The University of Southern California apparently has set a record — one which parents should pray no college has reason to challenge and for which the educators and leaders at the Los Angeles campus should be sorry and ashamed.
The Trojans have announced they will pay $1.1 billion to settle lawsuits over the tawdry actions of Dr. George Tyndall, who was the lone gynecologist for young women treated in the student health service.
The school has admitted that he saw 17,000 patients in his three decades at the school and sexually abused many of them. As the Los Angeles Times reported:
“Tyndall was accused of preying on a generation of USC women. After The Times exposed his troubled history at the university three years ago, the 74-year-old was stripped of his medical license and arrested. He has pleaded not guilty to dozens of sexual assault charges and is awaiting trial.”
The newspaper reported that the gynecologist started at USC in 1989:
“Within a few years of Tyndall’s arrival, clinic supervisors learned from a patient and colleagues that the doctor was taking photos of students’ genitals, a 2018 Times investigation found. Photos were later found in his personal storage unit and in his office. Nursing ‘chaperones’ who monitored his pelvic exams complained that he used a curtain to obscure their view. Students told clinic employees he asked prurient questions about their sex lives and made suggestive comments about their bodies. Nursing staff reported for years that he was touching students inappropriately during vaginal exams, with at least one co-worker threatening to go to the police. Only after a frustrated nurse, Cindy Gilbert, reported misconduct by Tyndall to the campus rape crisis center in 2016 did USC suspend him and launch an internal investigation. Tyndall was allowed to quietly resign with a payout the following year, and USC never alerted the Medical Board of California until after The Times began contacting USC staff about him.”
Because investigations found that the university knew of Tyndall’s wrongdoing and he had contact with so many students as patients, any settlement of lawsuits against USC was likely to be significant, the school’s own top lawyer said.
But John C. Manly, an attorney who represented one group of women suing the school, observed this to the New York Times: “If you’re an institution of higher education, you will pay” if you ignore medical professional on staff sexually abusing young people.
The university’s billion-dollar penance includes a 2018-announced $215 million settlement with alumnae and women students, who were to receive between $2,500 and $250,000. There were dozens of undisclosed payments with plaintiffs. And the university announced in court that it will pay $852 million to 710 women.
The $1.1 billion, for context, equals roughly 20% of the university’s $5.7 billion endowment, as reported in 2019. The university emphasized that it would not spend any “philanthropic gifts, endowment funds or tuition” to cover the settlement. It will be paid out over two years and will require the school to tighten its belt, extensively, administrators said.
The New York Times sought to put the package in perspective:
“The total settlement is huge by any measure and is an abject admission that the university failed its female students over many years, experts said. Such large settlements are seismic in the academic world, which has been reeling from sexual abuse and harassment claims against students, professors, and now, on a grand scale, a campus gynecologist. The settlement at USC is twice the size of the half a billion dollars won by victims of Lawrence G. Nassar, the Michigan State University physician who sexually abused young women under the guise of medical treatment. It dwarfs other payments, like those in the sex abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University. And it is larger than many of the settlements that followed the child sex abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. ‘It is by far the largest sexual settlement ever, [by a higher education institution], said Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, which deals with sexual harassment and abuse on campus. ‘It’s a recognition of suffering, and it’s a pretty stunning mea culpa. When you’re talking about this quantum of money,’ Mr. Sokolow said, ‘it’s an admission of liability.’ He continued, ‘An admission that there were hundreds of cases where the university had knowledge or without much diligence could have known what was going on and failed to put an end to it.’”
USC sacked its president for his failings in the Tyndall case, though he retained his tenure and has angered colleagues by retain his academic standing and privileged life at the school. The trustees of the school, which is one of Los Angeles County’s largest employers (including its sprawling hospital and health system), have sought to get ahead of the reputational damage caused by the health service gynecologist.
But the school has been rocked by a series of scandals, including the Los Angeles Times’ revelations about improper behavior by USC’s medical school dean and the academic who would replace him. The newspaper also has exposed wrongdoing in the university’s admissions, a scheme in which wealthy parents paid to get their children into a school that holds wide sway in many segments of Los Angeles and has seen its academic standing rise sharply in recent years.
USC has brought in outside academics to deal with its leadership problems. The university shifted responsibility for its student health into the USC medical system and away from student services, the Los Angeles Times reported. The school says this means young women are treated by many different gynecologists and many of them are women.
In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, including the sustained injury inflicted on them by sexual wrongdoing by doctors, other medical caregivers, and others in positions of leadership and trust. It is unacceptable for our young people to be sexually exploited by adults and especially by those trained and licensed to provide them medical care. It is exasperating and wrong for individuals and leaders to ignore young people when they report sexual abuse or to turn a blind eye to sexual wrongdoing by adults against the young.
To those who criticize plaintiff and malpractice lawyers, the USC case may be the tragic evidence that, without expensive lawsuits, some individuals and institutions will not act as they should and will not make changes they must. The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing USC’s problems. But, really, it took crusading journalists to get a whole lot of people to do the right thing for young folks who were in their care to start? We have lots of work to do to ensure that we end the nightmare of cases involving the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, USC, and too many other schools: UCLA, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State — the ones we know about so far.