Did USC Ignore a Dean's Drug-Fuelled Double Life?

By Paul Fuhr 07/31/17

With zero criminal offenses or public complaints, USC's Dean Puliafito had an unusually clean record for someone whose downtime involved smoking meth with prostitutes.

USC campus at night
USC caught up in controversy regarding the former Dean, Carmen Puliafito, and his illicit drug use and partying.

It all reads like some weird side-sequel to The Wolf of Wall Street. Drug-fueled Bacchanalia in offices and hotel rooms. Miles of confusing police reports. Overdoses. Hush-hush hospital visits. Frantic, failed cover-ups. All that’s missing are Scorsese jump-cuts and Rolling Stones tracks. Replace “Illegal Stock Broker” with “Esteemed USC Dean” and you’ve got another unbelievably true story that’s less a chronicle of corruption and drug abuse so much as it’s a shocking indictment against the University of Southern California itself. 

Carmen Puliafito, brought in to help bolster USC’s status with a top-tier medical school, may be more than the school ever bargained for. The Harvard-educated Puliafito was an academic first-round draft pick: a wünderkind in ophthalmology capable of raising millions in donations and grant dollars, not to mention pioneering landmark eye-surgery techniques. In fact, until very recently, Puliafito was USC’s Keck School of Medicine’s poster child, hobnobbing with the likes of Jay Leno, tech zillionaire Larry Ellison, and movie royalty Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Shirley MacLaine, among others. Now, with allegations of illegal drug use, student overdoses, and a secret life that rivals Walter White, Puliafito hasn’t just put the medical school in jeopardy—the former dean may singlehandedly unravel not only just the image, but the future legitimacy of USC overall.

image via USC/Wikimedia

As an investigative piece at the Los Angeles Times reported, Puliafito resigned his post as dean in March 2016, which carried a salary north of $1 million. The resignation came hot on the heels of a suspicious incident in a Pasadena hotel room, where a 21-year-old woman “was rushed to a hospital, where she recovered,” the Times story said. “Police found methamphetamine in the hotel room, according to a police report, but made no arrests.” Like some kind of spectre, Puliafito was nowhere to be found in the details, but his presence was felt everywhere. The domino effect was almost instant, as it kicked down a wide number of other issues involving Puliafito. After all, with zero criminal offenses or public complaints, Puliafito had an unusually clean record for someone whose downtime involved smoking meth with prostitutes. Someone (or something) was keeping that record clean.

It’s worth remembering that these incidents were reported in March—of last year. Let’s also not ignore the fact that USC chose to honor Puliafito in June 2016 for his work, “where the school’s top administrators took turns lauding his accomplishments.” So, at worst, USC shrugged off Puliafito’s antics, hoping they’d be “these too shall pass” moments, and covered his tracks. At best, USC was incredibly slow to react to complaints and allegations about the dean. Neither is acceptable. And in many ways, the latter is far worse than the former. If USC knew earlier than it said (which The Washington Post contends it did), the school has a much larger problem on its hands—one that cuts sharply across ethical, moral, and legal lines. “This is really going to damage the school,” the Post quoted Arthur Caplan, of New York University’s School of Medicine. Interestingly, Caplan wasn’t even referring to sordid details of drug use so much as USC’s unusually long lead time in acknowledging the truth behind the dean’s departure. “It didn’t look like people were moving quickly to handle these reports. Even when they had them in the newspaper, they didn’t handle them quickly. That makes people wonder about leadership.”

It wasn’t until this past Wednesday—a full 16 months after the overdose incident or, even, when anonymous tips started rolling in—that USC’s president C.L. Max Nikias finally spoke up. And even those weren’t the driving factors in getting the open letter out to the USC community. Turns out, it was pressure from the Los Angeles Times, which had run a damning profile on the school’s former “towering figure.” In his statement, Nikias said he was “saddened and upset” by the former medical school dean’s actions, and claimed USC “could have done better” to respond to the situation. The statement seems entirely tone-deaf in that it all but rubber-stamps a repudiation for what occurred and perfunctorily ticks all the apology boxes. In fact, Nikias’s two-page statement has enough adjectives to prop up one of its campus buildings (“bedrock,” “good faith and accordance,” “integrity”) while he calls for the creation of a task force to deal with employee misconduct.

None of this, sadly, gets to the heart of the matter. Why did it take over a year to reply to the allegations and get the ball rolling for Puliafito’s dismissal? The easy answer is the steady stream of donations ushered in by the man, but that’s as convenient an excuse as it is depressingly accurate. What’s more is that Nikias’s statement doesn’t address the allegations, so much as the “troubling media coverage” around it, which throws the Times’ and Post’s thorough, meticulous examinations of a double-life life in an unfair light. No, it’s a symptom of a larger problem among institutions and American culture at large: ignore drug problems until they go away. USC was fully aware of Puliafito’s troubles; unfortunately, it didn’t approach him with treatment options or, say, the public-stage support only a Top 25 private university could provide. And while it left the man’s problems to fester, the school also unwittingly condoned his activities. 

"I feel badly for all the people directly impacted by this situation. And I feel badly for all the faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, friends and supporters of this great university who work tirelessly every day to advance knowledge, educate students, care for patients and serve the community,” Nikias said in his oddly empty letter. What he doesn’t say, though, is that USC took its time in removing a high-profile, income-producing individual from the equation. That’s what truly speaks volumes. The years in which Carmen Puliafito was allowed to have a double life, replete with using illegal drugs in his campus office, is tantamount to saying drugs are acceptable parts of a genius’s life. 

If nothing else, USC now falls into a long line of infamous school cover-ups, ranging from Baylor’s staggering string of scandals to Penn State’s disgusting house of cards, courtesy of Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. In fact, a Quartz story argues that university cover-ups are “just like the Catholic church” in that schools will stop at nothing to protect their reputations—however secretly sullied they may be. Among universities, the default setting isn’t to come clean or be transparent, which seems to fall in direct contrast with any school’s Code of Conduct. For most, USC included, the playbook is to wait for the dust to settle and see if there really is a “there” there. As such, USC’s situation isn’t sad—this is shameful. And it reflects on a society that exists in lightning-fast, quick-and-maybe-you’ll-hopefully-miss-it news blasts, only addressing the issue if it persists more than a nanosecond in the public consciousness. Ironically, it’s this same network where Puliafito, surrounded by criminals and drug addicts alike, used to boast about his drug use.

According to the Times piece, Puliafito was unafraid of uploading his drug use to social media, with video depicting him “partying in hotel rooms, cars, apartments and the dean’s office at USC.” In one video, he even drops an Ecstasy tablet before a tuxedo ball. The details of the videos—Puliafito smoking out of meth pipes with women half his age—are really beside the point. The videos are a forced reflection of everything that’s wrong with our modern age—they’re portraits of a man for whom countless people had invested professional trust, admiration and respect. And yet, not far underneath the surface, are ugly coils of depravity and ego. Worse yet: there’s a forward-thinking university that’s ostensibly willing to parasite his brilliance for as long as it can before ultimately casting him aside. That might be the most saddening part of the whole affair: a high-minded institution reacting with concealment, apparently driven by shame, and not understanding. For a university that purportedly shapes minds and prepares them for the future, USC is doing the complete opposite: it’s driving the people who need help, no matter their stature, further into the dark.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.