University of Scandal, Corruption? USC at core of bribe plot
LOS ANGELES — Roy Nwaisser has four degrees from the University of Southern California and is a superfan of its storied football squad — he hasn't missed a home or away game in 27 years.
But his devotion has been tested by a series of scandals culminating with the school's starring role in a massive college admissions bribery case that is the latest disgrace threatening to tarnish USC's hard-fought reputation as an academic, as well as athletic, powerhouse.
Hours after that news broke Tuesday, Nwaisser turned down a request to speak at an alumni fundraiser in Nevada.
"I can't in good conscience promote the university until they clean up their act," Nwaisser wrote to the group. "If people want to donate their money they should give it to institutions with fewer scandals and less corruption."
It's been a bruising two years for the university in the heart of Los Angeles. The president who helped boost the school's endowment by raising $7 billion stepped down amid investigations into a medical school dean accused of smoking methamphetamine with a woman who overdosed, and reports the school ignored complaints of widespread sexual misconduct by the longtime campus gynecologist.
Meantime, an assistant men's basketball coach pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a wide-ranging FBI probe of corruption in college hoops.
This week's announcement of federal criminal charges over admissions cheating also targeted prestigious schools such as Stanford, Georgetown and Yale, but no other institution was implicated as much as USC.
Prosecutors say wealthy parents either paid bribes to have a college counselor rig standardized tests or get their children admitted as recruits of sports they didn't play.
More than half the 32 parents charged were trying to bribe their children's way into USC. One of those parents, Homayoun Zadeh, is a USC dentistry professor now facing termination.
To gain access for their two daughters, actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to have them labeled as crew team recruits at USC, even though neither is a rower, prosecutors said.
The school fired senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who won 16 national titles. Both were accused of taking bribes. Two former USC coaches also were named in the scheme.
In a letter to the campus, interim President Wanda Austin twice emphasized that prosecutors alleged the school was a victim of employees who purposely deceived it. In a follow-up, Austin did not use the word victim and said the school was cooperating with prosecutors and conducting its own investigation that could lead to further discipline.
USC plans to redirect donations that were part of the scheme toward scholarships for needy students, Austin said. It would also deny admission to applicants accepted through the scheme and review the cases of students and graduates who fraudulently gained admission.
A university spokesman declined requests for interviews.
Jeff Hunt, a crisis management expert who helped Penn State after a child sex abuse scandal involving assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, said USC's damage control must include disclosing everything it can no matter how embarrassing.
"This is a crude way of saying it, but all of this could be kind of packaged together by saying that we had a period of time where culturally we weren't really where we need to be, want to be, or should be," said Hunt, author of "Brand Under Fire."