USC Struggles with Fairness, Transparency and Privilege

@THE GUSS REPORT-The University of Southern California (USC) is struggling with how to present itself in these early innings of the college admissions scandal that grabbed so many recent national news headlines. 

It has contorted itself to express outrage that its campus was dragged into the scandal by a select few students, their wealthy parents, some corrupt school employees and a con man. And it made generic pledges to do better on the corruptibility of its admissions process. 

But USC compartmentalizes the scandal’s criminal activity away from its billionaire Board Chair and USC alum Rick Caruso, even though the USC student who became the face of the scandal, Olivia Jade Giannulli, was on-board his mega-yacht with his daughter, Gianna “Gigi” Caruso, who is also a USC student, (photo of both above) when the story broke. (None of them has been charged with a crime, though Miss Giannulli was reportedly issued a notice that the FBI is investigating her.) 

In a continual dialogue this column has had with USC officials over the past few weeks, the school refuses to commit to a comprehensive, top-down investigation of admissions standards and matriculating grade point average expectations that includes applicants and students from families who make legal and stunningly generous donations, such as the $25,000,000 Mr. Caruso and his wife made to USC’s medical school in 2015. 

USC refuses to address whether it admits applicants from those 1% households even if they have lower admissions test scores and fewer academic accomplishments than the proverbial kid who lives down the street whose parents have average incomes and no political or celebrity power; and, whether USC does not apply academic probation for academically struggling students from wealthy families who donate. 

In other words, USC has a caste system as do many highly desirable schools, but it refuses to acknowledge it or make it a part of any plan to cleanse itself of, among other things, a simple lack of transparency.

USC is especially indignant when asked whether its investigations include assessing whether Miss Caruso was admitted to USC based on test scores and scholastic accomplishment. Her friend, Miss Giannulli, scored notoriously low on admissions tests and repeatedly expressed to her vast social media audience that she had no interest in attending USC classes, favoring only parties, football games and cosmetic brands she was paid to promote. Like her, Miss Caruso is a busy social media influencer who also runs an eponymous and well-publicized clothing line that has been featured in Women’s Wear Daily and elsewhere. (Her three siblings also attended USC.) 

Clearly, as a private school, USC has the right to admit whomever it wishes, provided that it doesn’t discriminate against protected classes of people. But as most people know, being a kid from an average-income household is not a protected class.  

Ultimately, USC’s inability to come to terms with its caste system may be the thing that prevents it from moving past the scandal because it raises the fair question of are there other things it is not investigating but should? 

That being the case, USC should spare the rest of us its tailored claims about fairness and equality which have no basis in reality, like this statement from its interim President Wanda Austin: “While student-athlete admissions is at the center of the Justice Department’s allegations, USC will also examine the wider scope of how students gain admittance to our university. Ensuring the integrity of our admissions process remains a top priority of university leadership.” 

That is, unless your last name is Caruso or if you are from another 1% family which has donated bigly, as it were. Those parameters are off the table at USC. And note Austin’s lack of an explicit commitment to treat every applicant and student equally and without exception.  

If anyone should be the loudest voice for transparency at USC, it is Mr. Caruso, who should also recuse himself from any admissions investigation, given his daughter’s friendship with Miss Giannulli and her presence on his private property on the very day the scandal broke. 

USC’s incoming President Carol Folt, (photo above with Caruso) who Mr. Caruso recently introduced to his real estate rubber stamping pals on LA City Council, is the outgoing Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she guided the school through NCAA sanctions for “prolonged and widespread fraud within academic and athletic departments.” 

No wonder USC hired her. But is she aware that at USC, there are simply some places where investigations are seemingly not allowed to look? 

If that status quo remains intact, USC is more likely to repeat rather than purge its problems. Its caste system fights on. 

Have a great week. 

For additional context, read this column’s earlier piece, “LA Story: USC is Not a College Scandal ‘Victim’”.


(Daniel Guss, MBA, is a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has contributed to CityWatch, KFI AM-640, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine, Movieline Magazine, Emmy Magazine, Los Angeles Business Journal and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @TheGussReport. Join his mailing list or offer verifiable tips and story ideas at TheGussReport@gmail.com. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CityWatch.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.