USC President Carol Folt's contract is renewed, but university won't say for how long

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 01: Carol Folt, president USC, at the University of Southern California.
USC President Carol Folt has received an extension to her five-year contract. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

USC President Carol Folt, who calmed the scandal-rocked university, boosted athletics and expanded student access — but also drew heavy criticism for her handling of pro-Palestinian protests this spring — has received an extension to her five-year contract, the university confirmed Tuesday.

USC would not disclose the terms of the contract extension, including its length or any amendments made. It was unclear whether the extension was short-term while the Board of Trustees conducts a thorough review on whether to offer Folt a longer-term contract.

“President Folt’s contract remains in full force," a university statement said Tuesday. "Like all university officers, the president is subject to annual review and reappointment, which occurred this last spring. The Board remains pleased with the university’s strong direction under President Folt’s leadership.”

Folt, 72, took the helm on July 1, 2019, with a contract that compensated her at the same level as former president Max Nikias, according to Rick Caruso, USC board chairman at the time. He said then that he expected Folt to serve for at least a decade.

Folt was hired with an overriding mandate to restore trust in the university, which had been rocked by one scandal after another. She replaced key administrators, brokered a $1-billion settlement with alumnae victimized by a sexually abusive gynecologist and authorized the removal of the name of an antisemitic, eugenics-supporting former USC president from an iconic campus building.

The first woman to lead USC since its 1880 founding, Folt also worked to open access to more low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students of color. In one of her most highly touted initiatives, Folt directed USC to eliminate tuition for families earning $80,000 or less annually and no longer consider home equity in financial aid calculations. The estimated annual cost of attendance for 2024-25 is $95,225 for students living away from their families.

She drew national attention for prominent moves to reshape USC's athletics program. That included hiring a nationally renowned head football coach, Lincoln Riley, on a $10-million annual contract — one of the highest salaries in the sport — along with heavy investment in new and improved athletic facilities and the landscape-altering move to the Big Ten that ultimately resulted in the demise of the Pac-12 Conference.

But those actions were overshadowed this spring by enormous controversy over her handling of pro-Palestinian protests.

In particular, her decision to rescind pro-Palestinian valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s speaking slot in USC’s main commencement ceremony drew widespread outrage. Folt justified the decision by citing unspecified safety threats.

Read more: Jailed students, a canceled commencement, angry parents: USC’s Carol Folt takes on critics

The turmoil escalated when Folt canceled the “main stage” commencement ceremony, depriving students and their families of a treasured ritual. Folt and her team called in police to dismantle a tent encampment that students set up in support of Palestinians, leading to 93 arrests.

She made no public remarks for two weeks, drawing criticism that she was missing in action during the most explosive issue of her tenure.

Such actions cost Folt key faculty support. In May, the USC Academic Senate voted to censure her and Provost Andrew Guzman over their handling of events around commencement. Among the senate's 44 members, who represent about 4,500 faculty, 21 supported the censure motion, seven opposed and six abstained.

William Tierney, a university professor emeritus at USC’s Rossier School of Education and an expert on university administration and governance, said Folt's handling of the protests was a "total failure" and said the university needed a new leader able to navigate such issues without her "head in the sand" approach.

Although he gave Folt credit for bringing presidential leadership at a "vexxed time" of serial scandals, he became soured by her pivot to sports boosterism. He is also critical about what he sees as a lack of the fundraising prowess of previous presidents, who enabled the financial largesse for ambitious academic and research enterprises — including poaching two star brain researchers from UCLA.

USC should reprioritize the pursuit of top donors — as Johns Hopkins University did in landing $1 billion from Bloomberg Philanthropies for tuition-free medical education for most students  — rather than top football coaches, Tierney said.

"We are not a football university," he said. "We have faculty aspiring to change the world. I don't see the president providing the intellectual or financial leadership in that way.

"When I look to what USC aspires to do in the next five years," he said, "I don't think it's with Carol Folt."

Read more: 13 days that rocked USC: How a derailed commencement brought 'complete disaster'

Anna Krylov, a chemistry professor, said she was "neutral" on whether Folt should be granted a long-term contract renewal. She said she appreciated Folt's takedown of the pro-Palestinian encampment, which she said fed rabid antisemitism. But Folt and campus leadership had not done enough to combat antisemitism in general, which had become "serious and pervasive" in recent years, she said.

Krylov also said Folt focused too much energy on the "wrong issues," including what she called performative efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. Like Tierney, Krylov said USC leadership needed to focus more on its core mission of education and research.

Folt's supporters, however, noted that the president had created a new school of advanced computing and boosted mental health services. She also presided over a record number of applicants — 82,000 for fall 2024 — driving down the admission rate to 9.3%, a record low. Admitted students, one-fifth of them the first in their families to attend college, had an average 3.89 GPA.

Under Folt, USC raised more than $800 million in fiscal year 2024, the largest haul in eight years, and its fundraising total the previous year ranked in the top 10 among U.S. research universities, a USC statement said. Research expenditures grew to $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2023, a 27% increase over four years, according to the emailed statement.

Within her first six months as president in 2019, Folt set out to reshape USC's athletic department. She replaced Lynn Swann, a Trojan football hero who resigned as athletic director that September, with Mike Bohn, the first outsider to helm USC athletics in a quarter century.

But Bohn resigned abruptly last May after The Times sent questions to him and USC regarding his conduct as athletic director and management of the department. In his place, Folt hired Jennifer Cohen, the university's first-ever female athletic director.

Earlier this year, USC began construction on a state-of-the-art football performance center that's just one of several capital facilities projects currently in the works.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.