Scandals force US academy to address leaders’ after-hours conduct

Recent cases at universities of Mississippi and Southern California raise question of 'moral turpitude'

August 1, 2017
Newspaper headlines

Successful people in power sometimes behave badly – in both their professional capacities and in their personal lives.

The past few weeks in higher education provide two prominent examples. The head football coach at the University of Mississippi resigned on 20 July after a call from his mobile phone to an escort service was revealed. Meanwhile, the University of Southern California took steps to fire its former medical school dean from the faculty after allegations came to light that he repeatedly used hard drugs and socialised with a group of much younger people, some of whom had criminal backgrounds and one of whom overdosed in his presence.

In both cases, the universities acted after outside parties brought leaders’ behaviour to light. The two situations raised questions about the universities’ priorities and processes. They also put the institutions' ethical and moral standards for their leaders under scrutiny.

Those standards aren’t always clear, especially in a time when social mores are rapidly changing and the line between professional and personal life seems to be ever blurring. Nor are they always consistent between different jobs at different institutions in various parts of the country.

But the fact remains that moral standards do exist for leaders in higher education. And the cases of those who run afoul of accepted behaviour are an important reflection of those standards in a world where messy and unclear morality is often obscured further by the temptations of money and success.

Situations involving leaders who are said to have violated moral or ethical standards often come with a large share of twists and turns. The case of the University of Mississippi and its head football coach, Hugh Freeze, is no exception.

Mr Freeze had coached the Ole Miss football team since the end of 2011, a time period that included a win in the lucrative Sugar Bowl in 2016. But the National Collegiate Athletic Association has also been investigating the university and its football programme under a wide-ranging infractions case. It delivered a notice of allegations in January 2016.

The way the university and its football program reacted to the NCAA investigation is at the centre of a lawsuit filed by its previous football coach, Houston Nutt. The lawsuit, filed this month, alleges that Ole Miss athletics officials carried out a “misinformation campaign” over several years to mislead the media, boosters and recruiting prospects about the nature of the NCAA investigation’s targets. The strategy, the suit alleges, was to have off-the-record conversations with journalists to say that most of the NCAA’s allegations were targeted at Mr Nutt and his staff instead of Mr Freeze. The lawsuit claims that the university violated its severance agreement with Mr Nutt, which prevents the institution from making statements that could damage the coach’s reputation.

Mr Nutt’s lawyer gathered phone records in an attempt to prove Mr Freeze and other university officials contacted journalists. In the process, he, along with the help of a researcher who is a fan of the Ole Miss rival Mississippi State, found a one-minute call from Freeze's university-issued mobile phone to an escort service in January 2016. At one point he emailed the university’s general counsel, suggesting a deeper examination of the phone records because of a call that would be “highly embarrassing for all of you and extremely difficult to explain”.

Mr Nutt's lawyer spread word of the phone call to the media, explaining the move by saying the lawsuit was in federal court, not “junior high school”, according to Yahoo Sports.

University officials said they determined Mr Freeze’s phone had never called that number at any other time, initially labelling it a dialling mistake. But they looked at the rest of Mr Freeze’s phone records, finding what Ole Miss Athletic Director Ross Bjork called a “pattern of conduct that is not consistent with our expectations”.

Mr Freeze resigned without a buyout or settlement. A university spokesman contacted for additional comment referred to a 20 July press conference at which university officials announced the coach's departure. Officials said at that press conference that Mr Freeze’s privacy is important and that they would protect information regarding his pattern of behaviour.

“While coach Freeze served our university well in many regards during his tenure, we simply cannot accept the conduct in his personal life that we have discovered,” Mississippi chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said. Officials cited no additional allegations related to Mr Freeze's management of the football programme in the case. In fact, they specifically said his departure had nothing to do with the NCAA investigation.

Mr Freeze told USA Today on 26 July that “God is good, even in difficult times”.

Officials also said at the press conference announcing Mr Freeze's departure that if he had not resigned, they would have sacked him under a clause in his contract for “moral turpitude”.

While moral turpitude may sound like a Victorian-era label, it’s a term that frequently appears in contracts and state law. But it carries a definition that is by no means standardised.

Moral turpitude is normally, but not always, defined by court decisions in a particular state, said Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington-based lawyer who represents boards and presidents in contract negotiations. When it is included in a university employment contract, moral turpitude isn’t always defined. It’s often included alongside a laundry list of other undesirable behaviour, such as fraud, misrepresentation or plagiarism.

Moral turpitude can also come up in cases of faculty dismissal. The American Association of University Professors recommends faculty who are dismissed for cause receive either notice or salary – unless moral turpitude is involved.

The AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure identifies moral turpitude as an exceptional case in which a professor may be denied a year’s teaching or pay. It applies to behaviour that goes beyond warranting a discharge and is “so utterly blameworthy as to make it inappropriate to require the offering of a year’s teaching or pay”.

The standard is not that moral sensibilities in a particular community have been broken, AAUP documents show. It is behaviour that would bring condemnation from the faculty.

Moral turpitude is also in the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Faculty handbooks at colleges and universities often incorporate moral turpitude for cases of faculty dismissal.

Another situation unfolding that lays bare questions of morality, money and power among high-ranking university officials is that of the University of Southern California and its former medical school dean.

That dean, Carmen Puliafito, was an eye surgeon with a good reputation. He was well regarded for raising money and improving the medical school’s rankings and profile since he took over about a decade ago. Press photographs show him at swanky events posing with celebrities.

Then the Los Angeles Times published an explosive story on 17 July saying the 66-year-old “kept company with a circle of criminals and drug users who said he used methamphetamine and other drugs with them” in 2015 and 2016.

The story described photographs and videos the newspaper said it reviewed. In one, a tuxedo-wearing Dr Puliafito was said to swallow an orange pill he described as ecstasy. In another, he was said to use a butane torch to heat a glass pipe outfitted for methamphetamine use before inhaling and exhaling white smoke, while a woman sitting next to him was said to smoke heroin. Some photos reportedly showed Dr Puliafito's associates in late-night visits to the dean’s office at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Boyle Heights holding drug paraphernalia.

Dr Puliafito was also said to have written prescriptions for asthma inhalers for his associates to help their lungs, which were irritated from smoking methamphetamine and marijuana.

Dr Puliafito resigned as dean – a post with a $1.1 million (£831,000) annual salary – in March 2016. He told the Times the next month that he resigned so he could pursue a biotech job.

Three weeks before his resignation, he was present in a Pasadena hotel room when a 21-year-old woman overdosed. A police report said officers found methamphetamine in the hotel room, but they did not make arrests. The incident was not exposed until the Times report.

The woman told the Times she and Dr Puliafito had been partying at the hotel for two days when the overdose occurred. She said after she woke up in the hospital, Dr Puliafito picked her up and they returned to a hotel room to continue “the party”, the Times reported. She also told the newspaper she was working as a prostitute in 2015 when she first met Dr Puliafito.

After he left the role of dean, Dr Puliafito remained on the medical school faculty and was said to be accepting new patients at campus eye clinics when the Times story was published.

The story's publication set off a two-week period of public back-and-forth between the newspaper and USC. The university put out statements reacting to the situation and explaining itself. The Times published articles calling the university's actions and explanations into doubt.

On 21 July, provost Michael W. Quick wrote a letter saying the university had been given access to information on Dr Puliafito’s behaviour. That day was the first time it saw the information firsthand, Dr Quick wrote. In response, the university started the process of terminating Dr Puliafito’s employment and stripping him of tenure.

The same day, USC president C. L. Max Nikias posted another letter saying the university had hired a law firm to investigate Dr Puliafito’s conduct, the university’s response and its policies and procedures.

“We are outraged and disgusted by this individual’s behaviour,” Dr Nikias wrote. “It runs counter to our values and everything for which our university stands.”

Two days later, the Los Angeles Times posted another article pushing back against the idea that USC officials had only recently learned about Dr Puliafito's alleged drug use. The newspaper repeatedly inquired about the dean over 15 months, it said, sometimes describing information reporters had gathered. The Times wrote about a series of emails sent and phone calls made to officials including Dr Puliafito, a senior vice-president for university relations and the university's president, Dr Nikias. In one case, a reporter delivered a sealed note requesting an interview about the matter to Dr Nikias's home, only to have the note returned, unopened, the next day by courier with a letter from the university's vice-president for public relations and marketing saying the reporter had crossed the line. The article went on to quote medical ethicists who said USC had a duty to investigate allegations against Dr Puliafito right away, even if they were incomplete, because of his position as a medical professional and leader.

Contacted on 28 July, the university answered questions from Inside Higher Ed by referring to past letters posted by USC’s leaders. One of them was a July 26 letter from Dr Nikias saying he was forming a task force to address questions raised by the organisation. “We could have done better,” he wrote.

“As a result of this recent incident, it is clear to us now that the university currently has only loosely defined procedures and guidelines for dealing with employee behaviour outside the workplace that may be improper or illegal and has the capacity to affect USC,” it said. “And, presently, the university has very limited capacity to conduct investigations and follow up on leads or anonymous reports of such employee behaviour.”

Then Saturday, the Times published another article after Dr Nikias sent an additional letter to the USC campus late on 28 July. In that letter, the president said the university had in fact received complaints about Dr Puliafito when he was dean. Dr Puliafito had been disciplined and received professional development coaching, Dr Nikias wrote.

The provost, Dr Quick, had placed Dr Puliafito on notice for being disengaged in 2015, the letter said. In March 2016, two USC employees told the provost Dr Puliafito was even more removed from his duties. That prompted officials to confront Dr Puliafito, who then resigned and was placed on sabbatical.

Dr Nikias wrote that at the time, university leaders were unaware of illegal or illicit activities. He went on to say a communications staff member received an "unsubstantiated tip" about the Pasadena hotel incident in the fall of 2016. Officials asked Dr Puliafito about the incident, and he said a friend's daughter had overdosed and he accompanied her to the hospital, the letter said.

The president also acknowledged that the Times this March provided the university with questions and a copy of a 911 recording from the Pasadena hotel incident. The university referred the recording to a committee that assesses clinical competency, which found no existing patient care complaints or known clinical issues.

That investigation was reopened after the Times published its first report on Dr Puliafito this month, Dr Nikias wrote. The Medical Board of California also started an investigation into the allegations the report contained. And the university moved to fire the former dean.

“In my view, we acted when we felt we had the information necessary to act, and then we acted decisively,” Dr Nikias wrote.

On 30 July the Times published a piece saying that medical school employees had complained repeatedly about Puliafito, his temper, his publicly humiliating colleagues and what they perceived as him having a drinking problem. The piece said that Dr Nikias's 28 July letter was sent after USC had been contacted by the newspaper about the story it planned for 30 July.

The Times interviewed current and former university employees for the piece. It also reviewed letters of complaint from 2012, when the university was evaluating the dean and preparing to give him another contract.

One of the letters said Dr Puliafito had alienated faculty and created a “siege mentality” in which employees were worried about their welfare, according to the Times.

Dr Puliafito submitted a 19-page self-evaluation. He pointed out that he had raised more than $500 million and recruited prominent researchers, the Times reported.

Despite complaints, USC reappointed Dr Puliafito to a new five-year term in 2012, the newspaper wrote.

At least some complaints reached USC upper management, according to the Times. Among numerous examples, it said one unnamed senior faculty member reported calling the provost's offices after Dr Puliafito appeared intoxicated during an encounter.

The 30 June report also quoted an admissions dean who said she left her job because she could not work under Dr Puliafito. An unnamed administrator was quoted saying that Dr Puliafito was often absent during working hours in 2015 and 2016.

It is not clear what mechanism the university is using to fire Dr Puliafito.

USC’s Faculty Handbook does cover moral turpitude. The handbook lists moral turpitude as adequate grounds for faculty dismissal alongside violations such as neglect of duty, incompetence, violations of academic freedom, misconduct and unmanaged conflicts of interest.

The boundaries of acceptable behaviour aren’t always clear until they’re crossed. But some are clearer than others, even if acceptable behaviour is more of a fuzzy spectrum than a series of bright lines.

Regardless, once the boundaries are crossed, the USC situation serves as a reminder that the fallout can be damaging to leaders up the food chain.

The argument can be made that Dr Puliafito’s behaviour broke moral standards. One can also be made that USC leadership broke the community’s trust in the way it reacted.

Negative press has been flooding in from across the country. Dr Nikias’s job could be in jeopardy. And faculty have been roiled.

It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that even if USC leaders tried to do everything right, they were faced with a difficult scenario.

“It really is a land mine when you’re dealing with off-campus behavioral mental health, substance-abuse issues with an employee and protecting your community,” said Sean Rossall, a crisis strategist based in Los Angeles who is CEO and managing partner at Dick Jones Communications. Mr Rossall also received his master’s degree from USC, but he is not working for the university in this case.

“What is expected as ethical, moral behaviour of employees around the clock as a broad community representative of the university?” Mr Rossall said. “I think it’s really going to force them to think about that and think about the type of culture they impart with their people.”

Dr Nikias raised some of the same questions in his most recent public letter. He wrote that the university would be addressing questions about balancing individual rights and privacy rights against protecting faculty, students and others. He asked how the university should separate allegations of criminal behaviour that should be reported to police from problems with addiction that require compassion.

He also asked how the university can make sure incoming reports, “even if anonymous and questionable”, get passed on to higher officials and the compliance office.

In general, allegations against those dealing with vulnerable populations need to be taken seriously and investigated, experts agreed. That would include deans dealing with students, doctors treating patients and coaches on the football field.

“They need to adopt a policy of investigate first and find the answers so you can make informed decisions,” Mr Rossall said. “It is a tough needle to thread, but not impossible. You can conduct investigations in a manner that’s respectful of the employee without jeopardising things.”

This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.