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USC Faculty Pushes for Independent Investigation into Allegations of Shadow and Dirt Files on Colleagues

USC faculty members are pushing their leadership to demand an independent investigation into allegations that university administrators maintained “shadow files” on employees and utilized their accountability office to retaliate against professors who spoke out against them.

Larry Gross, a professor who represents the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism on the Academic Senate, said the investigation is expected to be raised at the body’s meeting Wednesday, either on its agenda or through discussion.

“The allegation that the administration is creating dossiers on faculty is chilling,” Gross said.

In a letter sent to the senate last month, Concerned Faculty of USC – which has about 470 members – urged the body to adopt a resolution demanding college officials “immediately hire an independent, reputable law firm, without pre-existing ties to USC, to investigate the allegations” made in an independent lawsuit filed July 8 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

“The law firm should be instructed to unearth all relevant facts, assess what wrongdoing was committed, and identify reforms that would prevent its recurrence,” the letter said. “The university should commit to sharing the report promptly with the entire university community and using the report as a basis for instituting reforms.”

Faculty concern ignited after July 13, when KCET Socal Connected published an article detailing charges in a whistleblower’s lawsuit against the university. In the case, an unidentified attorney working in USC’s Office of Conduct, Accountability and Professionalism alleged college officials destroyed or hid records in cases filed against university officials and maintained “dirt files” to take revenge – including costing promotions -- against professors who spoke against the college’s officials. The allegations included the systematic destruction of investigative records, including the deletion of a “preservation file” related to George Tyndall, a former health center gynecologist facing dozens of charges alleging he sexually assaulted 16 students from 2009 to 2016.

USC denied the lawsuit's allegations and issued a statement Friday reiterating that.

“The university has publicly stated that the allegations in the lawsuit are without merit and that it plans to vigorously defend the university against them," the statement said. "There is no university practice or policy of maintaining ‘dirt files’ against faculty who speak out against their administrators.”

The Socal Connected article went viral on faculty listserv email accounts, triggering numerous comments and discussions calling for university accountability.

“It raises serious concerns about a bureaucracy that targets faculty for investigations with no due process,” said Ariela Gross, a law school professor who serves as president of Concerned Faculty of USC. “Allegations that complaints are being manufactured and dirt files are being kept on faculty is one that requires serious independent investigation.”

Ariela Gross’ group wrote July 20 to the Academic Senate – a group of 62 senators and a 9-member board representing USC’s various schools – which has the authority to negotiate with the USC administration.

“Particularly because there are specific claims that faculty members were targeted and smeared with manufactured complaints and secret files, the allegations in the lawsuit deserve a full and impartial investigation by someone independent of the University Administration,” the letter said. “It is impossible to have meaningful faculty governance unless and until these allegations are either convincingly rebutted or aired out and renounced.”

The lawsuit followed a string of significant shocking, embarrassing and even criminal revelations involving USC during the last few years, including:

  • The admission that its former medical school dean used hard drugs and partied with criminals

The Tyndall case, which continues to bring charges as it makes its way through the Los Angeles County court system;

  • Allegations that another doctor sexually assaulted dozens of young men at the student health center for years;
  • An admissions scandal where wealthy parents used payoffs to enroll their children in school;
  • The disclosure that the university hired disgraced former Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas to work as a professor following a six-figure donation from his father, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The assemblyman had resigned from his job as a state lawmaker following allegations of sexual harassment that were later justified.

USC’s former president C.L. Max Nikias resigned in 2018 under faculty pressure following fallout from the Tyndall scandal.

In June, the university replaced Gretchen Means Gaspari as head of its accountability office. In the lawsuit, the anonymous attorney hired to work for her to investigate Title IX and other workplace complaints, accused Gaspari of retaliating after the attorney reported to other college authorities that Gaspari’s husband, John Gaspari, was convicted of misusing graphic photographs involving another woman. John Gaspari was fired as executive director of USC's Center for Work and Family Life.

The faculty letter said the lawsuit calls a recent examination of Gretchen Gaspari’s office into question. 

“Ms. Gaspari left USC…after the complaint in Doe v. USC was filed, and long after numerous counts of documented unethical behavior, from the Tyndall case onward, occurred,” the faculty letter said. “During the time between the Tyndall revelations in May 2018 and today, numerous faculty members have been investigated by OCAP on dubious grounds and without due process. Additionally, investigations that might implicate members of the administration were curtailed.”

Ariela gross said the senate executive board has already begun talks with the administration about investigating.

“I think the real issue is whether that is a real investigation,” Ariela Gross said. “Our administration has a preference for lots of secrecy and keeping it internal. We are asking for something where there would be some accountability.”

Professors Ariela Gross and Larry Gross said the findings of an investigation must be made public.

“Truthfulness and accountability are paramount values of ethical administrative leadership,” the faculty letter said. “Yet, the operations of investigative agencies have been shrouded in secrecy and entirely lacking in due process. With credible allegations of gross violations of academic freedom now made public, the faculty must demand a public accounting of the actions of those investigative agencies The Academic Senate is the elected body of the faculty, and we call on it to act.”

Academic Senate President Paul Adler, a business professor, said in an email that the call for an investigation has been “on the radar screen of the Senate leadership.”

“While we expect the administration will be working to remedy any failures in that office, we don’t expect them to say much about it while it’s in litigation,” he said.

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