USC case underscores why universities so often fail at handling sexual assault

The allegations against University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall hit the federal level last week, with the U.S. board of education stepping in to investigate the way the university neglected to address student concerns for decades. 

This follows the Los Angeles Police Department’s 52 investigations against  Tyndall. Both decisions came after 27 women stepped forward with suits against USC for it’s complacency in Tyndall’s violating behavior toward patients – which ranged from thrusting his ungloved hand inside women’s vaginas to placing his face right next to their vaginas during exams.

The only other university doctor with such a high volume of accusers is Larry Nassar, the physician at Michigan State University charged with the assault of more than 150 gymnasts. Recently the university allotted over $500 million dollars to the survivors of his abusive “treatment” tactics.

Complaints about Tyndall’s behavior date back to the year 2000, although USC denies its awareness of them until 2016 when Tyndall was allowed to resign with a secret financial payout. He was not reported to the state medical board or investigated for misconduct. The school blames a “broken system” for the way such critical information got lost in the bureaucratic chaos of large university management.

Small amounts of justice are finally being served. USC’s President Max Nikias (who covered up numerous administrator-related scandals during his stay) has been asked by the board to resign. Additionally, Tyndall is likely to face harsher consequences than a hushed resignation when the LAPD-led investigation concludes this fall. These measures, however, are long overdue and can in no way expunge the trauma Tyndall’s patients experienced over the years.

And the USC administration’s shady efforts to keep an untarnished reputation sheds light on the ways higher education institutions will do anything to save face – even if that means denying survivors recognition, justice, and care.

We forget that universities function like corporations. We forget that they, like any big business, are susceptible to deeply problematic moral shortcomings and dehumanizing practices. We forget that the same campuses that are home to cultural awakenings, radical discourse, and justice movements are also home to administrators that systemically cover up prevalent sexual abuse, assault, and misconduct—just like the large entertainment companies we hear about so regularly in the #MeToo news cycle.

These survivor-damaging practices on the part of colleges can be traced almost directly to a certain point in U.S. economic history when governmental policies began transforming higher education from a public right to a private good. The Reagan era set the trend in motion for skyrocketing university prices that only the ultra rich and those willing to take out huge student loans can afford. Over the decades schools have entered a peacocking competition to see who can attract the most “consumers,” narrowing their attention on the construction of flashy sports facilities and less on the upholding of academic or ethical integrity. When a survivor comes forward reporting an incident of assault, they risk wounding the school’s reputation.

The conflict of interest embedded in how a university handles sexual assault is exactly why administrators are so often an unreliable advocates for survivors. But the criminal justice system also often falls short, and doesn’t exactly make reporting assault easy on survivors. Change is required on several levels. On an immediate one, we should structurally implement a third party system that addresses assault allegations and whose sole mission is to ensure survivors are immediately heard and helped. On a larger one, higher education cannot be held accountable if its primary concern is attracting a customer base. The longer, more arduous mission will be to restructure the university system from the ground up, to redirect the focus of academia from its flashy facilities and back to where it should always have been: the wellbeing of students.

Image credit: Richard Vogel / Associated Press

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