USC’s social work school, the largest in the world and one of the oldest in the nation, might be forced to lay off nearly half its staff and eliminate the vast majority of its part-time teaching positions following the revelations of severe budget problems that began under a former dean, it was reported Wednesday.
Marilyn Flynn stepped down from her post at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work last year amid scrutiny of a $100,000 donation she had transferred through school coffers to a nonprofit controlled by the son of a powerful local politician, as The Times reported last year citing interviews and correspondence. The donation prompted an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles that is ongoing, the newspaper reported Wednesday morning.
A team of school officials reviewing financial records after her departure found the school had been operating at a loss for years, according to sources familiar with the records. The school’s budget appeared balanced only because reserve accounts were tapped, the sources told The Times.
Administrators also determined that admissions standards had been lowered dramatically in past years in what some faculty now suspect was an attempt to shore up the flagging budget with additional tuition revenue. The school’s national ranking has declined significantly over the last decade.
Accountants from Ernst & Young were brought on to assess the state of the school’s finances. Their January report determined that the school’s $150-million budget had an operating deficit that would grow to nearly $40 million by 2020 if admissions standards were tightened and no budget cuts implemented, according to people briefed on the findings. USC said more recent data suggested the 2020 figure was under $10 million.
Flynn, who served as dean for 21 years, referred questions to an attorney. Lawyer Vicki Podberesky said the former dean discussed budget issues “openly and transparently” with faculty and administrators, including shortfalls stemming from the school’s embrace of online degree programs.
Provost Michael Quick, who is leaving his post June 30 and declined to be interviewed, said in a statement that the cuts were necessary and “will ensure the school is on solid footing as it seeks its next dean.”
The social work school’s woes represent yet another fire for incoming President Carol L. Folt to extinguish as she seeks to reform the scandal-plagued university. Folt formally takes over USC on July 1 but has been working behind the scenes to address a raft of challenges, including the college admissions scandal and fallout from sexual abuse claims against campus gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall.
USC has not made public the details of the financial challenges facing the social work school, and faculty members said that at various times they had been told at school meetings that the hole in the school’s budget was between $20 million and $30 million, amounts a USC spokeswoman disputed as wildly overstated. The Times spoke to more than a half-dozen faculty and administrators who’ve been briefed on the school’s financial state as well as reviewed internal records and a video recording of an April faculty meeting.
“These kind of things don’t happen overnight, and they don’t get resolved overnight,” Dr. Avishai Sadan, dean of USC’s dental school and a member of a university task force convened to resolve the deficit, told professors at the April meeting.
The task force Sadan helped lead made recommendations in April to begin addressing the budget problems. They included slashing up to 45% of the staff over two years and doing away with hundreds of posts for adjunct professors and mid-level deans. Their recommendations also included ending study abroad and international programs.
Some proposals have already been implemented. Full-time faculty members have been given new contracts requiring them to shoulder heavier course loads. Professors who previously taught a half-dozen classes over the academic year will be assigned 10 courses over a 12-month period at the same salary, according to interviews and Sadan’s comments at the meeting last month.
“It’s basically a pay cut,” he acknowledged to faculty, The Times reported.
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