USC dean had his­tory of in­ter­nal com­plaints

For years be­fore he re­signed, ex-med­i­cal school chief drew re­ports of drink­ing, abu­sive be­hav­ior.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - Times staff mem­bers Paul Pringle, Har­riet Ryan, Adam Elmahrek, Matt Hamil­ton and Sarah Parvini re­ported this story.

USC faced a choice five years ago: Keep Dr. Car­men Pu­li­afito at the helm of the Keck School of Medicine or re­place him.

As dean, Pu­li­afito had brought in star re­searchers, raised hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars and boosted the school’s na­tional rank­ing — all crit­i­cal steps in USC’s plan to be­come an elite re­search in­sti­tu­tion.

But what might have been an easy de­ci­sion to re­new his ap­point­ment was com­pli­cated by a groundswell of op­po­si­tion from the med­i­cal school’s fac­ulty and staff.

Keck em­ploy­ees had com­plained re­peat­edly about what they con­sid­ered Pu­li­afito’s hair-trig­ger tem­per, pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion of col­leagues and per­ceived drink­ing prob­lem, and many were adamant he be re­moved, ac­cord­ing to cur­rent and for­mer univer­sity em­ploy­ees as well as four let­ters of com­plaint re­viewed by The Times.

The peo­ple who spoke to The Times in­clude a for­mer USC ad­min­is­tra­tor who han­dled per­son­nel griev­ances, the med­i­cal school’s for­mer hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor and promi­nent fac­ulty mem­bers.

“As a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of USC, the Dean is an em­bar­rass­ment to our School and the Univer­sity,” one Keck pro­fes­sor wrote in a March 2012 let­ter to the univer­sity provost.

Still, USC Pres­i­dent C.L. Max Nikias opted to reap­point Pu­li­afito, giv­ing him a new five-year term with an an­nual salary of more than $1 mil­lion.

Pu­li­afito’s prob­lems es­ca­lated. As The Times has re­ported, he par­tied with a cir­cle of ad­dicts, pros­ti­tutes and other crim­i­nals who said he used drugs with them, in­clud­ing on cam­pus.

Late Fri­day, hours af­ter the news­pa­per in­formed USC it was pre­par­ing to pub­lish this story, Nikias sent a let­ter to the cam­pus

com­mu­nity ac­knowl­edg­ing that the univer­sity re­ceived “var­i­ous com­plaints about Dr. Pu­li­afito’s be­hav­ior” dur­ing his nearly decade­long ten­ure as dean.

Nikias didn’t pro­vide de­tails of the com­plaints but wrote that the univer­sity took dis­ci­plinary ac­tion against Pu­li­afito and pro­vided him “pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment coach­ing.” He didn’t spec­ify when.

The pres­i­dent also of­fered his first pub­lic ac­count of the cir­cum­stances of Pu­li­afito’s abrupt res­ig­na­tion in the mid­dle of the spring 2016 term, writ­ing that he stepped down af­ter Provost Michael Quick con­fronted him with new com­plaints about his be­hav­ior.

Pu­li­afito, now 66, was al­lowed to con­tinue rep­re­sent­ing USC at of­fi­cial func­tions and re­mained on the fac­ulty and hos­pi­tal staff.

Nikias said Fri­day that at the time of the dean’s res­ig­na­tion, “no univer­sity leader was aware of any il­le­gal or il­licit ac­tiv­i­ties, which would have led to a re­view of his clin­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

Over the last two weeks, Nikias and other univer­sity lead­ers have said they were stunned by the rev­e­la­tions about the for­mer dean.

But in­ter­views with two dozen of Pu­li­afito’s for­mer col­leagues sug­gest that com­plaints about his be­hav­ior were wide­spread and that at least some reached USC’s up­per man­age­ment. The col­leagues said Pu­li­afito’s con­duct hurt morale and posed a risk to the school’s rep­u­ta­tion.

“There were com­plaints about his de­meanor, be­hav­ior and man­ner,” said Jody Ship­per, who headed USC’s eq­uity and di­ver­sity of­fice for more than a decade. She left in 2015.

James Lynch, who was the med­i­cal school’s hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor for five years, said em­ploy­ees came to him “fairly reg­u­larly” about mis­be­hav­ior by Pu­li­afito, in­clud­ing rude­ness and sus­pected drunk driv­ing.

“Many of the peo­ple who worked for him com­plained about the dif­fi­culty of just be­ing around him,” Lynch said.

Cur­rent Keck dean Dr. Ro­hit Varma told a gath­er­ing of med­i­cal school stu­dents this month that Pu­li­afito had re­ceived treat­ment for al­co­holism.

Pu­li­afito did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. He pre­vi­ously told The Times he re­signed of his own ac­cord to pur­sue a job in pri­vate in­dus­try.

Con­cerns about him were con­tained in lengthy writ­ten eval­u­a­tions in 2012 that were as­sem­bled to help de­ter­mine Pu­li­afito’s fit­ness for a sec­ond term.

“Ev­ery­body I knew trashed him, and he still got [re]hired,” said for­mer USC oph­thal­mol­ogy pro­fes­sor Dr. Ken­neth L. Lu, who moved to UCLA in 2014.

Many fac­ulty mem­bers and staff agreed to speak about Pu­li­afito on the con­di­tion of anonymity, cit­ing con­cerns over their ca­reers. Since The Times’ re­port, USC has hired a cri­sis man­age­ment firm to han­dle press in­quiries and in­structed em­ploy­ees at Keck not to speak to the me­dia. The school also asked that doc­tors at an af­fil­i­ate, Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal of Los An­ge­les, re­fer all Times in­quiries about Pu­li­afito back to the univer­sity.

Sev­eral in­ter­viewed said they were speak­ing out of a de­sire to help the in­sti­tu­tion they loved. Most ex­pressed shock at re­ports of the for­mer dean’s drug use.

In 2007, then-Provost Nikias, who be­came pres­i­dent three years later, chaired the com­mit­tee that se­lected Pu­li­afito, a renowned oph­thal­mol­o­gist, as med­i­cal dean. Many of his new col­leagues ini­tially found him bril­liant and noted his easy rap­port with pa­tients and stu­dents. He struck them as ex­tremely hard­work­ing and com­mit­ted to el­e­vat­ing Keck’s na­tional pro­file.

“In my mind, any­time I saw him, he wanted to make this school grow,” said Bill Wat­son, a for­mer vice pres­i­dent for de­vel­op­ment who worked with the dean from 2010 to 2013.

He was prone to anger, how­ever, many for­mer col­leagues said. Mi­nor in­con­ve­niences sent him into scream­ing, red-faced rages at staff meet­ings, they said.

“The F-word was in every other sen­tence,” said one for­mer pro­fes­sor. She said she heard a high-rank­ing Keck ad­min­is­tra­tor vomit in the ladies’ room af­ter one dress­ing-down by the dean.

Lynch, the for­mer hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor, con­firmed that Pu­li­afito up­braided that ad­min­is­tra­tor on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. “It was cer­tainly chal­leng­ing, and she ul­ti­mately left,” he said. Reached by The Times, the woman de­clined to com­ment.

One Keck physi­cian said some on Pu­li­afito’s sup­port staff con­sulted her pro­fes­sion­ally to cope with how the dean treated them.

“I lit­er­ally put peo­ple on med­i­cal leave for stress … re­lated to work­ing with him,” the physi­cian re­called.

Oth­ers were con­cerned that he was drink­ing too much at USC events.

“The dean was a heavy drinker,” Lynch re­called. “He was fond of mar­ti­nis. He would have sev­eral.”

He said he never saw Pu­li­afito “do any­thing par­tic­u­larly out­ra­geous” but fielded mul­ti­ple com­plaints from a fe­male staffer dis­turbed that he was driv­ing home from the events at which he’d been drink­ing.

“She was con­cerned he might get in an ac­ci­dent and hurt him­self or some­one else,” Lynch said. He didn’t want to con­front the dean be­cause he thought it would be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, he said, but he told the woman, “If you are con­cerned, why don’t you men­tion it to him?”

Lynch, who was hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor from 2009 to 2014, said he en­cour­aged fac­ulty and staff to com­plain di­rectly to Pu­li­afito them­selves and did not pass on Keck em­ploy­ees’ com­plaints to the univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“It never oc­curred to me to do it,” he said.

While Pu­li­afito’s per­sonal be­hav­ior was dis­taste­ful, Lynch said, he was “an ab­so­lute ge­nius” who was im­prov­ing the med­i­cal school.

“He’s kind of a pain in the ass, but he gets re­sults,” he said, adding that he felt ad­min­is­tra­tors shared that view.

One se­nior fac­ulty mem­ber said he phoned the provost’s of­fice af­ter an en­counter in which Pu­li­afito seemed to be in­tox­i­cated.

An ad­min­is­tra­tor in the of­fice who took down his com­plaint, he said, thanked him for mak­ing the re­port and as­sured him “it would be re­viewed at the high­est level.”

He said he was not told the out­come and as­sumed it was be­ing han­dled con­fi­den­tially.

Pu­li­afito’s be­hav­ior caused some of his col­leagues to leave. The med­i­cal school’s ad­mis­sions dean, Erin Quinn, who had been at USC since the early 1980s, stepped down from “a po­si­tion that I loved” in 2011 “be­cause I couldn't work un­der Dr. Pu­li­afito’s lead­er­ship team.”

“It had changed from pre­vi­ous deans and com­pro­mised my val­ues,” she said. :: of his ten­ure — a stan­dard univer­sity prac­tice and, in the provost’s words, “a cru­cial part of our eval­u­a­tion of a dean’s ef­fec­tive­ness in lead­ing the school.”

Pu­li­afito sub­mit­ted a 19page self-eval­u­a­tion in which he listed myr­iad ac­com­plish­ments. He noted that he had raised more than $500 mil­lion in con­tri­bu­tions, re­cruited promi­nent re­searchers from Har­vard, Stan­ford and other pres­ti­gious schools and pushed Keck’s rank­ing in U.S. News & World Re­port up five spots to No. 34.

Pro­fes­sors were given the op­tion of com­plet­ing an anony­mous on­line sur­vey or writ­ing let­ters. Some wrote lengthy re­sponses filled with spe­cific ex­am­ples of Pu­li­afito’s short­com­ings and urged the ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­place him, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views.

The Times re­viewed four of th­ese eval­u­a­tions.

“His pres­ence has cre­ated a very neg­a­tive at­mos­phere at KSOM which has alien­ated a large num­ber of fac­ulty and chairs and cre­ated a siege men­tal­ity, in which fac­ulty and staff are con­stantly wor­ried about their wel­fare and abil­ity to main­tain a pro­duc­tive en­vi­ron­ment in which to work,” one pro­fes­sor wrote.

An­other long­time fac­ulty mem­ber de­scribed the dean as “un­pre­dictable” and “given to er­ratic be­hav­ior.”

“A ma­jor, over­ar­ch­ing prob­lem at the KSOM is that the Dean’s lack of ef­fec­tive and col­le­gial lead­er­ship have re­sulted in a very low level of fac­ulty morale,” the pro­fes­sor wrote.

A USC em­ployee who has seen the fac­ulty eval­u­a­tions filed in 2012 said a large num­ber were highly neg­a­tive and de­tailed in their crit­i­cism of Pu­li­afito. Many of the oth­ers high­lighted his strengths and weak­nesses. The over­all feed­back showed that he was a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure at the school, the em­ployee said.

When Gar­rett an­nounced in June 2012 that Nikias had re­hired Pu­li­afito, “no one could be­lieve it,” an­other se­nior fac­ulty mem­ber re­called.

In a let­ter to the fac­ulty and staff, Gar­rett said she had dis­cussed em­ploy­ees’ feed­back with the dean, “in­clud­ing the mat­ters on which some of you be­lieve he could pay ad­di­tional at­ten­tion or that may re­quire a dif­fer­ent ap­proach.”

“I am cer­tain he will move for­ward with your sug­ges­tions firmly in mind,” she wrote.

Nikias de­clined to speak about the com­plaints made against Pu­li­afito. Gar­rett left USC to be­come the pres­i­dent of Cor­nell Univer­sity in 2015; she died last year.

Pu­li­afito’s con­duct be­came even more trou­bling in his sec­ond term.

The Times in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished ear­lier this month found that the dean spent long hours par­ty­ing with a group of younger ad­dicts, pros­ti­tutes and other crim­i­nals in 2015 and 2016, and brought some to his Keck of­fice in the mid­dle of the night.

USC col­leagues re­called that, dur­ing the same pe­riod, Pu­li­afito was of­ten ab­sent dur­ing work­ing hours.

“His staff would say, ‘I don’t know where the dean is. I will try to call his cell­phone,’ ” said a univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tor who reg­u­larly had busi­ness with Pu­li­afito.

In Novem­ber 2015, Provost Quick put Pu­li­afito “on no­tice for be­ing dis­en­gaged from his lead­er­ship du­ties,” Nikias wrote in his let­ter to the univer­sity com­mu­nity Fri­day.

In March 2016, the dean was with a 21-year-old woman in a Pasadena ho­tel room when she over­dosed. The woman, Sarah War­ren, told The Times she and Pu­li­afito re­sumed us­ing drugs as soon as she was re­leased from the hos­pi­tal.

A wit­ness to the over­dose phoned Nikias’ of­fice March 14 and threat­ened to go to the press if the school didn’t take ac­tion against the dean.

Nikias said in his Fri­day let­ter that two re­cep­tion­ists who spoke to the wit­ness did not find the re­port cred­i­ble and did not pass it on to su­per­vi­sors.

Just a few days ear­lier, Nikias said, two univer­sity em­ploy­ees had come for­ward with sep­a­rate com­plaints about the dean. They told Quick that Pu­li­afito “seemed fur­ther re­moved from his du­ties and ex­pressed con­cerns about his be­hav­ior.”

“The Provost con­sulted with me promptly and, as a re­sult, con­fronted Dr. Pu­li­afito. He chose to re­sign his po­si­tion on March 24, 2016, and was placed on sab­bat­i­cal leave,” Nikias wrote.

On the Keck cam­pus, the tim­ing of Pu­li­afito’s res­ig­na­tion — on a Thurs­day in the mid­dle of the school term with no ad­vance no­tice — seemed sus­pi­cious.

“Ev­ery­body read it as cover story,” said one se­nior fac­ulty mem­ber. But, he added, “there was a sense of re­lief.”

Nikias and top USC of­fi­cials hon­ored Pu­li­afito and praised his lead­er­ship a few months later at a cam­pus re­cep­tion. He con­tin­ued to prac­tice at USC clin­ics.

In his Fri­day night let­ter, Nikias wrote that school of­fi­cials didn’t hear about the over­dose un­til they re­ceived an “un­sub­stan­ti­ated tip” months af­ter Pu­li­afito stepped down as dean.

“When we ap­proached Dr. Pu­li­afito about the in­ci­dent, he stated a friend’s daugh­ter had over­dosed at a Pasadena ho­tel and he had ac­com­pa­nied her to the hos­pi­tal,” he wrote.

The pres­i­dent also said that in March, The Times did pro­vide the univer­sity with “de­tailed ques­tions about, and a copy of a 911 record­ing from the Pasadena ho­tel in­ci­dent.” The record­ing was “im­me­di­ately re­ferred to the Hos­pi­tal Med­i­cal Staff,” a com­mit­tee that as­sesses clin­i­cal com­pe­tency, Nikias said. In the 911 call, Pu­li­afito de­scribes him­self as a doc­tor and the woman who had the over­dose as his “girl­friend.”

The clin­i­cal com­pe­tency com­mit­tee “de­ter­mined that there were no ex­ist­ing pa­tient care com­plaints and no known clin­i­cal is­sues,” the pres­i­dent said.

It wasn’t un­til The Times pub­lished its re­port that the school barred Pu­li­afito from see­ing pa­tients and the state med­i­cal board launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of him.

On Fri­day, USC’s cri­sis man­age­ment firm re­leased a let­ter from the chairs of 23 Keck de­part­ments. Ad­dressed to USC’s board of trustees, it af­firmed their sup­port for Nikias and Quick.

Alex J. Ber­liner AP

EX-USC DEAN Dr. Car­men Pu­li­afito faces al­le­ga­tions of drug use.

Patrick T. Fal­lon For The Times

EM­PLOY­EES OF THE USC Keck School of Medicine com­plained re­peat­edly about then-dean Dr. Car­men Pu­li­afito’s be­hav­ior, a Times re­view found.

Michael Ko­vac Getty Im­ages

USC Pres­i­dent C.L. Max Nikias of­fered Pu­li­afito a sec­ond term in 2012.

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