice. In her three years as dean, she led a number of social justice-oriented initiatives at the medical school, including the Gender Equity in Medicine and Science Committee and the Anti-Racism Task Force. Mosqueda also appointed Dr. Ricky Bluthenthal to serve as the school’s first Associate Dean for Social Justice.
At her final Zoom “Dean Briefing” on Sept. 15, Mosqueda thanked the students and staff of the medical school and looked back at her efforts to “reform our culture” and “rebuild trust” at Keck. “Progress isn’t easy or linear,” she said. “We have a long way to go, but there is evidence of progress.”
The briefing did not include an opportunity for students to ask questions.
Madeleine Ing, a second-year medical student and the co-president of SJMC, said even students who worked closely with Mosqueda were “blindsided” by the news of her departure.
“Part of the reason I was so shocked was because Mosqueda’s been so communicative with us throughout the year about all sorts of things,” Ing said.
SJMC worked closely with Mosqueda, and members of the group said Mosqueda shared their interests in health equity and social justice. “She always seemed to be on students' sides, and was really easily accessible,” Ing said. “When we invited her to events, she would come and care.”
“Universities across the country are full of leaders who offer only lip service to social justice,” the SJMC letter reads. “Dean Mosqueda used the power of her position in countless ways to make Keck a safer, more equitable place.”
Mosqueda took on her role at a moment when the Keck school was mired in controversy. She succeeded Rohit Varma, who held the position for less than a year before he resigned after the Los Angeles Times reported he was accused of sexual harassment by a researcher 15 years earlier. Varma succeeded Carmen Puliafito, the previous dean who used recreational drugs before seeing patients. The state stripped him of his license after finding he used methamphetamine and heroin and supplied drugs to addicts while practicing at USC. Then-university president C.L. Max Nikias had described Puliafito, an ophthalmologist, as a great fundraiser before his reported misconduct became public.
The SJMC, in its letter, pointed out the lack of any public allegations of wrongdoing against Mosqueda. “The threshold for termination of our first female dean was exponentially lower than that of our two previous male deans,” the Coalition wrote.
Initially, SJMC members assumed the dean voluntarily stepped away from her position, Ing told Annenberg Media. Some of the SJMC’s faculty contacts then told the group that the administration had dismissed Mosqueda.
“It sounds more money-driven than student-driven,” said Ing.
The administration has not confirmed any substantive reason for Mosqueda’s transition, leaving faculty and students in the dark, speculating about fundraising concerns or problems with the school’s partnership with Los Angeles County at LAC+USC Medical Center.
Annenberg Media reached out to USC for comment on Mosqueda’s alleged firing, but USC Media Relations responded with Zukoski’s initial announcement of the dean’s departure. The dean’s new role will be “spearheading efforts to expand and advance geriatrics at the University,” the memo said.
Zukoski’s office also declined to comment on whether Mosqueda was dismissed from her role. Zukoski told the Keck community in a video response, “Dean Mosqueda’s work will continue to be supported at [Keck School of Medicine]” and that “Dr. Narsing Rao has generously agreed to step in as interim dean.”
“This is a big surprise for me,” Rao told Annenberg Media. “Something I did not expect.” Rao said he will retire in 2021 and won’t make any major changes in the role.
Multiple Keck faculty members voiced their unease about the dean’s departure to Annenberg Media, but wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation.
A faculty member at Keck, who did not want to be identified for fear of losing her job, told Annenberg Media that Mosqueda’s departure and the lack of transparency around it made for an “intimidating” atmosphere.
“She was fired and nobody knows why,” she said. “So what does that mean for other faculty?”
The faculty member said that she was satisfied with Mosqueda, who she said brought attention to important issues related to health equity and public health.
“It was like a breath of fresh air when she became our dean,” she said.
“We’ve gone through quite a bit over at Keck,” said another Keck professor, who is in a clinical track position and asked to remain anonymous out of concern about her job.
“She was healing us from all the emotional and mental trauma that we’ve gone through over the past four years," the professor said. “There are obviously some very influential, powerful people at Keck who feel differently, or this wouldn’t be the case.”
A senior resident physician at Keck, who also wanted to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, said the lack of transparency and troubles with the previous two deans have led to a “deep wave of mistrust” in the administration. “It’d be nice for some transparency internally,” she said, “so that we’re not shocked by another header in the LA Times.”
Ing said that she does not expect a substantive response to the SJMC letter from USC’s administration, but it was important to voice their opposition to what the group believes was an unjust firing.
“We think that she’s a good fit for us,” she said. “If you care about your students, you should hold on to this dean that we think is running our school and our education appropriately.”
Students and faculty described Mosqueda’s work as healing the medical school’s wounds. To hear many of them tell it, her departure opens another one up. But one faculty member invoked Mosqueda’s own words, a tribute to the university’s fight song: “Heal on!”