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The University of Southern California is embroiled in a crisis that once again reminds us how much institutions would rather duck and weave than address a problem head-on. This leads to the all-too-common drip-drip-drip release of information that should have been gushed out in the first place. In the current and lurid situation, USC went from “no comment” to “nothing to see here” to “wow, we really could have done better.”
On July 17 the Los Angeles Times reported that the former dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine was a drug abuser who partied with a younger “circle of criminals,” including in his campus office, all captured in photos and on video. Three weeks before he resigned as dean in March 2016 (he stayed on staff and continued to see patients), Carmen Puliafito was found by police in a Pasadena hotel room with a 21-year-old prostitute who had overdosed (but recovered). Neither that incident nor the drug abuse had been reported before.
Explosive stuff. USC’s response? It refused to comment for the article — despite having months to do so.
The Los Angeles university did give a statement to the Times July 17 after the story was published. It now said that Puliafito, an eye surgeon hired as dean in 2007, was on leave and no longer seeing patients.
A more detailed statement the next day — a letter to the community over the signature of President C. L. Max Nikias — oozed concern for Puliafito. Nikias focused on the scourge of drug abuse, even among professionals. He made no mention of whether Puliafito would be permanently removed from the faculty.
Already, university leadership was criticized for its lackluster response to the crisis. On July 19, Provost Michael W. Quick responded with a memorandum reassuring faculty that the school has “made what we felt were the best decisions we could make, as swiftly as could be done in a prudent and thoughtful manner, and given the information that we had at any given time.”
Nikias (pictured) and Quick noted that they were constrained in what they could do and say by procedural and privacy concerns.
But clearly the criticisms chafed. On July 21, Nikias issued “an important update” that was completely different in tone from his first letter. “We are outraged and disgusted by this individual’s behavior,” he wrote.
In a July 21 update to faculty, Provost Quick finally said the administration had initiated proceedings to terminate Puliafito’s employment. President Nikias again wrote a letter on July 26 to the school community, this time focusing on “troubling media coverage” that said USC had not responded properly to the crisis. He admitted the school “could have done better to recognize the signs and severity of [Puliafito’s] issues.”
On July 28, Nikias released another statement, his longest yet. “We understand there is frustration that the university has not clearly articulated its response around the former medical school dean’s behavior,” he wrote.
That was putting it mildly. A part-time teacher at the medical school told The New York Times, “What’s most upsetting is the sense that this was covered up for a very long time, that people knew about what was happening and nobody dealt with it.”
Indeed, in the president’s July 28 missive he was now prepared to “clear up some misperceptions.” He disclosed — 11 days after the original bombshell story — that the school had received complaints about Puliafito’s behavior (not drug use) over the ten years he had been associated with USC. He resigned as dean and was put on sabbatical in March 2016 after complaints he ignored his leadership duties.
For our purposes, the question is why the school wasn’t better prepared to comment to the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper had sent USC a list of questions and the 911 tape from the hotel incident in March, Nikias disclosed (it had received a tip about the incident even earlier).
To be fair, Nikias said it was only during the week the L.A. Times story appeared that the school had “first-hand evidence of Dr. Puliafito’s egregious behavior” and began the process of terminating him and stripping him of his tenure.
The administration acted when it had all the information, he said. But the first statement, dripping with concern about the ex-dean’s welfare, didn’t reveal that the school was aware of these allegations going back to at least March. USC knew the Los Angeles Times was working on the article. (Yes, privacy concerns were an issue.)
Nikias admitted the school hadn’t planned for a crisis scenario that involved “dealing with employee behavior outside the workplace that may be improper or illegal and has the capacity to affect USC.”
He has now established a task force to address that. Yes, it’s time to write a crisis communications plan for that scenario.
— Thom Weidlich
Photo Credit: USC
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