An Open Letter to the #USC Board of Trustees on Believing Women

Dear Board:

In general, I have not commented at length about the individual cases, as I don’t have firsthand knowledge of them, nor have I examined evidence. You all seem to think this is about an incident or two, which is why you dismissed our heartfelt plea with “Give Nikias a chance to fix it.” After all, he chucked a plan at us yesterday.

As a planning professor, I love plans. And yes, there are some good things in that plan, but take it from me, who as practitioner saw many a plan made only to die on the vine: plans to create more just conditions are only useful when those with power are committed to the well-being of people they lead.

This is not a commitment that President Nikias has ever espoused as a leader. He has been focussed externally. He has emphasized rankings, winning, status, and more winning. That was exciting and effective while we were building, but we should see now that it had a dark side to it, too.

Its dark side is that sexual abuse was beneath the gaze of those in power at USC. President Nikias and you on the BoT seem to think that abusing women on campus can be fixed with a few tweaks here and there. I can’t blame you: one of my own colleagues likened the abuse of women at USC to “fixing a pothole” in a the LA Times yesterday. Really? Sexual abuse is like a pothole? The ignorance on display is staggering.

What has happened at USC is not a series of a few, isolated, unfortunate events, like potholes. These disclosures are a disaster, more on par with Hurricane Katrina, and I doubt we have reached high tide yet.

I was in a meeting with funders yesterday. Guess what they wanted to talk about? Not my project, that’s for sure. I am fielding question after question from students who had been thrilled to be admitted here and now regret turning down UCLA or Berkeley to come here. As a faculty member, my job serving students and doing funded research becomes nigh on impossible as long as we have scandal after scandal after scandal. As a donor, albeit not an important one, I don’t want my money feeding lawsuits and gropers instead of students.

At USC, I myself have experienced firsthand what can only be described as an environment uniquely toxic towards women. While misogyny is everywhere, my experiences with gender discrimination at USC have been especially bad.

I have tried to serve as an advocate, buffer, and oasis for students and nontenured colleagues and staff in that mess.

When I appealed to authority, I was told to ignore it. I was told junior faculty are to be seen and not heard.

Year after year, I cajoled. I educated. I fought. I was scolded for my “tone” and to be “civil” when my frustration with bad treatment of female graduate students boiled over.

I got very, very tired.

I shouldn’t be spending my time on this when we want to be the best university in the world.

My story is one of dozens I have heard over the years, and it is certainly not the most egregious. We have not hit bottom yet, I suspect, with what is g oing to come out in the media.

So for all the protesting from these administrators they “knew nothing” about this or that, it’s because they chose to know nothing about the problems of the people they led. The organizational structure at USC ensures they will hear nothing.

When that’s the environment you create, the only recourse desperate and abused employees have is to go to the LA Times.

USC requires another transformation at this point. Can President Nikias do it? I admire President Nikias tremendously. He has been a bold, audacious, and effective leader on multiple fronts during his tenure. He is a remarkable scholar in his own right.

But I don’t think he has the skills and mindset for this particular institutional challenge. President Nikias has never espoused an interest in the inner workings of the university he’s represented. He has excelled at external relations. He’s instructed his deans to spend their time on external relations. He likes to mix it up with the wealthy and famous, and he’s done all of these things in service of enriching the institution. I understand and appreciate that.

Many, many leaders are suited for one challenge and not another. There is no shame in this, not really, if the result is greater growth. Personal loyalties notwithstanding, we need a president who thinks about employees and students now, not just their successes, but their struggles here, too. I agonized over signing the letter to you yesterday because I love USC, and I do not want to be disloyal. Protecting a president is not the same as protecting the institution, and our goal, including his, should be the latter.