What can we learn from USC medical school dean’s drug induced parties?

The story of former USC Medical School Dean Dr. Carmen Puliafito has to be one of the most salacious stories to hit higher education in recent years. In an explosive story in the Los Angeles Times, reporters detail Puliafito’s history of drug use and partying with prostitutes and criminals. How could an incredibly successful dean be wrapped up in something like this? How did he get away with it? In today’s post, I want to suggest what we can learn from USC medical school dean’s drug induced parties.

Former USC Dean Carmen Puliafito. Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

By many accounts, Dean Puliafito was enormously successful prior to his retirement after 10 years of leading the USC Keck School of Medicine. Puliafito personally helped raise $1 billion in gifts and led a school on the rise in the rankings. Keck brought in students, $200 million in research grants, and was a centerpiece of USC’s rise to national prominence.

However, there was more going on with Dean Puliafito. Much more in fact—so much so that they won’t be able to make a Lifetime movie about him because no one will find it believable!

The Los Angeles Times story, which I encourage you to read because it is shocking, describes in great detail the other side of Puliafito.

In videos and photographs seen by reporters, Puliafito is seen doing all manner of illegal drugs. In fact, it is hard to think of what drugs he wasn’t using.

Moreover, the Times describes a party held at 3am in his campus office with one party-goer wearing his USC Keck white lab coat.

This story is one of the most shocking I can recall in the last decade or two in higher education.

Even the worst of fraternity parties pale in comparison to Puliafito’s exploits.

There’s not much we can learn from Puliafito. Well, I guess there is don’t do drugs, don’t hang out with drug users and prostitutes, and don’t party in your office with said drug users and prostitutes. But other than that…

Yet, the university’s response or lack thereof can be instructive.

The president will not be speaking to The Times on this matter.

After repeated requests for comment from the USC president and provost, reporters visited the president’s office where his chief of staff said, “The president will not be speaking to The Times on this matter.”

While at least better than simply saying no comment, this response plays in the court of public opinion as “yes, we got caught doing nothing and now we’re in a bunker mentality.”

The administration isn’t going to talk publicly about a personnel matter, but there are other ways you can respond to these kinds of requests.

“I’m wish I could respond to your questions about this, but I can’t talk about a personnel issue. What I can tell you is that USC is committed to a safe and healthy campus. We are reviewing our policies and procedures to do everything we can to promote this among our students, faculty, and administrators.”

I’m no public relations expert and there are surely better responses than what I just came up with off the top of my head.

USC did finally release a statement: “If the assertions reported in the July 17 Los Angeles Times story are true, we hope that Carmen receives care and treatment that will lead him to a full recovery.”

This is a much better statement than any version of no comment. In a case like this, no comment is pretty much never the best argument for the university to put forward.

Who dropped the ball in the search process?

Beyond the drug use and other more recent issues, The Times also reported that Puliafito was involved in a lawsuit at his previous institution, the University of Miami. A doctor accused him of assault and battery during a profane tantrum over a broken piece of medical equipment.

Moreover, Puliafito was investigated over complaints of sexual harassment at the university.

USC hired Puliafito two months after the case was settled.

There are only two options here: either USC knew about this issues and hired him anyway or they weren’t aware when they hired him. Neither answer looks good for the president and provost who hired him.

Surely, USC was aware of these past issues in an era of search consultants, reference checks, and the internet. These events should have been disqualifying in my view. Was USC so fixated on improving their prestige and rankings that they overlooked this past? I think this is something that should be addressed.

Don’t brag on the guy you just fired.

Given that Puliafito announced his resignation just after all this came to the attention of administration, I am going to give the university the benefit of the doubt that they told Puliafito to resign or be fired.

Frankly, I don’t even want to consider anything else.

Given that he was presumably forced from his job, why were USC’s top leaders gathered a few months later to toast Puliafito at a reception honoring him?

President Nikias told attendees, “We have one of the, not just the area’s, but the nation’s preeminent medical schools and medical enterprises—and, in many ways, thanks to the leadership of Carmen.”

You mean that guy you fired because he was partying with drug addicts and prostitutes in his campus office. You’re bragging on that guy’s leadership abilities?

I know we live with alternative facts these days, but this sounds more like an alternative reality.

Get rid of him!

The Times story is shocking in many, many ways. However, a small line at the end of the story may be among the most shocking.

“He [Puliafito] continues to represent USC in public. On Saturday, he spoke at a Keck-sponsored program at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena—one of the hotels Sarah Warren [one of the addicts and prostitutes in the story] said she frequented with him.”

After the publication of the story, USC announced that Puliafito was placed on leave and no longer seeing patients.

Yet, USC clearly knew of these reports prior to their publication which leads to an obvious question:

How in the world were you letting this man still represent you—have you no sense of decency?

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