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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

In a letter Monday to colleagues at Marshall, Ellis wrote that the decision to remove him was "not based on anything I personally had done, but rather a cumulative record of OED cases from Marshall. The vast majority of these cases were never brought to my attention."

Addressing sexual misconduct became a top priority at USC in May, when The Times revealed that the university had allowed gynecologist George Tyndall to practice on campus for three decades despite complaints to administrators about inappropriate behavior toward female patients.

The Tyndall scandal led to the resignation of President C.L. Max Nikias and the appointment of Austin, a trustee and retired aerospace executive, as interim president. Austin arrived with a mandate to help heal the campus after the scandal and address concerns by students, faculty and alumni that the administration take misconduct allegations more seriously. Within a few months of her August appointment, Austin was focused on Ellis and his school's record on sexual harassment.

Marshall has long been one of the university's most prestigious schools, and during his tenure, Ellis, a marketing professor, was credited with making it an even more competitive program. USC's full-time MBA program was ranked 31st by US News & World Report in 2017 and jumped 11 spots to 20th in the most recent listing. He also raised nearly $500 million for the school, according to his supporters.

To examine the harassment issue, Austin turned to a law firm, Cooley LLP, to investigate and also asked an outside human-resources consultant to weigh in, according to interviews and correspondence with the trustees. Austin and a university lawyer, Michael Blanton, then met with Ellis to discuss the law firm's findings, according to the correspondence.

Miller, Ellis' attorney, said the meeting lasted less than 15 minutes, during which Austin informed the dean he had to leave. The attorney said Ellis was never told what he had done wrong and asserted Ellis was "pure as the driven snow" in his conduct.

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"To the extent any complaint has ever come to his attention during his 11 years as dean, he's run it down, investigated it and handled it," Miller said.

Austin told him he would be allowed to remain until the end of the close of the spring term and USC would pay out the three years remaining on his dean's contract, according to correspondence from Caruso to trustees. Ellis' annual compensation was $636,000, according to USC's 2017 tax filing. As a tenured professor, Ellis will remain on the business school faculty.

The decision outraged Ellis' supporters, who felt that Austin had overstepped her temporary role.

"Since when is an Interim President given the same unfettered power to make personnel decisions as a permanent President who is selected by a Search Committee after a nationwide search and given a five-year mandate to steer the University?" wrote Greif, the prominent donor and alumnus, in a four-page letter sent Friday to the business school's advisory board.

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