Thoughts on Recent Events

Message to the USC Community

From: Michael W. Quick, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

October 29, 2017

I have spent the weekend reflecting on abuse of power — how it plays out in harassment in general and in sexual harassment specifically.   We have had several high-profile cases at USC recently, and this is a current problem at other institutions of higher education, in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, and across the nation and the world as well.  I thought, as provost, you should hear from me.  I don’t pretend to have the answers for how we will eradicate sexual harassment in all its forms; that is something we will need to grapple with as a community.  I want to add my voice to the conversations taking place about how this must stop.

There is no place on our campuses, or in our society, for abuse of power.  We just cannot have it.  I have been lucky in that I have never been placed in a situation where I feared for my safety, feared for my livelihood, feared for my future, or was put in a position where I had no good options.  I can only imagine what that feels like, and my heart goes out to those who have experienced it in the past, or are experiencing it now.  I have a number of friends and colleagues who have been brave enough to share with me their experiences of mistreatment, and harassment, and bias.  Some of it is frustrating.  Some of it is terrifying.  All of it is wrong.

If we do not have equity, and inclusion, and opportunity — for everyone — then not only are we harming people, we are not maximizing our potential as a university.  That is a waste of our intellectual talent, and it limits our future at a time when we can ill afford it.  If we have one student not pursue their passion because they feel they must change careers, or if we have one qualified faculty member not valued for their work or promoted into a rightful position of leadership, we are the less for it.  If anyone in our community feels as though they must simply endure harassment because they fear no one will do anything about it, or fear retaliation for speaking out, then we have not only failed them, but we have weakened our institution.

What I love about universities, and about USC specifically, is that we can model the world as it should be, not just reflect the world as it is.  That is a tremendous privilege, but only if we act.  We must work together — as a community — to model the right way to behave, and to support, respect, and value each person.  I know this is easier said than done.  I am sure that some of you are tired of me talking about “wicked problems” — those multifaceted, deeply ingrained problems with no perfect solutions.  But USC is the perfect institution to tackle such problems, and this is a wicked problem worth confronting.

We now have the opportunity and the responsibility to shine light on problems so that we can act upon them.  That a public forum was needed to bring attention to these issues tells us that our own processes need examination.  As painful as that is, I think this is what progress looks like.  We have much that we can do.  We need to look at our policies and procedures to make sure they are robust.  We need to ensure everyone knows what those policies and procedures are.  We need to improve our communication and feedback mechanisms.  We need to ensure we are making the best decisions when it comes to sanctions.  None of this will be easy because, by definition, our institution is governed by many constituencies — faculty, students, staff, and administrators — all of whom have different voices.  But, hearing these distinct voices is also what will make our processes strong.  In my experience, abuse of power cases are often messy, by their nature they have few witnesses and verifiable evidence, and particular outcomes can be unsatisfying.  We understand calls for zero tolerance.  And we also understand the demands for fairness and due process.  Cases are unique and mandatory sentencing is often not the best approach.  But, complexity does not excuse us from the responsibility of finding processes that are fair and that protect our community to the greatest extent possible.

However, we can’t solve abuse of power issues only on the back end.  Certainly, we need robust investigation and sanctioning approaches.  But more importantly, we must focus on prevention.  This is harder, but in the end, it is the only way to create the culture change that we want, where the expectation of respect is deeply embedded in our community norms, and harassment, sexual or otherwise, is not tolerated at any level.

Some might suggest that this can’t be done.  I disagree.  I point to the tremendous work we have done in the past several years at USC to create a culture that values and supports diversity.  Indeed, there were components of this effort focused on policies and procedures.  But the real successes came from a sustained effort at every level — grassroots programming by students and faculty, prioritization by faculty, staff, and student governance, and leadership and support by the administration.  We have a long way to go, but our progress has been monumental for an institution our size.  As I think about our diversity and inclusion efforts, it really started with people willing to have hard conversations about difficult subjects, and it blossomed into true progress.  We call on that same spirit as we tackle this equally complicated but comparable wicked problem.  Let’s start today.

When we confront these difficult issues, it is easy to overlook that the vast majority of our community have the right values.  Our faculty mentor their trainees with respect and integrity.  Our leaders respect and value the people they lead.  I want to thank each one of you who recognizes the power inherent in your position and who do the right thing every day.  But let’s do more.  Tomorrow I am meeting with my leadership team and we are going to discuss next steps that the provost’s office will take on this issue.  We ask that our faculty and student governments create task forces to make recommendations to me about ways to improve.  We ask that the deans hold a series of forums in their schools, where faculty, students, and staff will provide input on how to best create a culture of respect.  Deans will report back to me on steps that will be taken in their schools, while we consider what should be done at the university level.  Most importantly, we ask that each one of us take time over the next several days to reflect on our own past experiences and choices, and examine what roles each of us can play going forward that will make USC, and our larger society, fair, equitable, and free from harassment.  As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas directly at

In summary, I ask each and every one of you to join with me and the entire university administration in creating a university that is unafraid to confront these difficult issues and to have the uncomfortable conversations necessary for progress to occur.  Let’s agree that one instance of abuse of power is one too many.  Let’s speak out against harassment in all its forms and let’s speak up when we think something is wrong.  Let’s especially support those who have been harmed.  And let’s find a path forward — for everyone — based on equity, inclusion, and opportunity, values enshrined in our Principles of Community and the university’s new strategic plan.

Cc:       C. L. Max Nikias
Academic Senate
Academic Deans
President’s Cabinet
Provost’s Cabinet