U.S.C. President Agrees to Step Down Over Scandal Involving Gynecologist

A health center at the University of Southern California, where the president agreed to step down on Friday in the wake of a scandal involving a university gynecologist.

LOS ANGELES — The president of the University of Southern California, C. L. Max Nikias, agreed to step down Friday in the wake of a scandal over a gynecologist accused of abusing students at the campus health center.

Rick J. Caruso, a member of the university board of trustees, said in a statement that the board had “agreed to begin an orderly transition and commence the process of selecting a new president.”

“We have heard the message that something is broken and that urgent and profound actions are needed,” the statement said. “We will rebuild our culture to reflect an environment in which safety and transparency are of paramount importance, and to institute systemic change that will prevent this from occurring in the future.”

The decision followed a call from students, faculty and alumni for his resignation, which gained momentum this week when 200 high-ranking professors signed a letter to the university’s board of trustees. The letter said Mr. Nikias no longer had the “moral authority to lead” and had failed to protect students and staff from “repeated and pervasive sexual harassment and misconduct.”

By Friday, the letter had nearly 500 signatures. The academic senate had also called on Mr. Nikias to resign, saying “new leadership is in the best interest of the university now and going forward.”

There was no time frame given for when Mr. Nikias would transition and it was unclear whether an interim president would be appointed.

After an internal investigation in 2016 found that the gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall had conducted pelvic exams inappropriately and made sexually offensive remarks to patients, university officials chose to settle the matter quietly and did not report it to the state medical board.

Mr. Nikias, 65, became president in 2010 and presided over the university at a time of tremendous growth, attracting international students and top-tier faculty while completing a $6 billion fund-raising effort and opening dozens of new buildings.

But he had increasingly come under fire in the last year for his handling of several scandals at the private university, brought to light by The Los Angeles Times.

First came reports last summer that the former dean of the medical school — a celebrated physician and prodigious fund-raiser — had used drugs on campus and partied with prostitutes. Then, last fall, the man who had replaced him was forced to step down after the university admitted it had settled a sexual harassment case with one of his former researchers.

Ariela Gross, a law professor who spearheaded the faculty petition said she was “thrilled” with the announcement and was hopeful it would bring “meaningful change.”

“We’re at a real crossroads for the university and this is the first step in starting over,” she said. “Our voices were heard and respected and that is tremendous. The next step is how are we going to choose new leadership? Rather than send it out to a corporate search firm, are we going to respect strong academic values? We need to have a serious national search for someone who will take us to the next stage.”

Mr. Nikias had promised a full investigation of the scandal involving the medical school dean by an independent law firm last year, but faculty and staff members grew impatient when the results were not publicly released. Many said the handling of the allegations against Dr. Tyndall was the final straw. Critics were especially angered by the university’s failure to report the internal investigation to state authorities, former patients or the public, saying it amounted to protecting the image of the school at the expense of putting students in danger.

The trustees are mostly alumni who donate millions of dollars to the university. The chairman of the board, John Mork, an energy executive in Colorado, issued a brief statement Tuesday indicating “full confidence in President Nikias’s leadership, ethics, and values,” adding that the executive committee “is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward.”

None of the 59 voting members have openly criticized Mr. Nikias, but on Wednesday they announced that they would conduct their own independent investigation and “vowed to hold people accountable for not taking appropriate action.” That investigation is expected to continue, officials said.

Along with the uproar from faculty members, the university is also facing a mounting pile of lawsuits from women who say Dr. Tyndall sexually abused and harassed them during medical exams and that the university failed to protect them. More lawsuits were filed Friday and lawyers expect many more women to join.

In a letter sent to all students and staff this month, Mr. Nikias admitted that university officials should have acted more quickly and decisively.

“In hindsight, we should have made this report eight months earlier when he separated from the university,” he wrote.

Mr. Nikias had long focused on fund-raising at the school and set an ambitious goal almost immediately after he became president. At the time, the $6 billion campaign was the largest ever for an American university. Mr. Nikias met the goal, and his success at bringing in money raised the stature of the university globally, which in turn led to support from even more donors.

An electrical engineer and classicist who was born in Cyprus, Mr. Nikias became an American citizen in 1988, three years before joining the engineering faculty at U.S.C.

Mr. Nikias landed there just before racial unrest in South Los Angeles devastated areas close to the campus. He later became the dean of the engineering school and was appointed provost in 2005, which many saw as a signal that he was being groomed for the university’s top job. As president, Mr. Nikias continued the work of his predecessor, Steven B. Sample, transforming U.S.C. into an elite institution with global reach. In recent years, it has ranked among the top three schools in fund-raising, next to Harvard and Stanford.

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