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USC's role in yet another scandal prompts anger, disappointment among its community

Matt Hamilton and Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Professor Homayoun Zadeh was an institution at the University of Southern California dental school, rising over a four-decade academic career from student to lab director to chair of the periodontology department.

But when it came time for his own daughter to apply to USC, Zadeh turned to an off-campus connection to make sure she got in. As laid out in an FBI affidavit filed in court this week, the 57-year-old agreed to pay a shady college consultant from Newport Beach $100,000 to bribe a corrupt athletic department administrator. His daughter was admitted as a star recruit in lacrosse, a sport she did not play, according to federal prosecutors.

"I have not shared anything about our arrangement but she somehow senses it," he wrote of the teenager in a 2017 text to the counselor quoted in the affidavit. "She's concerned that others may view her differently."

The largest college admissions scandal in U.S. history stretches from La Jolla to Cape Cod, but its epicenter is Southern California and the private university here coveted by so many children of privilege and their families.

Of the 32 parents named in the FBI affidavit unsealed this week in U.S. District Court in Boston on Tuesday, more than half stand accused of conspiring to bribe their children's way into USC. Other universities, including Georgetown, Stanford, the University of San Diego and Yale, were also ensnared in the criminal enterprise run by consultant William "Rick" Singer, but the misconduct alleged involving USC dwarfs all other schools.

USC is also different because of its history. Over the last decade, it has been hit with a series of scandals that have raised fundamental questions about the university culture. The NCAA slammed the school for violations involving gifts and benefits given by agents to star football player Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo. The head coach of its vaunted football team was fired after slurring his words and shouting a profanity at a booster event. The dean of its prestigious medical school was forced out amid allegations of drug use, and his successor resigned after the Los Angeles Times revealed that the university had paid a financial settlement to a student who accused him of sexual harassment.

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Over the last year, the campus has been roiled by allegations, also brought to light by the newspaper, that a longtime student health gynecologist abused and harassed hundreds of students over nearly three decades. The university recently brokered an initial $215 million settlement with former patients, and experts say the final price tag will be much higher.

The college cheating case comes at a time when the university -- known for its rising academic achievement and fundraising acumen -- is trying to move past the scandals and select new leadership. The university's search for a new president is in its final stages.

"I'm seeing the value of my education drop and the reputation we worked so hard for get tarnished day by day, and that's a shame," said former student body President Rini Sampath, who graduated in 2016. "It's clear that there's a culture of corruption at USC, and I personally am glad it is being exposed."

In the wake of this week's charges, USC began termination proceedings against Zadeh and fired the athletic department administrator, Donna Heinel, and water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who were also charged. Zadeh did not return messages seeking comment.

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