By: Kim Strom, Director of UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Ethics and Policy
When does a tale of academic negligence read like a spy novel? When it covers the lengths that venerable institutions will go to protect each other’s wealth and power. There is so much misconduct chronicled in Bad City that the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal ends up being a mere footnote. It is overshadowed by an abusive health center gynecologist who took photographs of patients’ genitalia (until the administration confiscated his camera) (but kept him on staff!). Then there’s the ophthalmologist and med school dean (and successful fundraiser!) who used drugs and traded them with addicts and sex workers. Amid it all are decades of ignored, dismissed, or trivialized reports by fearful and powerless whistleblowers. You can’t make this stuff up. Or rather you could, but no one would believe you.
In the tradition of All the President’s Men, LA Times investigative journalist Paul Pringle’s chance inquiry into illegal activity by University of Southern California (USC) Dean Carmen Puliafito sets into motion vast mechanisms of resistance, lies, and stonewalling. The Puliafito reporting leads to tips about Dr. George Tyndall’s sexual abuse of women patients, for which he is eventually charged with 29 felony counts. Reviews of the book highlight the scandals, the smug and dismissive position of USC leadership, and the newsroom barriers Pringle and his colleagues had to surmount for their research see the light of day. I listened to the audio version on a rollercoaster of emotions – outrage, incredulity, vindication, and, sometimes, relief. The book is a heroic tale for journalism, with a warning about independence and the perilous state of the newspaper industry. It is not a feel-good book: there was far less accountability than I would have liked – golden parachutes, opacity via NDAs, resignations instead of terminations, plea deals, and plenty of prevarication (“mistakes were made”, “we will undertake a review of our policies and procedures”). Still, it is a book to be taken to heart, to be read with humility, to be mined for lessons about the conditions that foster bad behavior and those that give rise to acts of courage.
Some cautionary signs are common across organizations and workplaces:
- Conflicts of commitment, where personal relationships and loyalties override professional responsibilities. It can be tempting for a leader to explain away bad behavior when faced with complaints about a longtime friend and trusted colleague. In this twisted scenario, investigating allegations against one’s colleagues is somehow more damaging than letting them continue to do eye surgery or pelvic exams on unsuspecting patients.
- Cultures where bad news and the people who bear it are treated as the problem, irrespective of the seriousness of the issue they raise. Are all organizations in such precarious straits that the revelation of misconduct is riskier than the misconduct itself?
- The book never uses the term “authority gradient” but it is replete with examples by which a power hierarchy is used to deflect communications, dilute accountability, and maximize deniability. I’m thinking especially of the accounts of nurses and receptionists in the USC Health Center who knew of Tyndall’s conduct, tried to monitor him, fielded complaints, steered patients away from him, left for other jobs, made reports that went nowhere, and gave up trying while leadership maintains they were “never aware” of Tyndall’s behavior.
Other risky conditions are particular to higher education:
- Fierce competition for academic rankings, philanthropic gifts, research funding, and star scholars.
- Avid alumni networks, powerful presidents, preoccupied boards.
It is also important, though, to learn from the courageous, the risk takers, the dogged employees who persevered at risk of their comfort and wellbeing. What does Bad City teach us about them?
- Lived experience can be a powerful motivator for speaking truth to power. Throughout the book, people who had seen family members destroyed by the ravages of addiction acted with a righteous indignation to stop Puliafito. They were mindful of the risks of whistleblowing or proceeding with the story, but they identified with the vulnerable and victimized in a way that powerful decision makers did not.
- Employees should not be dissuaded from exercising their rights. When due process, grievance, and other mechanisms performed as intended, they protected employees from abuses of power and strengthened the workplace. When administrators coopted employee relations and treated “going to HR” as an unforgiveable act of disloyalty, whistleblowers received retaliation and the opportunity to mitigate a scandal’s damage was lost.
- There is power in professions and principles. Pursuing unpopular truths about famous, shameless, and well-to-do people can seem at best fruitless and at worst, career suicide. In Bad City nurses, journalists, and hotel employees risked unemployment and censure to try to bring illegal and unethical behavior to light. Some were anonymous and others named. Some did lose their jobs, while others won Pulitzer Prizes. A common thread is the determination drawn from professional responsibility that transcended fear and risk. “This is why I am a reporter”, “…I became a nurse to help people”, “This is what I do”.
- Beware of labels. Disgruntled employee. Prostitute. Felon. Physician. Overbearing parent. Dean. Meth head. Troublemaker. Labels are convenient shorthand. We all use them. The book reminds us of the dangers of connotation as labels are used to entitle, abet, elevate (or silence and marginalize) the labeled.
- Say their names. In my research on moral courage, it is clear we know more about the offenders than the heroes. And the less we know about the courageous the more difficult it is to honor and emulate them. So I close with names (and the nameless heroes they represent) that should endure beyond Puliafito, Tyndall, Nikias, and Loughlin: Devon Khan. Cindy Gilbert. Miriam Yoder. Adam Elmahrek. Harriet Ryan. Sarah Parvini. Matt Hamilton.