The president of the University of Southern California, C. L. Max Nikias, has had what could legitimately be described as a successful tenure. He has been president for almost eight years and, according to the Los Angeles Times, his time in office was “marked by a significant boost in the university’s prestige and fundraising prowess.” In addition to raising billions of dollars for USC, and using the money to recruit top students and hire top faculty, he pushed the university to see itself as an elite global institution. Moreover, he presided over its renovation and expansion, and extended its ties to China and the Pacific Rim. What could go wrong?
Well, what could go wrong did. Specifically, key stakeholders came to conclude that USC had failed to respond promptly, publicly, and aggressively to several scandals, especially the most recent one, in which a gynecologist was accused of repeatedly abusing students. (Dr. George Tyndall had worked for decades at USC – he was the school’s only full-time gynecologist.)
What’s telling in this case – particularly for students of leadership and followership – is the trajectory of recent events. Even since the news broke about this last scandal, USC’s Board was dogged in its resistance to the cries of the crowd: it continued to reject the growing demand that Nikias be fired. In fact, as recently as last Tuesday – after 200 faculty members had called for Nikias to be replaced – the Board’s Executive Committee issued a statement saying that it had “full confidence in President Nikias’ leadership, ethics, and values and is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward.”
But, a mere three days later, the Board completely reversed itself. It admitted that something was “broken,” and that “urgent and profound actions” were needed. It announced, moreover, that it would, presumably virtually immediately, “commence the process of selecting a new president.”
The case of C.L. Max Nikias recalls the case of Lawrence Summers, who in 2006 was obliged to resign as president of Harvard University. Both men were supremely well qualified to run supremely eminent universities. Both men ran into trouble that did not, initially, cause their boards to lose confidence. Both men staunchly and for some time resisted the growing calls for them to quit. But, when faculty become involved, when faculty members banded together to demand their resignations, both men were ultimately obliged by their boards to surrender their tenure. Seems that on those rather rare occasions when faculty are highly motivated to do their leaders in, chances are good they will succeed.