As university leaders prepare to begin the new academic year, USC President C. L. Max Nikias and Provost Michael W. Quick reaffirmed that the university will emerge stronger, with better practices and procedures in place, following the recent series of events involving the former dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Nikias and Quick said that while the reports about the actions of the former dean, Carmen Puliafito, are disturbing to the entire USC community, the senior administration acted in good faith and decisively as facts emerged. Still, Nikias said the university could have performed better. And to improve the university’s ability to prevent matters like this from reoccurring, the administration is working quickly to establish two separate processes to better examine the complex issues that have come to light.
In a July 26 letter to the community, Nikias wrote, “I want to make clear that the unfortunate actions of one individual in no way reflect the broader actions of the university and our thousands of faculty members and employees. That said, we could have done better.”
Community leaders have expressed support for the university and the steps the administration is taking.
“It’s unfortunate that, in every profession, we find individuals who suffer from addiction,” Eli Broad, a civic leader and leading philanthropist, told The New York Times. “No matter the actions of one person, USC is a world-class university.”
John Mork, chairman of the USC Board of Trustees, said in a statement that he has the “utmost confidence and trust in President Nikias’ and Provost Quick’s ability to lead USC through this challenging time and to move the university forward. These individuals have a long and highly respected track record guiding USC to excellence with vision and integrity.”
Further, he said he is “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.”
To that end, Nikias announced a task force, assembled by Quick and Todd Dickey, senior vice president for administration, that will examine the policies and procedures related to many of the issues that have emerged in recent weeks. Quick said the administration will provide regular updates on the task force’s work and findings. It will be jointly chaired by Academic Senate President Paul Rosenbloom and Staff Assembly President Jeffrey de Caen.
Among its considerations, the task force will examine the need for additional training on understanding, identifying and addressing mental health issues, how to improve the flow of information across this large, decentralized institution, and requiring a deeper accounting of the backgrounds of those hired in leadership positions.
“This task force, composed of faculty and staff, will help us look internally for ways we can be more fully aware of potential issues with all of our employees,” Quick said.
In addition, Dickey said the task force will help the university better respond to crises while mitigating the impact on others in our community.
“Our goal with the task force is to improve our ability to work with employees who may be in serious crises, while protecting their privacy rights,” Dickey said. “It will be invaluable to have the input of faculty and staff to examine a range of issues to move USC forward on these matters.”
At the same time, a review is underway by an external team from the international law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to examine the university’s procedures and response. They will report those findings and recommendations to the executive committee of the USC Board of Trustees.
Quick said he believes the community needs information about the actions taken by the university in this matter as soon as possible.
Nikias said he understood the frustration on the part of some that the university had not clearly articulated its response. He sought to clear up misperceptions and provided a chronology of events.
In his letter to the community on July 28, Nikias said that the university took a number of steps to address behavioral and leadership issues with Puliafito, including disciplinary action and professional development coaching, during his nearly 10 years at the Keck School of Medicine.
When Quick became provost in 2015, he reviewed the personnel files of all deans. He said he became aware that Puliafito had leadership issues and that he had been referred for coaching. Quick also reached out to faculty members to get their input on Puliafito’s job performance. The feedback was that Puliafito appeared disengaged from his duties; Quick put Puliafito on notice.
In March 2016, two USC employees alerted Quick to ongoing leadership and behavioral issues with the former dean. Quick and Dickey met with him to discuss his poor performance. Puliafito tendered his resignation at that meeting and was placed on sabbatical leave. No university leader was aware at this time of illicit or illegal behavior, which would have triggered a review of his clinical responsibilities, Nikias said in his July 28 letter.
In fall 2016, the university was made aware of a tip concerning Puliafito’s presence at an overdose at a Pasadena hotel. When the university approached him about this, Puliafito stated that a friend’s daughter had overdosed and that he had accompanied her to the hospital.
In March 2017, a year after Puliafito’s resignation, the administration received a copy of a 911 recording from the Pasadena hotel incident along with detailed questions from the Los Angeles Times.
The recording was turned over to the Hospital Medical Staff, an independent body that assesses clinical competency. It found no existing patient care complaints and no known clinical issues. In July it reopened its investigation, and the California State Medical Board initiated a review based on the Los Angeles Times’ reports.
USC learned, after the Times’ July 17, 2017 article, that an anonymous call had been made to the president’s office that raised concerns about the hotel incident. The caller spoke to two members of the president’s staff but those staff members stated they never relayed the information to senior administrators because it hadn’t appeared credible to them. The president’s office has since made changes to the way incoming calls are recorded and documented.
In a letter on July 21, 2017, Quick shared that on that day he had been provided with evidence about Puliafito’s behavior that enabled him to initiate the termination process and strip Puliafito of his tenure. Quick said this was the first time the university had seen such information firsthand. That same day, Puliafito was suspended from the university and barred from the campuses and any association with USC, he said.
“Bottom line,” Quick said, “we made decisions and took actions when we had the facts. We need to be cautious about acting on allegations and hearsay.”
Nikias has said that he appreciated hearing from members of the faculty, staff and students who provided feedback, shared concerns and criticism, and expressed support. “Because of all of you,” Nikias said, “I have deep confidence in the strength and resilience of USC.”