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USC Has A New President. Here's What She Has To Deal With

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USC President-elect Carol L. Folt addresses the USC community and the media after her appointment was announced, March 20, 2019. (Courtesy of USC/Gus Ruedas)
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After a scandal-ridden two years that led to the resignation of its president, a new president officially began work at USC on Monday. Her name is Carol Folt.

She's well known on the East Coast as a biology researcher and as a university administrator. And there's not much doubt she'll soon be well known in Southern California, too. How she handles USC's ethical lapses and whether she can keep the university on its financial and academic path will be closely watched.

Folt arrives at USC as the campus is embroiled in scandals involving the former medical school dean, the former campus gynecologist, the dean of the school of social work, and athletics officials who have been indicted on charges of taking bribes from wealthy parents to get their kids enrolled.

Revelations that top administrators did not fire the medical school dean or campus gynecologist after repeated staff complaints led to protests stoked by Concerned Faculty of USC, a group of activist professors. President Max Nikias resigned in August of last year under pressure from the campus community.

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Folt's decades of experience as a researcher and the challenges she faced as a college administrator could shed light on what she plans to do during her first weeks on the job.

ROCK STAR BIOLOGIST

Today, it's common knowledge that mercury contamination in the ocean is transferred to fish and then can be harmful to humans. Carol Folt, then a research biologist at Dartmouth College, was one of the researchers who did the groundbreaking, collaborative work two decades ago that revealed this connection between toxins and our food.

"All of this is relevant today as we consider the health impacts of climate change from industrial pollution," said Margaret Karagas, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and director of the Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center at Dartmouth. Karagas worked with Folt on the research and said that Folt's approach was to empower those around her to do the best work possible.

"She changed Dartmouth. She changed so many lives of the people here. She changed my life and the work that I've done here and am doing here," she said.

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Folt's three decades at Dartmouth spanned work as a biology professor, dean, provost, and interim president of the 250-year-old private college.

TRIAL BY FIRE IN NORTH CAROLINA

In 2013, Folt jumped from the Ivy League to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to become the university's new chancellor. She quickly found herself in the midst of a scandal that threatened the very existence of UNC Chapel Hill. It was the first of two scandals there that made national headlines during Folt's tenure.

An eight-month investigation found that UNC's African American studies department created fake classes taken by thousands of athletes who earned high grades that kept them eligible to stay on their teams. University administrators, it seemed, had forsaken their mission to pursue truth and knowledge for the sake of college sports.

The fraud threatened the university's academic accreditation. Without that, UNC Chapel Hill -- the nation's oldest public university -- would have been forced to shut down. Folt overhauled how classes were approved and fired or disciplined nine university employees.

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In a speech, Folt's message to the university community and the public was contrite. She said the university had betrayed the public trust.

"We also accept the fact that there was a failure in academic oversight for years that permitted this to continue," she said. "This too was wrong, and it has undermined our integrity and our reputation."

Several years later, she faced another scandal that tarnished the university's reputation. As Confederate monuments came down throughout the South, UNC alumni and state lawmakers urged that one at UNC Chapel Hill's entrance -- a statue of a Confederate soldier dubbed "Silent Sam" that had stood at the site for more than a century -- should remain. In August 2018, protestors toppled the statue. Two months later, during the celebration of the university's founding, Folt let people on both sides of the issue know where she stood on the issue.

"As chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I offer our university's deepest apology for the profound injustices of slavery," she said.

Three months later, Folt ordered the monument's nine-foot-high stone pedestal removed. On the same day, she resigned.

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"She was able to navigate us through some very tough times and put us in a much better place than we were before her arrival," said UNC biochemistry professor Leslie Parise, who was the faculty chair at the time.

But Folt removed the pedestal without seeking wide approval from her overseers and that angered many of the statue's supporters. Folt originally planned to stay at UNC through spring graduation, but the Board of Governors abruptly moved her exit to Jan. 31. She was announced as USC's new president three months later.

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USC President-elect Carol L. Folt addresses the USC community and the media after her appointment was announced, March 20, 2019. (Courtesy of USC/Gus Ruedas)

USC AS FOLT'S BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Now, she's got a new set of challenges amid intense local and national scrutiny. When her appointment was announced, she pledged in a statement to "meet these challenges together, directly, decisively and with honesty and candor. This is a moment of responsibility and opportunity, and we will seize them both."

On Sunday night, USC Board of Trustees Chair Rick Caruso emailed the university community that USC is in good hands.

"Since her election in March, Dr. Folt has spent time in Los Angeles meeting with students, faculty, and staff at both the University Park and Health Sciences campuses. She is carefully building her leadership team ... You will be hearing a great deal more from Dr. Folt soon," Caruso said in the email.

Other campus leaders said transparency and quick responses are vital to ensure confidence.

"Time is of the essence," said USC School of Education Professor William Tierney. "I don't want her to act like the house is on fire, but this is not a normal time. If a year from now we're going to talk about creating a strategic plan... then we've gone another year where we're treading water, and I don't think we have that luxury."

Tierney said the university's board could have done more to push for reforms as the scandals emerged over the past two years. He said Folt should encourage the board to cut its current membership of 56 trustees by half to foster greater efficiency and take more responsibility for university oversight, without sacrificing what former President Nikias was good at: fundraising.

USC's fundraising prowess is known nationwide. It raised $6 billion two years ago, ahead of its original target date, and the tally is still growing.

USC's presidential transition is also known nationwide and is being closely watched by higher education researchers.

"In terms of making decisions and moving forward, it will be a little simpler at USC than it has been at UNC for some of the decisions that she's made," said Jon McNaughtan, a researcher of higher education presidential leadership at Texas Tech University.

In her new job, Folt has to answer to one boss: the board of trustees. At UNC, she answered to three: the university Board of Governors, a systemwide board, and the state legislature.

Folt will have a honeymoon period, McNaughtan said, but she won't have too much time to enjoy it. Her first major speech to the USC community will be on Sept. 20, when she'll be ceremonially inaugurated as USC's president.