Leadership & Governance

As Crisis Grows, U. of Southern California’s Statements Evolve

July 31, 2017

Michael Kovac, Getty Images
After initially saying little, C.L. Max Nikias, president of the U. of Southern California, has acknowledged receiving "various complaints" about Carmen Puliafito’s behavior over his nearly 10 years as dean.

Two weeks have passed since the Los Angeles Times published a bombshell report detailing allegations that a dean of the University of Southern California’s medical school had used illicit drugs and consorted with a prostitute before resigning from his administrative post last year. The university has since issued a series of ever-more-detailed statements. Here is Southern California’s journey from “no comment,” to very little comment, to outrage, to — finally on Friday — acknowledging that the university had received a number of complaints about the dean, Carmen A. Puliafito, before his resignation last year.

July 18 — C.L. Max Nikias, the university’s president, states in a public letter that Dr. Puliafito, an ophthalmologist, is on leave and not seeing patients. The letter wishes Dr. Puliafito a full recovery “if the article’s assertions are true.” “This specific issue is, of course, complicated by privacy rights,” Mr. Nikias continues, “but we can state that we will do what is right and best for our entire campus community and our mission.”  

July 19 — Michael W. Quick, the university’s provost, acknowledges in a letter that “it can be frustrating” for professors not to be given more information, but he cites prohibitions against releasing “confidential personnel information.” “I promise you,” Mr. Quick continues, “that we will take further actions going forward, as warranted, as we learn more.”

July 21 — Mr. Nikias, the president, releases a statement that is noticeably more emotional than his first. “We are outraged and disgusted by this individual’s behavior,” he says. “It runs counter to our values and everything for which our university stands.”

The president says the university has hired Debra Wong Yang, a former state judge and federal prosecutor, to “conduct a thorough investigation into the details of Carmen Puliafito’s conduct, the university’s response, as well as our existing policies and procedures.”

Mr. Quick, the provost, releases his own statement, suggesting that — only now — has the university received “first-hand” information about the former dean’s substance abuse. Accordingly, he says, the university has initiated a process of firing Dr. Puliafito and stripping him of tenure.

“I know many people wanted us to act on allegations and hearsay,” Mr. Quick writes, “but we needed actual facts.”

July 23 — The Los Angeles Times publishes an article detailing the newspaper’s efforts, over the course of 15 months, to get university officials to comment on Dr. Puliafito. These efforts included sending a letter to Mr. Nikias, who returned it unopened by courier, the newspaper reports.

July 26 — “We could have done better,” Mr. Nikias says in an open letter. “Dr. Puliafito’s situation is extraordinarily complex,” he continues “but we should assume we could have done better to recognize the signs and severity of his issues.” Mr. Nikias announces the formation of a task force to examine the university’s procedures for dealing with anonymous tips and to consider training for faculty members and staff to better identify mental-health challenges on campus.

John Mork, chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees, says in a statement that he has the “utmost confidence and trust” in the president and provost. “I am certain they will work quickly and decisively to make all necessary changes and will put in place policies and procedures to prevent something like this from happening again.”

July 28 — In his most detailed statement to date, Mr. Nikias acknowledges that “over the course of his nearly 10 years as dean, we received various complaints about Dr. Puliafito’s behavior, which were addressed through university personnel procedures; this included disciplinary action and professional development coaching.” In November 2015, the dean was put “on notice for being disengaged from his leadership duties,” Mr. Nikias says. Dr. Puliafito “chose to resign” as dean on March 24, 2016, when he was confronted with further complaints about his behavior, the president writes.

Mr. Nikias’s statement was released just hours after the Los Angeles Times informed the university that the newspaper was preparing to publish an article that detailed repeated complaints made to the university about the dean, the newspaper reported.

The president’s statement maintains that the university, at least at the time of the dean’s resignation, was not aware of any “illegal or illicit activities, which would have led to a review of his clinical responsibilities.”

Mr. Nikias’s statement also spoke to a key element in the newspaper’s initial report: an anonymous call to the president’s office, in March 2016, describing the drug overdose of a young woman in a Pasadena hotel where Dr. Puliafito was present. Two receptionists who took the call did not find the allegations credible, so they were not forwarded to senior administrators, Mr. Nikias wrote. The dean resigned about three weeks after that incident.

“In my view,” the president states, “we acted when we felt we had the information necessary to act, and then we acted decisively.”

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.