Carol Folt handled scandal as UNC chancellor. Now she’ll try to move USC past its own
LOS ANGELES — Carol Folt, the recently departed chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, takes over as president of the University of Southern California this summer as the school reels from scandals that culminated with the biggest admissions cheating investigation ever prosecuted.
Folt’s tenure at UNC may well prepare her for the job ahead at USC, where a president stepped down last summer after a former campus gynecologist was accused of sexual misconduct. Months later, the university was shaken by the college admissions cheating scandal.
Folt acknowledged as much this week in a statement from USC, saying “our community is deeply troubled by a number of immediate challenges.”
“I assure you that we will meet these challenges together, directly, decisively and with honesty and candor,” she said. “This is a moment of responsibility and opportunity, and we will seize them both.”
Folt, an internationally recognized biologist, is the first female president at USC.
In announcing that Folt will take over on July 1, USC noted that when she was named chancellor in 2013, she inherited an institution embroiled in high-profile academic and athletic scandals.
“Dr. Folt is a seasoned leader who has an excellent track record of listening to others,” interim President Wanda Austin said in a statement. “She clearly understands the value of reaching out across campus, and for standing strong for the character and principles of a university’s community.”
Ariela Gross, a USC professor of law and history, praised the new chancellor, noting that university administrators had in recent years adopted a modus operandi that “when something goes wrong, let’s keep it quiet, let the wrongdoer go quietly and coverup it up.”
“Carol Folt has a great track record as being a leader who meets challenges with candor and honesty and that’s something we really need,” Gross said. “From everything I know, she also has a history of really working with faculty and students and that’s something we really need.”
Here’s a look at recent scandals that have plagued USC, and how Folt dealt with the troubles at UNC:
USC’s role in the college admissions cheating scandal
The University of Southern California is at the epicenter of the scandal, with some of the biggest names linked to it, including actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli.
Seven other universities also were hit with allegations that families with money and clout paid bribes for their children to attend the prestigious institutions.
Fifty people — including Hollywood stars, top CEOs, college coaches and standardized test administrators — are accused of taking part in the scheme to cheat on tests and admit students as athletes, regardless of their abilities.
The school plans to use any money received in connection with the alleged scheme to fund scholarships for underprivileged students, interim president Austin said last week.
All applicants connected to the scam would be denied admission, according to a university spokesman.
A review will be conducted for enrolled students, and USC will make informed, appropriate decisions after it’s completed, spokesman Gary Polakovic said. He added that some of the students involved may have been minors at the time of their application process.
USC said it fired senior athletic director Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who are both charged in the scheme.
“Everyone has taken a big hit — faculty and students across the university,” Gross said. “Everyone has felt the demoralization over the past couple of years and it seems like things keep coming.”
USC campus gynecologist scandal
USC President C. L. Max Nikias stepped down from his role in August. He had announced his plans to step down months earlier, after a former campus gynecologist was accused of sexual misconduct.
Nikias moved into the role of president emeritus and life trustee of the university, according to USC’s statement at the time. Austin was then named interim president.
The scandal involved Dr. George Tyndall, a former campus gynecologist accused of sexual misconduct and using racist language while examining patients.
Last month, a $215 million class-action settlement agreement between USC and several law firms representing dozens of women who allege they were sexually abused by Tyndall was filed in federal court. The money will be used to compensate women who say they were victimized by Tyndall, a gynecologist in the institution’s student health center for almost three decades.
Thousands of students and alumni signed an online petition demanding Nikias’ resignation, alleging that USC failed to act after complaints of misconduct involving Tyndall.
In addition, hundreds of full-time professors asked the school’s board of trustees for Nikias’ resignation in May and August letters drafted by Gross and others. Nearly 700 faculty members signed the August letter that led to the president stepping down.
Several women filed lawsuits against Tyndall and USC.
Tyndall’s attorney told CNN last summer that his client “is adamant that he engaged in no criminal conduct while practicing medicine at USC.”
Lawyers representing women who accused Tyndall of misconduct blasted the university’s decision to name Nikias the president emeritus and life trustee.
Gross said the efforts of the group Concerned Faculty of USC in some ways helped bring faculty and students together.
“That’s been actually really inspiring to see all these people putting time into this and our students paying attention,” she said. “In some ways people have kind of come together and care a lot about what is ultimately a great university.”
College basketball scheme
In 2017, an assistant basketball coach at USC was among 10 people the FBI arrested in connection with an alleged widespread college basketball scheme.
The FBI said the crimes were part of a “pay-to-play” culture. USC later fired the coach, Tony Bland.
The US Attorney’s Office in New York filed three complaints alleging fraud and corruption in the “dark underbelly of college basketball.”
In January, Bland pleaded guilty in a Manhattan federal court to taking a cash bribe from athlete advisers in exchange for using his influence over USC college basketball players to retain the services of the advisers paying the bribes, according to federal prosecutors.
Folt inherited scandal at UNC
In January, one day after Folt announced her resignation and approved the removal of the remains of “Silent Sam,” a Confederate monument, the school’s board asked her to leave weeks earlier than she’d planned.
The board’s decision came after the monument’s base and commemorative plaques — the subject of intense national debate over Confederate monuments — were removed from the UNC Chapel Hill’s upper quad and put into an undisclosed “secure location,” the university said.
The Silent Sam statue that had stood on the base was knocked over by protesters in August and did not return to its original spot.
“The presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus poses a continuing threat both to the personal safety and well-being of our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment,” Folt wrote in a letter announcing her decision to step down. “No one learns at their best when they feel unsafe.”
Folt said the monument controversy had caused too much disruption.
She arrived at UNC in 2013 in the midst of an academic scandal concerning student-athletes that had begun two years earlier.
Folt said in 2014 that the university had failed some of its students “for years” by allowing them to take classes that did not match its own academic standards.
UNC’s handling of sexual violence reports came under scrutiny in 2016 after then-sophomore Delaney Robinson went public about her alleged rape on campus by a football player. She claimed prosecutors and the university were slow to bring justice despite a revised policy on handling sexual assault allegations.