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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Downfall of USC's President: the Problem of Administrative Epistemology

It's a good time to take stock of renewed scandal at USC. One month into the new round, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has announced a "Title IX directed, systemic investigation into the University of Southern California’s (USC) handling of reports of sexual harassment against former employee Dr. George Tyndall."   Opportunistic though it may be (see Catherine Lhamon's comment), the new DOE investigation points again to a structural management problem at the University.

I'm going to bracket the profound gender trouble that propels the kind of abuse at issue and look at the role of an ongoing epistemic crisis in administrative practice.

On May 16th, the Los Angeles Times broke the story of a coverup of an allegedly predatory campus gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall, with this headline: "A USC doctor was accused of bad behavior with young women for years.  The university continued letting him treat students."   The investigation dug back decades: "the complaints began in the 1990s, when co-workers alleged he was improperly photographing students' genitals." "Some of the most serious allegations against Tyndall involve claims of inappropriate remarks about patients' bodies and his use of fingers at the start of pelvic exams."  The story stayed on The Times front page most days of the month since, as more details emerged, as 20 former students sued USC, as 400 former patients called a complaint hot line, and as the LAPD opened a criminal investigation.  The case has audible echoes of that of convicted Michigan State abuser Dr. Larry Nassar.  (Tyndall denies all charges and defends his practice.)

USC president C.L Max Nikias lasted ten days after the story broke.  He was pushed out in part because his administration, in 2016, had arranged a private payout and retirement for Tyndall instead of a full investigation.  The case was concealed in spite of Nikias having affirmed that
Bringing unacceptable behavior out of the shadows and into the light is the first step in eradicating it.  Change is imperative. And we stand united on this front.
It's a good principle, but it isn't one Nikias actually followed.

My bleak mood about this case reflected first to how little protection such statements have afforded Tyndall's alleged victims over 27 years.  I grew up with USC--my father had two SC degrees, and many friends and children of friends have attended, including two generations of women who could have been Tyndall's patients.  I was thrilled when USC recommitted to central Los Angeles in the early 1990s and built programs reflecting a commitment to addressing systematically the country's sociocultural condition. Many of the most interesting scholars in the study of culture and society worked there--until they got fed up and left.  I know firsthand that USC overflows with intelligence.  I feel badly for how the scandal and its non-resolution is affecting thousands of dedicated faculty and staff, particularly the whistleblowers and reformers who had been trying to fix things from the inside.

But what needs to be fixed at USC? And who would will be doing the fixing?

The changes so far are preliminaries.  The USC Board of Trustees has
  • removed an apparent enabler (Max Nikias).
  • changed board leadership (mall magnate Rick Caruso has replaced gas magnate John Mork, who was close to Nikias). 
  • hired an elite L.A. law firm to conduct an outside investigation (LA.'s O’Melveny & Myers). 
These things needed to happen, but they aren't reform. They're housekeeping. The University will also need to
  • cooperate fully with the LAPD criminal investigation and Department of Education inquiry  (and not try to overshadow them with the O'Melveny inquiry).
  • support all of the potential victims who may come forward rather than trying to set a cap or limit on victims or worse, try to discredit them.
These things seem possible and even likely.

Then there's two other things that aren't yet in the wind. USC will need to
  • change its administrative culture.
  • refocus the elite university mission.
The last pair of changes are nearly impossible for universities like USC.  I'm going to talk about one of these--changing administrative culture.

***
The most interesting commentary has been addressing this issue.  One of the LA Times articles suggested that repeated complaints from clinic nurses were not acted on by supervisors, who nonetheless may have passed them up the chain, only to have them ignored higher up--until the Tyndall story went public, when the higher ups chopped off some heads further down.

In a piece called "Why do colleges keep failing to prevent abuse," the former president of the University of Puget Sound, Susan Resneck Pierce, wrote that presidents must create a wholesale institutional expectation to be informed of inappropriate behavior.
In cases where presidents know about misbehavior but don’t act, she said, fears of bad publicity often drive inaction. But she noted that in many cases, “The cover-up creates more negative publicity than actually acting on an original allegation would have done.”
Pierce thus asks administrators to prefer the truth--no matter how ugly-- to the carefully cultivated image of an enlightened and efficient university that they have devoted their careers to building.  The first feature of a better management culture is to define risk management as cultivating the truth rather than concealing it.

How would that happen?  As USC professor Tania Modeleski asked, "Will there be any meaningful change as long as powerful men overlook the harm done to students and instead privately attempt to shore up the current power structure?"

There is a well-known alternative to management as marketing controlled from the top: open deliberation grounded in shared governance. The prominent USC education professor William Tierney spelled it out (in a piece that should be read in full):
President Nikias relied on a small circle of confidants and, as his troubles rose, the circle grew smaller. The university's Board of Trustees, mostly captains of industry, seemed awed by his fundraising ability. . . .  
The Academic Senate sat passively by as problems unfolded. When The Times uncovered alleged misconduct on the part of medical school dean Dr. Carmen Puliafito, Nikias declined to accept individual responsibility. He ordered an independent investigation, but the report was provided only to executive committee of the Board of Trustees. The Academic Senate registered no public complaint. . . 
A dramatic increase in non-tenured professors at USC has made the faculty hesitant to confront the administration, lest their jobs be put at risk. The result is fewer checks and balances on the office of president. In 2015, the trustees gave Nikias a $1.5-million bonus. The Academic Senate registered no public protest at such an outlandish handout. . . .
This is the tragedy at USC: Instead of cultivating an environment of reflection and reasoned debate, the university sprinted toward growth. Those of us who disagreed with the president were first ignored and then banished. We were viewed as a distraction from the school's goal of ever-greater international prominence. And the trustees and the faculty essentially acquiesced.
To repair the storm damage at USC, we need a Board of Trustees that provides consistent oversight and does not see itself as the handmaiden to the president. We need an Academic Senate that ensures that the faculty is an equal partner in decision-making. We need a president who can set a world record in running a marathon without forgetting what winning the race truly means. And we need the entire academic community to recognize how important a climate of thoughtful, reasoned dialogue is for our university. 
Of course I agree completely. Universities are by definition the natural homes of an "environment of reflection and reasoned debate."  And yet, in practice, they mostly aren't.  Senior managers have the power to ignore faculty input, and when it offers ideas they don't like, they often do.  This is particularly uncomfortable when the faculty member is right--as Tierney, a nationally renowned expert on higher ed, most likely was.

More generally, USC leaders seem in practice not to respect the insight and knowledge of frontline workers.  They no doubt do in the abstract, but not when someone higher up has other concerns.

This disregard included the clinic employees who over decades complained about Tyndall's behavior time and again.  I've heard many tenured USC faculty members say the same thing--expertise and experience don't count when they contradict the official ethos.  Management there seems to have operated through an epistemic authority that they deny to the rest of the university.

Decades ago, feminist epistemologists analyzed the way that prevailing professional practices systematically ignored knowledge specific to womens' standpoint and experience, and/or kept women from having critical mass in discussions, and/or rejected their cognitive capabilities or practices as not worth taking as seriously as their own. (A good online introduction is here; and see Epistemic Injustice.)  On its face, a textbook example would be the repeated sidelining of the USC clinic's nurses' concerns about Tyndall's gynecological practice.  Critical ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, and other disciplines have made similar arguments: epistemic privilege generates epistemic injustice, which manifests itself as, among other things, epistemic disrespect toward positions that aren't part of the official program.  This occurs even where the authority in question expresses personal regard for the individuals who are being ignored.

Epistemic disrespect nearly cost Nikias his job before, in 2017, in the wake of an investigation captured in The Times July headline, "An overdose, a young companion, drug-fueled parties: The secret life of a USC med school dean."  In that case, Nikias moved the dean in question, Carmen Puliafito, out of his executive position while hanging on to his services and also not exposing his apparently criminal conduct to donors. "After he stepped down as dean, USC kept Puliafito on the medical school faculty, and he continues [as of July 2017] to accept new patients at campus eye clinics."  The Times discovered that Puliafito's colleagues had complained about drunkenness and verbal abuse, but had never gotten any relief.

In that case, Nikias was found to be engaged in active avoidance of the facts. He was aware that the Times was investigating Puliafito by March 2016, because the paper repeatedly contacted him about it.
It remains unclear when top USC officials first learned about the allegations involving Puliafito. But The Times made repeated inquiries over the last 15 months about Puliafito, in some cases describing information reporters had gathered about the dean. USC's leaders never responded to the inquiries. Numerous phone calls were not returned, emails went unanswered and a letter seeking an interview with USC President C.L. Max Nikias to discuss Puliafito was returned to The Times by courier, unopened. 
The USC president had to be hunted down by the press--several times--before he admitted serious wrongdoing (see a "timeline of his troubled tenure").

Puliafito has been back in the news recently, trying to hang on to his medical license by blaming his former prostitute-girlfriend for seducing and addicting him.  In the process, a former vice dean of the medical school testified that he'd informed USC Provost Michael Quick about rumors that "Puliafito was partying in hotels with people of 'questionable reputation'" in early 2016.

It appears that Nikias displayed willful blindness towards Puliafito's conduct and at least condoned a coverup, even as the story was being rooted out with enormous time and effort by reporters. It may emerge that he did the same with Tyndall.

Nikias's conduct is not categorically different from Tyndall's, who--best case scenario--offended even if he did not actually abuse many of his thousands of patients, and who never thought "oh, this isn't going over well" and stopped with the sexualized remarks or sexual-seeming manipulations--or was made to stop.  The alleged offenses consist of abusing usually very young women in their most vulnerable moment under cover of professional authority and in the name of individual care.  This involves a deep negation of consent that, in tandem with the sexualization of medical treatment, compromises the personhood of the victim and of her agency. It  is the opposite of what universities stand for. And yet in spite of the longstanding seriousness of staff concerns, senior managers, in The Times' account, acted only when one of the clinic's nurses, who had become impatient with the clinic management's inaction, reported Tyndall to the campus rape crisis center.

These appear to be examples of epistemic privilege enabling wrongdoing and a subsequent coverup.

***
We should also recognize that epistemic privilege puts self-governance at risk. Higher education has largely governed itself for a century and a half, partly on the theoretical grounds that professional  skills can be developed and monitored only by other professionals.  Higher ed has fought off direct federal control of colleges and universities of the type now wreaking havoc in Great Britain, using a self-regulation system of accreditation and related mechanisms.  As Heather Steffen reminded our research group this week, the tradition of self-regulation enabled universities to fend off the effort to apply No Child Left Behind-type learning assessment to colleges in the wake of the Spellings Report.

Nearly all of us support the general principle, but the self-regulation has actually to take place.  At USC it did not. Nikias and Quick had a medical school dean with substance-abuse problems who neither took corrective action himself nor received correction from other administrators.  They did not remove (or help) him until exposure forced their hand.  The same thing allegedly occurred with Tyndall.  In failing to fix their own problems, Nikias et al. not only eroded USC's reputation--they also eroded the justification for academic freedom for all universities, which is the integrity of the self-governance procedures of learned societies.

Finally, what about the reform potential of Rick Caruso and the USC Board of Trustees?

We have some evidence that the Board still lacks interest in shared governance or in Tierney's "environment of reflection." On May 18th, the Times reported that USC had acknowledged receiving 200 complaints about Tyndall going back to the early 2000s.   On May 21st, 6 former USC students sued the University, alleging that Tyndall had "sexually victimized them under the pretext of medical care and that USC failed to address complaints from clinic staff about the doctor's behavior."  On May 22nd, the Board of Trustees received a letter from 200 faculty calling on Nikias to resign. USC faculty also launched a change.org petition entitled, "Remove President Nikias: Protect USC Student Safety."  That day, the response of the then-Chair of the USC Board of Trustees was to express "full confidence in President Nikias’ leadership, ethics, and values.

The next day, on May 23rd,  the L.A. Times reported that 300 women had called a USC hotline with a complaint about their treatment by Dr. Tyndall.  The Times also ran the story they had seen formal complaints about Tyndall dating from 1991 and 1995 (he started work at USC in 1989).  On May 25th, as Tyndall defended his practice in a letter to The Times, the paper reported that the number of legal filings against USC  had risen to 21. At a press conference about one of them, attorney Gloria Allred remarked, "this is only the beginning."  Nikias's announcement that he would resign came that same day.

In short, the USC Board backed Nikias against the faculty but dumped him 3 days later when they saw potential liability on the scale of Penn State via Sandusky or Michigan State via Nassar.

This isn't a shocking thing.  The actions of Boards of Trustees express truth as grounded in legal authority rather than educational expertise.  In this sense, Boards are by definition embodiments of epistemic privilege.  USC's Board has fired Nikias, but that may only maintain the epistemological inequality that caused the problem in the first place. If it's all Nikias's fault, then USC leadership can sustain their implicit model of management in which self-governance remains the property of senior officials.

Unfortunately, the Puliafito and Tyndall cases show that self-governance and top-down governance are at odds  Self-governance depends on the intelligence of the entire community, starting with people working with students and patients in the trenches. The kind of decisional oligarchy favored by most universities today guarantees epistemic privilege, and epistemic disrespect, and the inevitable blindness and error.

William Tierney is right to call for real shared governance in a "climate of thoughtful, reasoned dialogue." But that's not going to happen without a sustained battle for the kind of epistemic justice that universities are better at imagining for others than for themselves.


7 comments:

Author said...

USC needs to fundamentally change its legal culture. Here are a few blog posts on this.
http://brian-boyle-omelveny-torture-attorney.blogspot.com/2018/06/whitewashing-again_1.html
http://brian-boyle-omelveny-torture-attorney.blogspot.com/2018/06/another-threatening-letter-from-omelveny.html

Chris Newfield said...

@Authormany thanks for the links

Author said...

@Chris Newfield Sure. Thank you for the excellent post.

karaan said...

nice one, and thanks for that links.

California Policy Issues said...

I don't know the details of the USC administrative set-up, but I would guess that the primary role of the president is to raise money. And I suspect that like UCLA, there tends to be insufficient bureaucracy at the top and too much at the bottom. So you have a lot of autonomous "reports" to the top person who looks to them to "handle" any administrative problems that arise without involving the top. The system operates on "call-me-only-if-you-have-a-(big)-problem." The difficulty with that kind of arrangement is that no one wants to be the one to make that call - because if you have a (big) problem, what does that say about you? So handling problems tends to mean keeping the top guy in the dark and trying to work around bad situations. Remember UCLA's body parts scandal? There were in fact two body parts scandals. The second occurred after someone was hired to take care of the mess left by the first one.

Chris Newfield said...

good points. I'd just add that the front line managers did a poor job of trying to handle their bad situation with Tyndall, which I attribute to the organizational culture. I see that as something on top of the structural problem you summary very well. @California Policy Issues

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