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Wealthy USC donors revolt after interim president pushes out top dean over handling of misconduct cases

Matt Hamilton and Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- The University of Southern California vowed to improve accountability and transparency in the wake of a scandal earlier this year in which the longtime campus gynecologist was accused of sexual misconduct against hundreds of students.

A dispute in USC's Marshall School of Business is shaping up to be a key test of this new approach, and it's pitting top administrators against some of the university's major donors.

At issue is the removal of Dean James Ellis, who has led the school since 2007, over his response to sexual harassment and discrimination claims against faculty and staff.

USC's interim president, Wanda Austin, informed Ellis earlier this fall that she planned to replace him at the close of the academic year next spring, three years before his term expired. Austin, the first woman to serve as president, as well as her supporters cast the decision as evidence that the school is learning from previous missteps.

"We learned our lesson," Austin told the Los Angeles Times this week.

But influential USC benefactors are fighting the move. Pasadena billionaire Ming Hsieh, a trustee who has donated more than $85 million, hired a Century City litigator to advocate for Ellis before the USC board.

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"Jim's not going quietly and we're not going quietly," said Lloyd Greif, the CEO of his own investment banking company who has donated more than $5 million to the business school. "This decision needs to be reversed."

When USC's trustees meet next week, Ellis' status will be on the agenda. Board chair Rick Caruso has told fellow trustees in letters reviewed by The Times that he planned to lay out the facts behind Austin's decision and that he was confident she acted "with due consideration and in furtherance of the university's best interests."

Little has been released publicly about the sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination cases Ellis has handled in his role as dean. Such complaints are investigated on a confidential basis by USC's Office of Equity and Diversity, and Austin declined to discuss the nature or number of accusations.

An executive assistant for Ellis said the dean was unavailable for an interview. The attorney Hsieh retained, Louis "Skip" Miller, said he was representing Ellis and the billionaire trustee. Miller said none of the accusations at issue concerned behavior by the dean himself.

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