USC’s large and powerful Board of Trustees is coming under growing pressure to provide a stronger hand as the university faces a crisis over misconduct allegations against the campus’ longtime gynecologist that has prompted calls for President C.L. Max Nikias to step down.
Allegations that Dr. George Tyndall mistreated students during his nearly 30 years at USC have roiled the campus, with about 300 people coming forward to make reports to the university and the Los Angeles Police Department launching a criminal investigation. USC is already beginning to face what is expected to be costly litigation by women who say they were victimized by the physician.
So far, the trustees to whom Nikias reports have expressed sympathy for the women who have come forward and launched an independent investigation while also publicly backing the president.
“There are very serious issues that are now squarely in the lap of the board of trustees and will require their action,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “It is incumbent on them to restore public trust in the institution. They will be held themselves accountable by the degree to which they hold leadership accountable.”
The trustees came under criticism at a heated forum Wednesday that ended with the faculty senate voting to call on Nikias to resign. Some speakers said it seemed the Board of Trustees answered to Nikias instead of the other way around.
“The main problem is this institution does not have a Board of Trustees. Max has a Board of Trustees,” one faculty member said, to applause and cheers.
Composed of 59 voting members, the board includes noted philanthropists, accomplished alumni, Hollywood insiders and business moguls. Members include director Steven Spielberg, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and mall magnate Rick J. Caruso.
The Times reached out to numerous board members over the last week, but few offered comment.
Caruso said in a brief interview with Times columnist Steve Lopez that he was still trying collect all the facts regarding Tyndall.
“I need to understand what happened, why it was never fully reported and why his conduct was able to continue for so many years,” Caruso said. “I know enough to know I don’t have all that I need to know.”
As for the future of the president, Caruso added: “Trustees believe Max Nikias, given the right circumstances, is the right person to lead this institution.”
But, he said, the investigation “will go where it goes.”
Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, chair of gender studies at USC, said she supports calls for Nikias to step down but still hopes the Board of Trustees can successfully navigate the scandal. She said she believes there is a diversity of opinions on the board and that some members, whether they’ve said it publicly or not, are “more than outraged about what’s going on.”
“There really is a sense that [this was] the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said.
One USC donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he has talked to several trustees and that there are clear divisions on the board about how to address the scandal and the fate of Nikias.
Professor Gary Painter, who voted for Wednesday’s resolution as a senator for the Sol Price School of Public Policy, said the board and Nikias have become increasingly remote from faculty, students, staff members and others at the university.
“One of the issues the senate is grappling with is the fact that over the last decade or so there has been a greater and greater disconnect in governance between the president and the Board of Trustees and the rest of the university,” Painter said.
There have been calls for Nikias’ ouster on campus and in social media, and in an online petition circulated by alumni since The Times last week detailed USC’s handling of Tyndall, who is accused of making sexual comments and touching patients inappropriately during pelvic exams. Tyndall denied any wrongdoing in an earlier interview with The Times but could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Tyndall, 71, was the subject of complaints from students and staff beginning in the 1990s, according to former patients and clinic staffers interviewed by The Times. He was removed from the clinic only after a frustrated nurse reported him to the campus’ rape crisis center in 2016.
An internal university investigation last year concluded that Tyndall’s pelvic exams were outside the scope of current medical practice and amounted to sexual harassment of students. Campus administrators told The Times that they believe the physician’s inappropriate behavior persisted for years.
USC Provost Michael Quick said that the university’s senior leadership had not learned about the complaints against Tyndall until 2017. The university, in a secret deal last summer, allowed Tyndall to quietly resign with a financial payout.
At the time, USC did not report him to the Medical Board of California, the agency responsible for protecting the public from problem doctors. USC filed a belated report to the medical board in March. The university is also now sending cases to the LAPD for criminal review.
On Wednesday, the trustees said outside attorneys would conduct an independent investigation into the Tyndall matter. The inquiry is to examine not only the physician’s behavior, but also what the trustees called “reporting failures” that allowed Tyndall to remain at the clinic for 27 years and treat tens of thousands of students.
Board Chairman John Mork issued a statement Tuesday saying that although trustees were “troubled by the distressing reports” about the campus doctor, he and others on its executive committee “strongly support” 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 Mork, a Colorado energy mogul who graduated from USC.
Nikias sent the campus community a 20-page “action plan” Tuesday that he said was prepared at the request of trustees. It called for a wide rethinking that will include a rewrite of USC’s Code of Ethics and a new presidential commission on improving campus culture.
With Nikias facing such criticism, Poliakoff said the trustees are going to have to take on more of a leadership role.
“At this point, the faculty — or at least some faculty — have weighed in, and it’s incumbent on the board to weigh in,” he said. “To listen to them judiciously, to weigh evidence and then to operate in a way that is transparent and restores the public trust. That’s the only way that USC can heal.”
The board needs to ask the university leadership difficult questions — sometimes criticizing, reprimanding or sanctioning personal friends — however uncomfortable it may be, Poliakoff said.
“Boards need to be independent actors,” he added. It “is really crucial for public trust.”