200 Professors Call for Ouster of U.S.C. President, Citing Lack of ‘Moral Authority’

LOS ANGELES — Two hundred professors at the University of Southern California have demanded the resignation of the school’s president, C.L. Max Nikias, saying that he no longer had the “moral authority to lead” and had failed to protect students and staff from “repeated and pervasive sexual harassment and misconduct.”

The letter was addressed to the board of trustees of the private university and signed by senior faculty members, who said they wanted to “express our outrage and disappointment” over how Mr. Nikias had handled reports that a gynecologist at the campus health center had mistreated students for decades. Although an internal investigation in 2016 found that the doctor had conducted pelvic exams inappropriately and made offensive remarks to patients, officials chose to settle the matter quietly and did not report it to the state medical board.

“We call upon President Nikias to step aside, and upon the board of trustees to restore moral leadership to the university,” the faculty wrote in their letter. “President Nikias’ own actions and omissions amount to a breach of trust.”

Mr. Nikias became president in 2010 and has presided over the university at a time of tremendous growth, attracting international students and top-tier faculty while completing a $6 billion fund-raising effort and opening dozens of new buildings.

But in the last year, the university has been dogged by a string of scandals brought to light by The Los Angeles Times. First came reports last summer that the former dean of the medical school had used drugs on campus and partied with prostitutes. Then, last fall, the man who had replaced him was forced to step down after the university admitted it had settled a sexual harassment case with one of his former researchers.

Mr. Nikias had promised a full investigation of the scandal involving the medical school dean by an independent law firm last year, but several faculty members and university staff said they had grown impatient and angered that the results have so far been kept under wraps. Then came the reports last week of the decades-long history of misconduct allegations against the gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall, and the university’s failure to report them to state authorities, former patients or the public.

Dr. Tyndall has denied allegations of any misconduct.

“It’s a clear pattern of something terrible happens and it’s allowed to go on for a long time, then there’s secret settlement and no taking care of victims, no public accounting,” said Ariela Gross, a professor of law and history who has been at U.S.C. for more than 20 years. Professor Gross began circulating a draft of the petition Sunday to tenured professors she knew and stopped when she had 200 signatories less than 48 hours later. “We know all that we need to know to know that we need new leadership. I’ve hardly been a consistent critic of our administration, but this is beyond the pale,” she said.

The faculty petition included many of the university’s most celebrated professors from more than a dozen schools, as well as former administrators. Still, it was unclear how much of an impact it would have. (U.S.C. has about 1,200 tenured faculty members.) Just one hour after the faculty letter was released to the public, the chairman of the board of trustees sent his own letter to students, staff and alumni affirming his “full support” of Mr. Nikias.

“The executive committee of the board has full confidence in President Nikias’ leadership, ethics, and values and is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward,” wrote John Mork, who is an energy executive in Colorado. The letter added, “We have zero tolerance for this conduct and will ensure that people are held accountable for actions that threaten the university student body.”

The board of trustees is primarily made up of alumni who have given millions to the university, including Hollywood producers, real estate barons, lawyers and business executives. None of the 59 voting members have openly criticized Mr. Nikias.

The first lawsuits were filed this week against U.S.C. in what is likely to become a period of protracted litigation involving dozens of women, if not more. Six women have filed suit so far, saying they were sexually abused and harassed by Dr. Tyndall during medical examinations and that the university failed to protect students. Several more lawsuits could be filed by the end of the week, according to one of the lawyers involved.

A separate student petition circulating online also called for Mr. Nikias to resign and had gathered more than 2,000 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.

“There’s been a yearlong ethical cloud that has been hanging over our university and for many of us this was the final straw,” said Gene Bickers, a professor of physics who served as vice provost for several years under Mr. Nikias.

“Our president has done an incredible job of fund-raising and making capital improvements, it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, but when it comes to the human side that’s where there have been real shortcomings and failings,” Professor Bickers said. “If the university doesn’t have values it can show then the whole thing begins to fall apart.”

Mr. Nikias, 65, set an ambitious goal for fund-raising almost immediately after he became president. At the time, the $6 billion campaign was the largest ever for an American university. Mr. Nikias met the goal, and his success at bringing in money has raised the stature of the university globally and, so far, largely insulated Mr. Nikias from the effects of scandal.

An electrical engineer and classicist who was born in Cyprus, Mr. Nikias became an American citizen in 1988, three years before joining the engineering faculty at U.S.C.

Mr. Nikias landed there just before racial unrest in South Los Angeles devastated areas close to the campus. He later became the dean of the engineering school and was appointed provost in 2005, which many saw as a signal that he was being groomed for the university’s top job. As president, Mr. Nikias continued the work of his predecessor, Steven B. Sample, transforming U.S.C. into an elite institution with global reach. In recent years, it has ranked among the top three schools in fund-raising, next to Harvard and Stanford.

The job of the university president these days is largely about hustling donations and raising a school’s profile, with day-to-day operations of the campus left to others. Mr. Nikias has embodied the modern notion of the university leader as “the chief fund-raiser and chief storyteller for the university,” said Jeffrey J. Selingo, an academic who has written about the university’s fund-raising in recent years.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Nikias sent a 20-page memo to staff, students and alumni vowing to “change the culture at the university, and instill a higher level of professionalism and ethics.” Among other changes, he said he would oversee an update to the code of ethics and create a new office of ombuds services, as well as a senior vice president for communications whose job would include “promoting the good work we do every single day.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: Professors Call for Ouster of U.S.C.’s President, Citing a Lack of ‘Moral Authority’. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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