USC Reputation on the Line as School Faces Series of Scandals
Roy Nwaisser has four degrees from the University of Southern California and is a superfan of its storied football squad — he hasn’t missed a home or away game in 27 years.
But his devotion has been tested by a series of scandals culminating with the school’s starring role in a massive college admissions bribery case that is the latest disgrace threatening to tarnish USC’s hard-fought reputation as an academic, as well as athletic, powerhouse.
Hours after that news broke Tuesday, Nwaisser turned down a request to speak at an alumni fundraiser in Nevada.
“I can’t in good conscience promote the university until they clean up their act,” Nwaisser wrote to the group. “If people want to donate their money they should give it to institutions with fewer scandals and less corruption.”
It’s been a bruising two years for the university in the heart of Los Angeles. The president who helped boost the school’s endowment by raising $7 billion stepped down amid investigations into a medical school dean accused of smoking methamphetamine with a woman who overdosed, and reports the school ignored complaints of widespread sexual misconduct by the longtime campus gynecologist.
Meantime, an assistant men’s basketball coach pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a wide-ranging FBI probe of corruption in college hoops.
This week’s announcement of federal criminal charges over admissions cheating also targeted prestigious schools such as Stanford, Georgetown and Yale, but no other institution was implicated as much as USC.
Prosecutors say wealthy parents either paid bribes to have a college counselor rig standardized tests or get their children admitted as recruits of sports they didn’t play.
More than half the 32 parents charged were trying to bribe their children’s way into USC. One of those parents, Homayoun Zadeh, is a USC dentistry professor now facing termination.
To gain access for their two daughters, actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to have them labeled as crew team recruits at USC, even though neither is a rower, prosecutors said.
The school fired senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who won 16 national titles. Both were accused of taking bribes. Two former USC coaches also were named in the scheme.
In a letter to the campus, interim President Wanda Austin twice emphasized that prosecutors alleged the school was a victim of employees who purposely deceived it. In a follow-up, Austin did not use the word victim and said the school was cooperating with prosecutors and conducting its own investigation that could lead to further discipline.
USC plans to redirect donations that were part of the scheme toward scholarships for needy students, Austin said. It would also deny admission to applicants accepted through the scheme and review the cases of students and graduates who fraudulently gained admission.
A university spokesman declined requests for interviews.
Jeff Hunt, a crisis management expert who helped Penn State after a child sex abuse scandal involving assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, said USC’s damage control must include disclosing everything it can no matter how embarrassing.
“This is a crude way of saying it, but all of this could be kind of packaged together by saying that we had a period of time where culturally we weren’t really where we need to be, want to be, or should be,” said Hunt, author of “Brand Under Fire.”
Some faculty have put the blame on former President C.L. Max Nikias, who was lauded for amassing a huge endowment, but criticized for not acting quickly when scandals hit.
Nikias stepped down last summer as a chorus of faculty called for his resignation after hundreds of women accused Dr. George Tyndall of misconduct ranging from sexual abuse to conducting unnecessary examinations and taking photos of genitalia for no medical purpose.
Tyndall has not been charged and has denied the allegations. The university recently agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit by paying $215 million to potentially thousands of women he examined.
William G. Tierney, a professor of higher education, said the current crisis is tied to Nikias’ “stage-managed” hiring of football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, an alumnus, as athletic director. He said Swann has been asleep at the wheel.
Tierney said disruption from recent scandals will lead some faculty to retire early or go to more stable institutions.
“The vast majority of us are not interested in drama and intrigue,” Tierney said. “The last 18 months has been a constant barrage of horrific news that occurred because of a Board of Trustees acting as a rubber stamp, an ineffective Faculty Senate, and a president who charged ahead without listening to anyone else. The outcome is a constant environment of chaos.”
USC has shed its one-time reputation as a country club for rich kids and has steadily risen to academic prominence over several decades. It ranks 22nd in U.S. News rankings of national universities, tied with the University of California, Berkeley and Georgetown.
There are 20,000 undergrads and 27,000 graduate students. Nearly a quarter of students come from abroad — the vast majority from China. Tuition is $55,000.
The pay-to-play scandal has renewed some of the school’s past reputation.
Heather Newgen, a freelance journalist, was the first in her family to go to college and worked two jobs and took care of her grandmother on weekends while going to USC in the early 2000s.
She said she was disgusted that admission was denied to some to make room for kids who paid their way in.
“Everyone says that USC is the University of Spoiled Children,” Newgen said. “That definitely wasn’t my case, but when I went there everyone was driving BMWs and didn’t have to work and just seemed more excited to hang out and party.”
Kelly Jiang, 18, a sophomore from Kunming, China, whose parents pay $74,000 a year for tuition and expenses, said she feared the scandal would taint her degree.
“It really diminishes the value of USC,” Jiang said. “If someone can just pay $500,000 to get into USC and get a diploma, what are we as USC graduates, or people hiring USC graduates, supposed to think?”
Nwaisser said friends and fellow football fans he knows have canceled season tickets at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and withheld donations out of protest. He said he’s heartbroken and hopes his school chooses a new president based on values rather than ability to raise money.
Despite his disappointment with USC leadership, he will continue to follow the Trojans around the country and keep his attendance streak alive.
“I’ll still be going to football games long after all these people are gone and after they’ve righted the ship,” he said.