The federal indictments against former University of Southern California Dean Marilyn Flynn and Los Angeles City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas so closely parallel those generated by the Varsity Blues case that it is easy to overlook important differences.
In the Varsity Blues case, parents paid Rick Singer to bribe senior athletics officials at several leading universities to exercise special prerogatives and admit their children as student-athletes, which these applicants were not. Ridley-Thomas is accused of, while a Los Angeles County Supervisor, agreeing to shift new and amended LA County service contracts worth millions of dollars to the institution Flynn led, the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, in exchange for his son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, being admitted to a graduate program in Social Work and Public Administration as a scholarship student. In addition, the two are accused of attempting to use USC as a shell to launder a $100K gift to a nonprofit entity agreeing to employ Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.
Gift laundering aside, the key difference between the Varsity Blues and Ridley-Thomas cases is that, at the same time Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was admitted as a USC student, he was also jointly appointed as a full-time, nontenure-track teaching faculty member in both the USC School of Social Work and the USC Price School of Public Policy. He was not qualified to execute this role in either school. Ridley-Thomas holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Morehouse College, and logged four undistinguished years as a legislator in the California State Assembly before resigning at the end of 2017 after allegations of sexual harassment.
Individuals with only a bachelor’s degree can, in theory, be hired as full-time, fixed-term, nontenure-track teaching faculty members at USC, but the practice is infrequent, occurring mostly in contexts characterized by rapidly advancing technology frontiers and high student demand for instruction. When such hires do occur, they ordinarily draw scrutiny from skeptical school and university officials. Such hires are not typical in applied social science arenas, which tend to be heavily invested in graduate education delivered in multi-year programs. The USC Dworak-Peck School’s Master of Social Work degree is one of the most extensive professional programs on the USC campus, requiring 60 units of course and field work. The USC Price School’s master’s degrees typically require about 48 units of coursework. Someone with Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ sparse qualifications receiving a joint faculty appointment across these two USC professional schools is not merely unusual. It is nonsensical.
Ridley-Thomas was appointed in the spring of 2018 and fired in early summer. It is unclear whether USC ever issued a faculty contract, but the Price School website briefly identified Ridley-Thomas as a faculty member, at least until the Los Angeles Times began reporting on the appointment. Two deans, their immediate subordinates, and the provost’s office were all necessarily involved in the decision. The Price School, my institution, side-stepped substantive faculty involvement in the matter. I found out Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was my new USC colleague only when he pulled me aside and breathlessly told me so at a fundraising event in Sacramento for the California Transportation Foundation. He did not mention that he was also an incoming graduate student.
USC faculty members have on occasion earned additional USC degrees, but only in departments or schools other than their own. The provost’s office belatedly terminated the Ridley-Thomas appointment on the narrow grounds that it was configured in a way that contradicted USC policy. There is an inherent moral hazard in appointing a faculty member to teach in a degree program in which he is matriculated. The provost’s office was less concerned about the glaring deficiencies in Ridley-Thomas’ qualifications than it was about following university policy—or so it claimed.
Marilyn Flynn appears to be the chief architect of the Ridley-Thomas appointment. It is not clear what personnel process she followed in the School of Social Work, including whether a faculty committee recommended or even reviewed the appointment.
The process in the School of Public Policy, what there was of it, was made more visible after the fact by the School’s former dean, Jack Knott, as a result of Knott’s efforts to persuade the school community that none of the criticism resulting from Ridley-Thomas’ appointment was in any way his fault or should apply to him. Knott told packed auditoria at town hall and school-wide faculty meetings in 2018 that he wanted to circulate a lengthy memo explaining his blamelessness, but that the USC leadership had disallowed this step. He should be grateful.
Knott claimed ignorance of the USC Faculty Handbook text prohibiting faculty from becoming candidates for degrees in any program or department in which they hold an appointment. He reasoned that, since staff members could take a degree in the programs they served, presumably faculty could too.
Knott allegedly believed that he could proceed with the Price School portion of the appointment because no one objected—not the provost’s office, not the vice dean for faculty affairs, and not the faculty council. This excuse is inconsistent with Price School procedures. While Knott may or may not have informed the chair of the Price School faculty council of the Ridley-Thomas appointment, it is apparent that Knott was keeping the appointment process quiet.
Any full-time faculty appointment is vetted by one of a set of standing faculty committees. The chair of the appropriate Price School committee reports that he did object to the prospect of appointing Ridley-Thomas. The objection was informal, because Knott presented the prospect as an off-handed, exploratory query, not as an action item. There was no dossier prepared, and the committee chair thought he had ended the matter. To what he reports was his considerable surprise, he had not.
The Price School vice dean for faculty affairs at the time is a tenured professor and former president of the Academic Senate, and is currently an associate vice provost. Given the absence of faculty review, he should have declined Knott’s directives with respect to appointing Ridley-Thomas. In any event, he did not, and processed the appointment. Presumably his staff subordinate, the associate dean for faculty and academic affairs, was content to just quietly keep her job.
Knott offered as his central rationales for appointing Ridley-Thomas that 1) it was all Dean Flynn’s idea; and 2) it is very important that USC appoint black faculty members. He is correct—it is important, but USC’s overriding objective should be, and in fact must be, appointing highly qualified faculty members. Competition for faculty positions is intense, and highly qualified candidates from all groups work for years to distinguish themselves relative to objective metrics. Setting these standards aside subverts the mission and performance of the university, and may ultimately destroy it. If faculty hiring decisions account for identity group membership at all, it is necessarily a subordinate consideration. Instead, Knott elevated the racial criterion well above merit.
Knott faced an additional incentive he did not explain in any of his open meetings. His spouse was associate dean for global and community initiatives in the Dworak-Peck School, and thus a member of Dean Flynn’s staff. She joined the School of Social Work when Knott was recruited to lead the Price School.
The School of Social Work’s enrollment grew rapidly when the School became one of the first in the field to deliver instruction online, part of a university-wide initiative of former USC President C. L. Max Nikias. Hurricane Katrina almost destroyed the operations of Tulane University, and Nikias wanted USC positioned to survive the major earthquake that Los Angeles will eventually face. His strategy was to develop a university-wide capacity for large-scale distance education.
With a graduate program of more than 3,500 students, mostly online, the Dworak-Peck School’s program was suddenly huge, the national leader. Unfortunately, the cost of new instructors, disadvantageous business arrangements with the firm Flynn chose as an online partner, and growing competition from other institutions resulted in lower admissions standards, diminished reputation, and reduced enrollment for Flynn’s unit. These effects ultimately more than wiped out the revenue growth the school’s online strategy initially generated.
Even before 2018, it became apparent that structural changes in the school were inevitable. Without new revenues, the School of Social Work might even have to struggle on without the crucial contributions of its associate dean for global and community initiatives. Dean Knott’s household faced a compelling incentive to assist its Dworak-Peck School colleagues’ efforts to secure as much of (then) LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ largess as possible.
Approximately two-thirds of USC’s full-time faculty compliment now consists of nontenure-track personnel, but teaching appointments remain mostly school-centric matters, a residual practice from the quaint time in which such appointments were rare and most USC faculty were tenured or tenure-track. Even so, the provost’s office reviews and approves all full-time appointments. Why didn’t it preclude Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ appointment out of hand? The provost’s office did not act until after a whistle-blower complained about Flynn’s alleged gift laundering.
Part of the explanation is almost certainly that the USC central administration shares Dean Knott’s commitment to hiring black faculty members, and was therefore just as prepared as he was to compromise established standards of merit and performance in pursuit of racial virtue signaling. However, there may have been an additional incentive in play. USC’s executive vice provost served as Jack Knott’s vice dean prior to joining the provost’s office. Her daughter is a tenure-track member of the Price School faculty and, quite unlike Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, a highly qualified scholar scheduled to be considered for tenure when all anticipated Jack Knott would be dean of the Price School, had Knott not left USC. Knott abruptly departed USC in 2020, just prior to the university’s decision whether to reappoint him as dean, to accept the deanship of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. It was an unexpectedly gracious exit.
The problems presented by the sort of weak, unqualified students involved in the Varsity Blues fiasco are embarrassing but mostly self-correcting. Pseudo-student-athletes find their ways to the least challenging programs of study and graduate with GPAs well north of 2.0. Their parents’ tuition checks clear, and the graduates eventually leave the institution in peace, emerging as grateful, gift-giving alumni relieved to never again have to pretend to hold an academic thought in their heads.
In contrast, weak, unqualified faculty members are the gift that keeps on giving. When deans make personnel decisions in a vacuum because they don’t want to contend with their colleagues’ less evolved points of view, they are blindsided. They should expect some surprises—many, in fact. Unqualified faculty members bring a host of unintended consequences, because the faculty governance roles and voting opportunities that they step into make future institutional failures more likely. The slope is slippery, unforgiving, and steep.