I want to offer a more-detailed view of soon-to-be former USC president Max Nikias.
Perhaps no USC president wielded his power since Rufus B. von KleinSmid, who ran the campus for 26 years (1921-47). Nikias raised billions for the university. In the past 7 years, USC raised more than it did in the previous 65 years.
Nikias also oversaw an amazing amount of construction highlighted by the new USC Village. His power was seen everywhere: The McKay Center has an arch with a Greek-inscription (A sound mind and sound body) that he ordered built. He wanted the statue of Hecuba at the village and was ordering revisions to the statue even after it was erected on campus. He once told me of the trees he chose to adorn a campus project.
No detail was too small for Nikias to meddle. Students joked about all the spires for new campus buildings, which were part of Nikias’ master plan.
He was a micro-manager who could get incredible things done without any reins on his power. And that led to his downfall. Nikias felt invincible, too important to ever answer questions from the L.A. Times.
I always experienced cordial relations with Nikias. I remember he hugged me after USC upset Oregon in 2011 because he was so happy.
But I always heard plenty of stories of how difficult it could be to work for him.
Within the university, he was feared because of his seemingly limitless power and quick trigger when it came to removing people. The Board of Trustees bowed down to him, making it impossible for anyone at USC to keep him under control.
Nikias was adored by the mega-donors and never missed an opportunity to mingle with celebrities. Nikias wanted stars to run the university whenever possible. It was no accident he wanted Pat Haden and Lynn Swann, former USC football heroes, to be athletic directors.
One academic dept. conducted a search for a new dean and had a committee offer Nikias three candidates as finalists. He was unhappy and wanted to know why they did not consider a more famous person with no academic background.
The committee sent Nikias its top choice for the position of dean. He ignored them and hired his more-famous candidate.
It would be naive to think raising money was not paramount at USC since 1880. But Nikias made it feel like fund-raising needed to come at the expense of learning.
If you were not donating millions, you did not matter. Under Nikias’ tenure, you couldn’t even get into the president’s offices if you did not know a special computer code to open the doors. The little people did not matter.
Donors mattered. Stars mattered. Hot-shot doctors or professors mattered. And sometimes, coaches mattered.
Nikias did not just botch the medical school dean/deans and student-health center gynecologist situations. He also bears some blame for letting Haden make football a laughingstock with the whole Steve Sarkisian saga and not pushing Haden to fire Lane Kiffin after the 2012 season.
Let’s not fool ourselves and think Nikias was solely responsible for this current mess. He had a loyal group of subordinates that assisted in obfuscation and a weak Board of Trustees that just four days ago issued a statement of support for him.
There needs to be more accountability beyond getting Nikias to resign. But the fact the Board of Trustees forced him to step down demonstrated the USC community (students, faculty, staff, alumni, fans) can get results when properly mobilized.
If this energy can be harnassed, USC might actually make some real progress.