Bovard Hall USC campus

USC President Steps Down Over Gynecologist Scandal

Mirroring the scandal rocking U.S.A. Gymnastics and Michigan State University, USC President C.L. Max Nikias is stepping down over a major sexual misconduct scandal. His decision came after protests that culminated in a petition signed by thousands of USC alumni and hundreds of professors.

Nearly 300 incidents of sexual assault and sexual misconduct were reported by patients of George Tyndall, a student health center gynecologist. For decades, Tyndall allegedly performed improper “pelvic exams” on female students, with a notable tendency to target women of Chinese descent. Victims claim Tyndall made inappropriate comments about their bodies and ethnicity, and even took pictures of their genitals. He was separated from USC in 2017 after years of complaints over his conduct, but sought reinstatement in March of this year.

USC officials admit to being aware of multiple complaints against Tyndall before his attempted return to work for the university. According to state law, hospitals and most health clinics are required to notify the Medical Board of California after suspending or terminating the privileges of physicians. They did not file any such complaints with the medical board until after LA Times reporters approached clinic employees for their investigation.

C.L. Max Nikias had built a legacy around improving USC’s position into becoming one of the most highly rated higher-education institutions of the company. During his tenure, Nikias was known as an aggressive and ambitious fundraiser. In 2011, he launched a $6-billion campaign to improve the campus. However, even before the Tyndall scandal exploded, Nikias was already under fire for his leadership in the wake of other scandals.

Scandal was familiar during the Nikias era at USC.

Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito was the dean of the Keck School of Medicine. He was an obvious choice for the precision on paper: a skilled eye surgeon, and a charismatic leader that brought students and funding to the university. But his tenure as dean came to an end after revelations regarding a double-life.

In March of 2016, an escort Puliafito had known since 2015 overdosed on drugs at a hotel in Pasadena, California. However, he lied to dispatchers about what happened to the escort, claiming that she “had a bunch of drinks.” A hotel employee investigating the room also called 911, claiming there was evidence of drug use, specifically crystal meth. Unreleased videos acquired by the LA Times, recorded by Puliafito and the escort, show the couple engaging in heavy drug use.

The doctor presented himself as a witness to the overdose according to police records, in an apparent effort to hide the full extent of his involvement. But another witness filed an anonymous complaint about both Puliafito and the police that had handled the incident. That same witness called Max Nikias’ office. Puliafito would resign as dean less than two weeks later.

Months after the resignation, Nikias joined other USC heads in praising the former dean and his accomplishments.

Also plaguing the Nikias’ presidency was USC’s scandal ridden sports programs. In 2010, the NCAA came down on the university over student athletes receiving improper gifts. Coach Steve Sarkisian was fired in 2015 after attending a preseason booster event while heavily intoxicated and engaging in inappropriate conduct. In February of this year, USC fired head basketball coach Tony Bland four months after he was arrested in an FBI probe into college basketball corruption.

Confidence in Nikias faltered among university faculty as questions arose on how much he knew about the Tyndall scandal.

USC officials claim Nikias became aware of any misconduct by Tyndall in late 2017. But investigative reporting revealed that Tyndall’s thirty years at USC was rife with complaints. It was not until after a nurse brought complaints about his misconduct to the campus rape crisis center that the university took decisive action against the doctor. He was barred from treating patients, and internal investigations ultimately backed the claims made against Tyndall, resulting in his separation.

Further complicating matters is the sudden shift in the board of trustees. After 200 faculty members signed a letter calling for Nikias removal, the board stated that it stood firmly behind the USC president. But within weeks of the initial display of confidence, the board agreed to an “orderly transition.”

Students and faculty are calling for further investigations into both Nikias, and any other university officials who may have known of Tyndall’s misconduct.

USC itself is now under a microscope as more victims of George Tyndall step forward with lawsuits. By the end of May, over two dozen lawsuits have been leveled at the institution, with more expected on the way. Police are investigating the claims of 50 more victims.

If the turmoil at Michigan State over Larry Nassar is anything to go by, the end of C.L. Max Nikias as USC president will likely be only one part of an ongoing drama. Two USC administrators were fired in the wake of his resignation, and many critics are calling for more.

* This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or case.