Like most alumni of University of Southern California across the country today, my phone lit up with a number of iterations of this text: “USC’s inability to go 5 seconds without a major scandal is just hilarious at this point.”
Since the news broke that USC was one of a number of so-called “elite” universities implicated in a massive criminal admissions fraud scandal, the media is focused primarily on the weird cadre of celebrities who conspired in the enterprise. Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives” and Lori Loughlin of “Full House” were both arrested as a result of the RICO case. Huffman, in a prime example of how not to get caught literally rigging the results of college admissions exams, unwisely documented the fraud across a string of texts and emails, including the phrase, “Ruh Ro!”
But it’s worth taking a step back and understanding how this happened, not from the side of the parents and their hired riggers, but from those colleges complicit in further degrading the state of American academia.
Other universities, such as UCLA and Yale, also had staff members indicted in the crackdown, but only USC had four.
From the top down, USC has inculcated a culture of corruption dominated by making money at any moral and safety costs, all while still benefiting from the government and public’s treatment of them as a nonprofit. An institution of higher learning that funnels students into Hollywood and profits off of taxpayer money and dirty Chinese investment inevitably gives way to the grift that ultimately obstructs USC’s ability to protect and educate its students. Succumbing to not one, but four, members of the faculty engaging in RICO fraud was all but inevitable.
USC’s claimed that they’re the victim in all of this. Interim President Wanda Austin literally underlined the line “USC is the victim” in an email to students. The university has yet to find a permanent replacement for the ousted C.L. Max Nikias, a legendary fundraiser who probably covered up no fewer than three sex abuse scandals during his tenure.
But four respected staff members don’t just abandon every principle and responsibility that they’re fundamentally called to uphold as educators without cause. At USC, the Department of Justice indicted Donna Heinel, the senior associate athletic director; Jovan Vavic, one of the greatest water polo coaches in American history; Ali Khoroshahin, the former head coach of women’s soccer; and Laura Janke, former assistant coach of women’s soccer. Sure, it’s theoretically possible, though highly unlikely, that such senior level staff members were capable of smuggling students into the school by lying about their athletic status, yet even if that was the case, it points to a greater institutional breakdown, one where staff neither think nor care that they’ll get got for breaking federal law and degrading the integrity of the university as a whole.
No, the fish rots from the head down, and USC must be gutted.
Why wouldn’t the four think they could get away with a little racketeering conspiracy? USC let others get away with far worse.
In the past two years alone, the school’s been embroiled in six sex abuse, drug abuse, and criminal scandals resulting in either the resignation or arrest of top figures. Dean Carmen Puliafito of the medical school was ousted after the LA Times revealed that USC knew he was smoking meth and cavorting with prostitutes while on campus and on the job. His replacement, Rohit Varma, resigned after the LA Times revealed he had sexually harassed subordinates before USC had promoted him.
The university’s top fundraiser, David Carrera, left the school after the LA Times continued to report on the medical school scandal and USC couldn’t continue to ignore multiple sexual misconduct allegations levied against the vice president. The FBI arrested assistant basketball coach Tony Bland for, you guessed it, corruption and fraud.
These four cases alone would constitute a decent case of overhauling the entire administration at a normal university. But alumni anger went ignored until last summer when the LA Times dropped the bombshell that finally ended President Nikias’ career: The sole campus gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall, had allegedly sexually abused hundreds, if not thousands, of students for three decades, and USC knew about the accusations. More recently you may have heard that yet another campus doctor was sued for sexually abusing students. That’s a different one.
Four years after a sham Title IX investigation, which interviewed a single student, found Tyndall not guilty of any offense, the vice president of student affairs, Ainsley Carry, allegedly brokered a hush money payout to Tyndall in exchange for his resignation. Carry did not report Tyndall to the police, let alone to the medical board.
After the Tyndall blowup, Nikias tried to fend off demands for his resignation from livid faculty and alumni. The open secret about Nikias’ ambitions were practically local folklore: to die the single most successful fundraiser in the history of higher education. Nikias’ demand that USC win billions in donations at any and all costs percolated through every layer of campus culture. No campaign was ambitious enough and no display of raw wealth and excess too garish.
When Nikias used his ample ties to local government to destroy 15 acres of private land and turn it into a $700 million pseudo village for dorms and displace local businesses with yoga studios and organic stores, he lauded the architectural nightmare, described by the LA Times as where “Disneyland meets Hogwarts,” as a way to “give us 1,000 years of history we don’t have.”
So ask yourself, if you’re the single best water polo coach in the country and you know that between your success and the university’s lust for it, you’re practically unfireable, what would strategically disincentive you from pocketing a little extra cash in exchange for some fraud? Even if you’re less special, but still the senior associate athletic director, you see that Ainsley Carry still has a job, and he literally paid off a serial sexual predator. What’s a little RICO fraud? It’s not like you’d be responsible for students getting molested, just a few seats stolen from more worthy applicants.
In the most notorious case of Louglin’s younger daughter, a YouTube and Instagram “personality” who goes by Olivia Jade, what do you think even attracted her to USC in the first place? Was it the engineering or cinema schools, two of the top ones in the nation? Was it even just the “game days” and “partying,” as Jade herself so conceded?
No, it was the proximity to power, celebrity, and grifters upon who she could hawk cheap sponsored content off her Instagram to upon the moment she arrived in South Central L.A.
USC is a serious academic institution bolstered by some of the best professors and programs in the world, and the fact that it’s in the heart of the second largest and perhaps most interesting city in the country. It’s also an untaxed hedge fund ran by crooks who’d rather take Chinese cash and Hollywood bribery than give one damn about student safety or the integrity of the academy.
Other universities suffer the same looming dichotomy. Perhaps by virtue of its physical proximity to Hollywood, USC was always a little more inclined to corruption. But, by God, if it hasn’t served as a cautionary tale of the identity crisis tearing apart American academia and destroying a generation of students foolish enough to believe that their universities are willing or able to protect them from the world.