I would love to be shocked by USC, but it feels impossible.
Shocked by revelations that some of the Song Girls, a group of dancers who were part of the spirit team for the school, are telling stories of abusive treatment behind the scenes, when they were shamed for anything above a certain weight? At a school that spent nearly a decade obsessed with appearances and not what festered beneath?
No, it takes more than that to be stunned by USC, the centerpiece of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal. That's the one in which rich people’s kids had their records faked to make them look like sports stars, enabling them to gain a spot through the “side door” of admissions for athletes that diminishes the importance of academic achievement.
Which followed, you know, the time when university officials turned a blind eye to the reported substance abuse of its former medical school dean. And the basketball coach who was caught taking bribes. The stories of influence and sketchy donations go on, though of course the worst of the worst was the campus gynecologist who was accused of sexually abusing hundreds of his patients, with the school giving him a quiet, paid exit and failing to even notify the victims.
When I first met with then-new USC President C.L. Max Nikias, I certainly didn’t foresee such mortifying events, but it was clear that USC was headed into an era in which prestige and money were going to count for everything. Nikias made no secret of having his eye on a top ranking in U.S. News & World Report, transforming USC into a sort of Stanford University of Southern California. Up to that point, USC had a reputation of being the school for jocks and networked white people, for frat parties and attractive students. Nikias was looking to elevate the university’s image — and its work. And that would take money.
So it wasn’t exactly a shock to me that the medical school dean whose outrageous shenanigans were conveniently ignored also happened to be a magician at fundraising.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Money is needed by universities, whether it’s for more scholarships and more serious academic work — or for more shallow pursuits. USC did diversify its student population significantly, and it grew quality programs. But it did so at a very big price.
In truth, the Song “Girls” — even the name is condescending in this day and age; they’re women — shouldn’t have weight regulations at all. It’s supposed to be a group of dancers picked for their talents, not their size. But even these slim young women, trotted out to be shown off at a variety of events, say they were harassed by their coach — who has stepped down — and publicly shamed about a variety of issues including their sex lives.
With a new president in place, USC is reportedly trying harder these days to be an ethical and upstanding academic citizen. But the school’s culture of image over substance dies hard.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.