Last week, the Los Angeles Police Department began an in-depth investigation of Dr. George Tyndall, a 71-year-old gynecologist formerly an employee at the University of Southern California. For almost three decades, he worked at the Engemann Student Health Center.
For more than twenty of those years, patients and fellow staff members accused him of inappropriate behavior during pelvic examinations, including physical contact that went outside normal medical procedure and lewd and sexually suggestive comments. Despite these allegations, it was not until 2016 that the university took action after a nurse reported his behavior to the USC rape crisis center.
Even when an internal investigation confirmed the nurse's story, however, Tyndall was secretly allowed to quietly resign – and given a generous severance check. The university did not inform the community, nor was Tyndall reported to the Medical Board of California until March of this year, after Tyndall made a request for reinstatement.
Last month, 52 women filed complaints with the LAPD, leading to a criminal investigation as well as the resignation of university president C.L. Nikias – which only happened after 200 faculty members pressured the Board of Trustees to take action. The scandal has even drawn concerns from the Chinese government, as female students from that country have been particularly vulnerable to Tyndall's advances because of their limited knowledge of English.
By now, more than 300 women – including former students – have come forward. As of May 30, there were seven lawsuits filed against Tyndall. Additional legal complaints are certain to be filed. It has become apparent that, for reasons unknown, USC administration was either protecting Tyndall, or chose to turn a blind eye toward his conduct. The question is, why?
There is no clear answer for this. At first, the university claimed the administration was unaware of the situation, placing the blame on the clinic's executive director for failure to deal with the situation. When the story began to go public in 2016, the administration claimed there was no obligation to report Tyndall's conduct to the state medical board as required by law. The reason given was that the law applied to hospitals and clinics, not the university, and that the issue was a “human resource matter.”
Legal counsel for the university had also advised USC that Tyndall's conduct did not rise to a criminal level. In any event, Tyndall had informed the administration that he would be retiring soon, so there seemed to be no purpose in taking action.
There are other possible reasons, however, that are rarely mentioned. Public institutions, whether academic, corporate, religious, non-profit or anything else, are terrified of scandal, as well as the loss of revenue and lawsuits that often come as a result. In order to avoid damage to their reputations and incurring financial losses, these institutions will often go to great lengths to cover up behavior by an employee. In too many cases, the offender is quietly allowed to leave or is transferred to another post and the entire matter is swept under the proverbial rug.
When it comes to colleges and universities, there is also the issue of tenure. Originally intended to protect professors from being punished simply for expressing unpopular or controversial views, tenure makes it very difficult to dismiss a faculty member. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, attorney Natasha Baker of Hirschfeld-Kraemer, a San Francisco law firm specializing in Title IX employment issues, pointed out, “What you often see is behavior that would get a staff member fired is not enough to get a tenured faculty member fired for cause.”
If nothing else, recent publicity and multi-million dollar court judgments are giving universities incentive to rethink their policies when it comes to sexual predators like Dr. Tyndall.