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U. of Southern California Removes Medical-School Dean as Newspaper Reports Sexual-Misconduct Claim

Another medical-school dean has toppled at the University of Southern California amid the disclosure of alleged unsavory behavior.

The university on Thursday removed as dean Rohit Varma, an ophthalmologist, as the Los Angeles Times was about to publish an article describing his alleged sexual harassment of and alleged retaliation against a young woman he supervised in 2003, an episode that only briefly deflected his career.

The news broke just two and a half months after the Times published its last medical-dean takedown, of Dr. Varma’s predecessor, Carmen A. Puliafito, also an ophthalmologist, who was described as a heavy drinker and drug user who treated colleagues poorly and who consorted with prostitutes and criminals.

But like Dr. Puliafito, a fund-raising powerhouse, Dr. Varma was seen as an ideal candidate for the job because of his ability to bring tens of millions of dollars in grant money to the university, a talent the Times suggests may help explain the university’s willingness to overlook the 2003 incident when he sought to succeed Dr. Puliafito. In the end he served for only a year.

“Based on previously undisclosed information brought to the university in recent days, USC leadership has lost confidence in Dr. Rohit Varma’s ability to lead our medical school. As of today, he is no longer dean of the Keck School of Medicine,” the university’s provost said in a written statement quoted by the Times. Just a day earlier, the university told the Times that it considered the harassment case to be closed and that it retained confidence in the dean.

The Times described Dr. Varma as possessing an “inspirational backstory,” having worked in India with Mother Teresa, volunteered at a leper colony, and focused his research on the eye problems suffered by members of minority groups. He did not respond to the Times’s efforts to contact him for comment.

After the 2003 incident, the university paid more than $100,000 to the woman Dr. Varma had allegedly harassed, briefly put off his promotion to full professor, and temporarily cut his pay. But his career soon recovered, and he was appointed to succeed Dr. Puliafito even though the sexual-harassment allegation was “well known in the upper echelons of the university,” the Times reported.

Equally surprising is that the university was willing to overlook the harassment allegation at a time when sexual misconduct by college administrators, faculty members, and students regularly makes headlines.

In the aftermath of the Times’s Puliafito exposé, the university’s president, C.L. Max Nikias, conceded that Southern California “could have done better” in how it dealt with reports of the dean’s behavior, as official explanations evolved and questions were raised about how the dean had been hired in the first place.

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