Calls mount for California university president to resign over abuse scandal

University of Southern California president C.L. Max Nikia attending a commencement ceremony on May 11, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Two hundred professors at one of California's top universities on Tuesday (May 22) demanded the resignation of the school's president over a widening sexual abuse scandal involving a campus gynecologist.

The faculty members of the University of Southern California (USC) said they wanted to "express their outrage and disappointment over the mounting evidence of president (C.L. Max) Nikias's failure to protect our students, our staff and our colleagues from repeated and pervasive sexual harassment and misconduct."

In their letter to the board of trustees, the professors said Nikias had lost the "moral authority" to lead the private institution or to oversee an investigation into decades of alleged sexual abuse by George Tyndall, a gynecologist formerly employed at the school.

"USC kept a physician in a position of power and trust who abused that power and trust to sexually assault and degrade women students, targeting for abuse the most vulnerable international and minority students," the letter says.

"The university's conduct is as much at issue in this case as the physician's." .

Contain fallout

USC has come under seething criticism as it tries to contain fallout from the growing scandal that erupted after the Los Angeles Times detailed how Tyndall was allowed to continue practicing for years despite complaints of misconduct going back as far as the year 2000.

The university's board of trustees - which includes billionaires, real estate developers and Hollywood power players such as Steven Spielberg - rejected calls for Nikias to step down, saying that while it was "troubled" by the scandal, it fully supported him.

"The executive committee of the board has full confidence in president Nikias's leadership, ethics and values, and is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward," a statement said.

So far, six women have filed lawsuits against the university and Tyndall, with more expected to follow.

One of the women alleges that Tyndall forced his entire hand and wrist into her vagina while examining her during an appointment in 2003 and made vulgar comments about her genitalia.

Another woman details how Tyndall, now 71, groped her breasts and leered at her on what was her first appointment with a gynecologist in 2008.

"Reportedly, USC was aware of Dr Tyndall's inappropriate conduct before I was even born," said one of his alleged victims, 21-year-old Daniella Mohaza.

The Filipina graduate student at USC told reporters that Tyndall performed a genital exam on her in 2016 without wearing gloves and made inappropriate comments about her ethnicity.

'Duck and cover'

Tyndall allegedly often targeted minority students - including many from the university's large Asian student population - who were not fluent in English or unfamiliar with gynecological exams.

The lawsuits claim that the school only launched a probe in 2016 after a supervising nurse upset at USC's inaction reported him to the campus rape crisis center. He was then allowed to "quietly" resign in June of last year.

Hilary Schor, one of the professors who drafted the letter asking for Nikias's resignation, told AFP that she was appalled by the university's handling of the case.

"The culture of the university is one where the instinct is to duck and cover, to conceal, to make scandals disappear," said Schor, who teaches English, comparative literature and law.

She said the scandal was sure to affect the university's reputation and possibly enrolment, especially among international students who make up 25 per cent of the 45,500 students.

"Nikias has shown no interest in stepping down but at a certain moment, I believe that if not morality, the monetary cost to the institution could be enough to provoke a change," she said.

The scandal comes on the heels of another similar case involving Michigan State University, which saw former university doctor Larry Nassar sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for abusing girls and women he treated.

Last week, MSU announced a US$500 million settlement with victims of Nassar, who also was the doctor for the USA Gymnastics national team.

Lawyers familiar with the USC case said it could ultimately prove much bigger than Nassar's given the number of patients Tyndall came in contact with over almost three decades.

Tyndall could not immediately be reached for comment, but in previous interviews with the Times, he denied any wrongdoing and said he had "never had any sexual urges" towards patients.

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