USC, Ohio State, Michigan State, and now, UCLA: How can big universities, with all the supposedly smart folks who head them, be so blind and deaf to student complaints that school personnel may be sexually abusing them? And why do academics keep getting caught up in situations where they appear to or may be covering up wrongdoing against the young?
Officials at the University of California Los Angeles find themselves apologizing profusely for failing to disclose that they knew of accusations of inappropriate conduct by a gynecologist on the school’s staff while treating patients in university facilities, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Women say that Dr. James Mason Heaps wrongly touched their private parts, and UCLA learned of the accusations in 2017, putting the longtime staff gynecologist on leave in 2018. The school, however, did not disclose why Heaps was gone — until criminal charges were filed against him in recent days and he pleaded not guilty to them in court.
Here are steps the university might have taken, according to the Los Angeles Times:
Once notified [with the initial complaint], UCLA officials could have immediately removed Heaps from campus or restricted his practice to protect the public while investigating the allegations, as allowed under University of California guidelines. They could have warned the campus community — which federal law requires if university officials decide someone accused of sexual assault is a safety threat. They could have encouraged other potential victims to step forward. UCLA officials did none of these things before announcing Heaps’ retirement last June without telling the public they found he had violated UC policies on sexual misconduct. He strongly denies all allegations of wrongdoing.
UCLA kept quiet about what has become a growing scandal, even as administrators at the cross-town University of Southern California were battered by students, faculty, alumni, and the press for mishandling allegations of sexual abuse by Dr. George Tyndall, who served as the lone, longtime gynecologist in the Trojan student health service.
A federal court just has signed off on a proposed settlement in which “17,000 women treated during Tyndall’s three-decade career would each be eligible to receive between $2,500 and $250,000. The amount would depend on the severity of the misconduct alleged and the women’s willingness to confidentially detail those experiences in written statements or interviews,” the Los Angeles Times reported. This proposal, of course, does not affect claims pursued in state courts.
USC had negotiated with Tyndall, allowing him to leave his job with a settlement, and with the university keeping silent on years of growing complaints about his inappropriate behavior with coeds, notably with the rising number of international students from China.
The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize — its 45th — for investigative reporting on USC administrators’ botched handling of the Tyndall mess. The paper also has dug hard into the private school’s nightmare dealings with its medical school deans. Police and prosecutors have investigated Tyndall but have not charged him with any crime. USC’s president was forced out of his elite post after the university was ripped by public outrage over its gynecologist and medical school deans — black-eyes for the school that have been compounded by revelations about its role in a national scandal over admissions cheating.
In Westwood, the claims against the UCLA doctor have been fewer — three when he was criminally charged a week ago. The number of allegations has risen to 22, with more than 75 women responding to university encouragement to bring forward claims against the doctor, some of whose patients have risen publicly to his defense. Heaps started working part-time in the student health area in 1983, joining the full-time staff in 2014 and holding privileges at the respected Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center for 20 years, ending in 2018.
Officials at UCLA and from the larger UC system, besides issuing apologies, also have said they will investigate and report publicly on the way the school failed, potentially not only to safeguard student-patients, but also to be more transparent and forthcoming about major problems with university-provided medical services.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on the young, specifically babies and children. It is unacceptable that students, older but vulnerable still and in the care of big, powerful institutions like universities, should be exploited by sexual predators, as has occurred at schools like Penn State and Michigan State. Those institutions have spent hundreds of millions of dollars dealing with sexual abuse scandals, which grownups might have been expected to blow the whistle on, quickly and automatically — but did not.
Michigan State still reels from its sex abuse mess
Sexual abuse scandals dog the institutions for years. As NPR reported of the recent disposition of criminal matters against a onetime MSU leader:
A former dean at Michigan State University who oversaw Larry Nassar was found guilty of multiple criminal charges on Wednesday, including over his handling of sexual abuse allegations against the convicted sports doctor. A jury convicted William Strampel, who was head of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, on two counts of willful neglect of duty and one count of felony misconduct in office over sexual comments he made to female students when they came to him for help with their careers. But the 71-year-old was cleared of felony second-degree criminal sexual conduct. He faces a maximum of five years in prison.
Nassar, who worked for MSU and USA Gymnastics, was convicted of sexually assaulting patients for decades under the guise of medical treatment. During his sentencing, hundreds of women and girls testified they had been abused by him.
Investigators issue damning report in Ohio State scandal
Meantime, at Ohio State University, the Seattle-based Perkins Coie law firm in recent weeks issued its 182-page investigative report, finding that the late Dr. Richard H. Strauss began sexually abusing male patients in 1979 — within a year of being hired at the university, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported. The widely read news source on academic doings noted:
But ‘complaints and reports about Strauss’ conduct were not elevated beyond the athletics department or student health until 1996,’ the report states. Strauss voluntarily retired in 1998. He committed suicide in 2005. For years, students and athletics-staff members at Ohio State joked about [his] abusive exams, which frequently included groping of the genital area for maladies such as cauliflower ear, strep throat, or a common cold. Going to see Strauss, students would say, meant ‘drop their pants,’ the report states. More than 50 former athletics-department employees corroborated the students’ accounts, investigators wrote. But many of those staffers took no action to stop the doctor. Sometimes the jokes were interpreted as merely a knock on Strauss’ suspected homosexuality, and nothing to be taken seriously …The investigators found that Strauss abused at least 177 men, including athletes on 16 different sports, from 1979 to 1997 … The sports teams affected included wrestling (48 victims), gymnastics (16 victims), swimming and diving (15 victims), soccer (13 victims), and lacrosse (10 victims).
OSU’s current top leaders have apologized for the failure of their predecessors and many officials at the university for failing to acknowledge and act on Strauss’ misbehavior, which was described in the redacted, 500-plus-page, $6 million-plus external, independent investigation as well-known and so flagrant as to include the doctor’s showering with students.
Not only were complaints about his conduct raised with faculty, coaches, and administrators, students also told investigators that Larkin Hall, the university physical education building, was “sexualized” — a venue in which young men were subjected to predatory voyeurism and where indecent acts occurred often in public in locker rooms, showers, and steam and sauna areas.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed against OSU and its personnel over the doctor’s unchecked sexual abuse, which also is under criminal investigation. The matter has attracted even greater attention because Jim Jordan, now a stalwart defender of President Trump and a leader among Republican conservatives in the U.S. House, was a wrestling coach during Strauss’ tenure. He has insisted he knew nothing of the doctor’s misbehavior, though team members have insisted he did. He has said he cooperated with the university’s investigative report. It does not name him, describe any of his actions, and yet he has, without evidence, asserted the work exonerates him in the scandal. For now, many of his voting constituents seem to buy this assertion.