USC President C.L. Max Nikias agreed Friday to step down following a series of scandals involving doctors tied to the university, the most recent involving revelations of years-old misconduct complaints against former campus gynecologist George Tyndall.
Rick Caruso, a member of the USC Board of Trustees and head of its Executive Committee, said in a statement released early Friday evening and addressed to USC faculty, staff, students and alumni that Nikias and the Executive Committee “have agreed to begin an orderly transition and commence the process of selecting a new president.”
“We appreciate the voices of the many members of the university community who have expressed indignation from the harm inflicted on our students by Dr. Tyndall. As a father of USC students, an alumnus and a member of the USC community, I share your outrage and understand the frustration and anger regarding the situation with the former physician,” the statement says.
“The University of Southern California is governed by a Board of Trustees, with both a fiduciary and legal responsibility to that community. We have heard the message that something is broken and that urgent and profound actions are needed.”
Caruso said “our actions will be swift and thorough, but we ask for your patience as we manage a complex process with due diligence. We will work with faculty, staff, student leadership and alumni, and our focus remains on offering support and counseling to those impacted, investigating what happened, and listening to and healing our community.”
On Tuesday, board Chairman John Mork released a statement saying the Executive Committee was “troubled” about Tyndall’s conduct but had “full confidence in President Nikias’ leadership, ethics and values and is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward.”
That day, Nikias also released an “action plan” to address problems and put better safeguards in place, after apologizing in writing last week to women who claim they were abused by Tyndall. The president said he was struggling to understand how the doctor was allowed to continue treating patients for decades and noted his two daughters were USC students.
But as the week wore on, the trustees came under increasing pressure to remove the 65-year-old Nikias, who became the university’s 11th president in August 2010 and helped raise the university’s national profile and presided over record-breaking fundraising campaigns.
About 200 USC professors signed a petition demanding his resignation, saying he’d “lost the moral authority to lead.” The faculty members wrote that they had come together to “express our outrage and disappointment over the mounting evidence of President Nikias’ failure to protect our students, our staff, and our colleagues from repeated and pervasive sexual harassment and misconduct.” And on Wednesday, the university’s Academic Senate formally called on Nikias to step down.
The trustees were also aware that more than 300 students had contacted a university hotline recently established to receive complaints and information about Tyndall, who was the university health center’s only full-time gynecologist for nearly 30 years, and that at least a dozen former students filed lawsuits this week over the alleged misconduct and reporting failures.
John Manly, the founding partner of Manly, Stewart & Finaldi which represents more than 80 alleged victims of Tyndall, called Nikias stepping down “the first step in a long process of healing for the victims of Dr. Tyndall.”
“It occurred because students faculty and alumni pressured the Board of Trustees to do the right thing,” Manly said. “It is our hope that their pressure will continue until the university reforms the culture which has enabled sexual abuse and holds all of the enablers accountable so this will never happen again.”
The scandal involving Tyndall and his removal — which the university acknowledged publicly in response to a months-long investigation by the Los Angeles Times — was the third involving doctors tied to USC that came to light in the past year.
Former dean and longtime USC fundraiser Dr. Carmen Puliafito was fired by the school last August the wake of the newspaper’s report that he abused heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs, including on days he worked as an eye doctor in university facilities. The Times also reported that a 21-year-old prostitute overdosed while taking drugs with Puliafito at a Pasadena hotel and accused the university of turning a blind eye to complaints about the dean.
Puliafito’s replacement, Dr. Rohit Varma, resigned in October as the newspaper was preparing to publish a story disclosing that he had been formally disciplined by USC in 2003 following allegations that he sexually harassed a young researcher while he was a junior professor supervising her work.
In one lawsuit filed earlier this week, four women identified only as Jane Does contend that Tyndall forced them to strip naked and groped them under the guise of medical treatment for his “sexual gratification.” The suit also accuses the university of failing to properly respond to complaints about Tyndall.
“Plaintiffs are informed and believe, and on this basis allege, that defendant USC benefited financially from actively concealing myriad complaints of sexual abuse made by its female students against Tyndall by protecting its own reputation and financial coffers,” according to the lawsuit.
Attorney Gloria Allred filed a similar lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of a young woman who attended USC and alleges she was assaulted by Tyndall during a pelvic exam in 2016.
“What did USC know and when did they know it?” Allred said. “The fact that USC did not take action to protect students from Dr. Tyndall is inexcusable. … It’s time for transparency.”
The plaintiff in that lawsuit, Daniella Mohazab, alleged that Tyndall made inappropriate comments, asked her for sexual details of her life, and performed a genital examination without wearing gloves.
“He said this was part of an STD test,” Mohazab said. “He made me feel extremely uncomfortable and violated.”
Now, 21 years old and a USC graduate student, Mohazab said USC has “let me down” because the school was allegedly “aware of Tyndall’s conduct before I was even born.”
Tyndall, 71, has denied wrongdoing. In interviews with The Times, the physician defended his medical exams as thorough and appropriate, and said some of his comments to patients were misinterpreted.
The subject of numerous complaints from students and staff beginning in the 1990s, Tyndall was removed from the clinic only after a nurse reported him to the rape crisis center two years ago, according to former patients and staffers interviewed by The Times.
An internal university investigation last year concluded that his pelvic exams were outside the scope of current medical practice and amounted to sexual harassment of students. Campus administrators told The Times they believe the physician had for years been making sexual comments and touching patients inappropriately during the exams.