The dean of the University of Southern California’s medical school resigned on Thursday over a sexual harassment revelation from 15 yeas ago, less than a year after he took over when his predecessor stepped down in disgrace amid a sordid sex-and-meth scandal.
When Dr Rohit Varma, a distinguished ophthalmologist who at one time worked with Mother Teresa, was officially installed as the dean of the Keck School of Medicine in late January, the president of USC called Varma’s appointment a ‘transformative milestone.’
‘Dean Varma will accelerate us into the future,’ President C L Max Nikias told a standing-room-only crowd that gathered at USC on January 25 to celebrate the well-regarded scientist who was announced as dean in November 2016.
Ousted: Dr Rohit Varma (left), dean of the USC’s medical school resigned on Thursday over a sexual harassment revelation, less than a year after he took over when his predecessor, Dr. Carmen Puliafito (right), was ousted for smoking meth and spending time with prostitutes
Nikias went on gushing about the new appointee, saying: ‘Healing, passion and hope — these words speak to the character of our new dean. His journey to today’s celebration is the result of dedication, determination and a heart that can teach us all about compassion.’
Eight months after his official installation, USC Provost Michael Quick sent a letter to his colleagues saying that Varma chose to step down after the university ‘learned previously undisclosed information that caused us to lose confidence in Dr. Varma’s ability to lead the school.’
He added: ‘Our leaders must be held to the highest standards.’
Quick didn’t provide specifics.
However, the announcement came as the Los Angeles Times was prepared to publish a story disclosing that USC had formally disciplined Varma in 2003 after allegations that he sexually harassed a female researcher while he was a junior professor.
When Varma, a distinguished ophthalmologist, was officially installed as the dean of the Keck School of Medicine in late January, the president of USC called his appointment a ‘transformative milestone’
The Times cited confidential personnel records and interviews with people familiar with the university investigation.
According to the Times story published on Thursday, in 2002, Varma was attending an ophthalmology conference with a young international researcher who was working for him when he informed the woman that he had booked a single room for the two of them and expected her to sleep in the same bed.
When the woman protested, sourced told the paper that Varma took away her cellphone and threatened to have her visa revoked. Lacking the funds to pay for her own room, the woman ended up sleeping on a cot in the ophthalmologist’s room.
Records indicate that Varma and his wife had filed for divorce in 2001, a year before the fateful conference.
Source say in 2002, while attending a conference with a female researcher, Varma tried to get her to sleep in the same bed as him
The Times reports that the university paid the woman $135,000, of which about $11,000 came directly from Varma, slapped him with a $30,000 pay cut and temporarily blocked him from becoming a full member of the faculty.
In a strongly worded letter sent to Varma in March 2003, a USC official described his behavior as ‘inappropriate and unacceptable in the workplace’ and warned him that if it ever happened again, he would be fired.
A year later, Varma’s pay reduction was reversed, and in 2005 he joined the faculty as a full professor.
Over the past 15 years, Varmas had secured more than $60million in grants from the National Health Institute to study eye problems in minorities.
Varma was named dean of the medical school in November and was formally installed in January. He replaced Carmen A. Puliafito, who gave up his $1.1million-a-year dean’s post in the middle of the 2016 spring term, saying he wanted to explore outside opportunities.
Puliafito did not mention that three weeks earlier, a 21-year-old woman had overdosed in his presence in a Pasadena, California, hotel room but recovered, according to the Times.
Puliafito remained a faculty member until earlier this year, when USC said it was firing him in the wake of a Times report that he kept company with a circle of criminals and people who used drugs and had been captured on video apparently smoking methamphetamine.
All smiles: Varma, pictured with USC President C L Max Nikias (left), initially took a pay cut and was denied promotion, but later was forgiven and went on to a distinguished career at USC
Sarah Warren was rushed to hospital after the overdose in a room with Puliafito in March 2016 and was able to recover. Police found meth in the hotel room but no one was ever arrested
Varma earned his medical degree at the University of Delhi, India. He spent his free time volunteering in a leper colony, where he worked alongside Mother Teresa.
Varma went on to earn a Master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University and joined the USC faculty in 1993. His primary research focuses on epidemiologic studies of eye disease in children and aging populations.
He also has been a principal investigator of eye studies focusing on Latino, Chinese-American and African-American populations.
A press release from January 25 announcing Varma’s installment as dean boasted: ‘he has been one of the leading recipients of research funding from the National Institutes of Health.’