Ben DiPietro, The Wall Street Journal’s Risk & Compliance Journal, June 4, 2018
University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias agreed to step down late last month, just over a week after allegations were made public that a longtime gynecologist at the school’s student-health center had sexually abused patients.
Mr. Nikias’ decision came after a letter signed by 200 tenured USC professors called on him to resign. It followed a Los Angeles Times report detailing accusations that university gynecologist George Tyndall for decades conducted improper pelvic exams on female students and made inappropriate comments.
A May 25 statement from the university’s executive committee of the Board of Trustees said the committee and Mr. Nikias “agreed to begin an orderly transition and commence the process of selecting a new president.”
A May 21 statement from university Provost Michael Quick denied university leadership knew of the doctor’s improper behavior, stating: “It is true that our system failed, but it is important that you know that this claim of a cover-up if patently false.” Prior to that, the university issued statements about the matter from Mr. Nikias on May 18 and May 15, and statements from other university officials on May 15 and May 16. University administrators also are contacting students.
Three crisis-management experts evaluate the university’s publicly released statements.
Davia Temin, president and chief executive, Temin and Co.: “USC’s formal responses…ring curiously hollow. One of the worst aspects of some crisis responses being edited by lawyers is they can have a pulled-back, wordsmithed, bloodless quality, borne from fear of being quoted in future lawsuits. They appear to defend when they should apologize and make common cause with victims. So at the very moment USC needed to show itself to be trustworthy, honest and authentic and devastated, its statements made them appear otherwise.
“No crisis response needs to be more emotionally resonant, believable, and true than from a college or university. After all, the crisis almost always has something to do with young people, whose welfare the school is entrusted with protecting. I’ve written hundreds of such responses. The effort needed to show real humanity, corrective action, and trustworthiness, even when the facts are sketchy or ambiguous. USC’s statements do not universally exhibit such effort.
“The only statement that really fit the bill is of USC’s new board chairman, Rick Caruso, in his [May 25] announcement. That quote speaks compellingly of his personal outrage and commitment.”
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