By Najee Ali
Community support continues to grow for former state legislator Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. That support has been visibly demonstrated by letters written to the USC Board of Trustees, taking the board to task for its mistreatment of Ridley-Thomas.
There is no question that some people in this city can’t stand that the Ridley-Thomas family has embarked on a family political dynasty of service to underserved South Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the Ridley-Thomas family hasn’t done anything different than what the Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons, even the Garcetti family has done over the years in trying to give back and be of service. But for some people, it’s a problem when African Americans follow suit.
Sebastian’s father, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, has been in the trenches serving South Los Angeles for decades as the former leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded by Martin Luther King Jr.
Ridley-Thomas then went into politics, serving as an Los Angeles City Council member, a member of the state Assembly member, the state Senate and now a county supervisor.
I guess a black man doing all that has always rankled some in our community and city. To some, Mark Ridley-Thomas will always be perceived as uppity and not staying in his place. As a young activist in 1991, I will never forget the white Councilman Ermani Bernadi calling him “Curly” during a heated exchange at a committee meeting.
Ridley-Thomas responded with “What you said just now has serious implications. My name is Mark Ridley-Thomas, don’t ever make that mistake with me again. Debate on procedures.”
I knew right then he wasn’t your average civil rights activists turned elected official. With Ridley-Thomas, defiance and continued fighting for the underserved has continued to rub some people the wrong way, including the conservative Los Angeles Times that has always targeted him with biased reporting.
The reality is it’s been several African-American leaders who have been targeted by The Times newspaper over the years. The L.A. Times doesn’t care about black people. But when your advocating on behalf of black and brown people with a take-no-nonsense approach you’re going to have media and political foes.
With the rise of Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, a beloved homegrown son of our community, I guess that was just way too much power for one family to have.
Sebastian Ridley-Thomas ultimately had to retire from his Assembly post due to health challenges that at one point threatened his life. That was a major loss for our community. But we all understood that his life was in jeopardy and he did what was best for himself and family.
Once his health improved, he enrolled at USC as a student and was also hired to teach at USC. Several university administrators had prior knowledge of this. But according to documents acquired by the USC campus newspaper, the Daily Trojan, this is what led to his termination.
Ridley-Thomas, who was officially a Trojan student, received a non-tenure track faculty position as a “professor of practice” in the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the Price School of Public Policy a few weeks after his acceptance to USC.
The elder Ridley-Thomas, also a Trojan booster, made a financial donation to USC in July. A month after the donation was disclosed to federal investigators, USC fired Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. The details of his hiring and admission were made public in a Los Angeles Times report in August.
In an email to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas on July 18, Vice Provost Martin Levine said that due to Faculty Handbook policies “that faculty members shall not be candidates for degrees in the same program in which they have an appointment,” the administration had “determined that appropriate corrective action … is immediate termination of [his] faculty appointment.”
However, email correspondences among Ridley-Thomas, former School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn and other administrators from the Dworak-Peck and Price schools leave no doubt that USC leadership were aware of Ridley-Thomas’ status as a student when they hired him.
Communication between Flynn and Ridley-Thomas dates to May 2017 — over seven months before he enrolled at USC as a student. In an email on May 26, 2017, Flynn wrote that she had “a chance to talk with Dean [Jack] Knott at the Price School,” stating that the two schools would support his tuition. The School of Social Work would later fully cover the legislator’s tuition.
In January of this year, Ridley-Thomas was formally notified of a full-tuition scholarship and started an online social work program that semester.
One month after becoming a student, Ridley-Thomas received a letter signed by both Knott and Flynn informing him of his appointment as professor of practice of policy and social work where his “service to both schools” would include “classroom presentations related to the political process and assisting in organizing events involving both local and state governments.”
“Like all other new students and people who are offered employment, Ridley-Thomas relied on the deans and academic administrators at USC to know and follow the university’s rules,” wrote Lance Olson, Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, in an email sent to media outlets. “Naturally, he believed that everything was in order.”
Approval for Ridley-Thomas’ position even went through the Provost’s Office. On Feb. 13, a Price School official wrote to Ridley-Thomas, saying that the school had “received provost approval of our request to waive our usual hiring process.” Ridley-Thomas accepted the appointment on March 10.
“[Ridley-Thomas’] enrollment and employment at USC began months before the donation was even made,” Olson said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “Any suggestion that there is a connection between the two is patently false.
In August, Ridley-Thomas accused the USC of violating student privacy laws by disclosing information regarding his scholarship and status at the university.
“Of particular concern is the fact The Times was clearly told of the Compliance Office interview of my client,” Olson wrote in a letter to USC’s attorney in August. “That information could only have come from one of the three persons from USC who participated in the interview.”
Based on the current facts, Ridley-Thomas is being caught in a political crossfire. It’s no question that the USC Board of Trustees were anxious to get rid of former USC President C.L. Max Nikias, whose tenure was marked with several damaging scandals to USC. Nikias and the elder Ridley-Thomas had a very close relationship. Could it be that in the push to finally force Nikias out, the USC Board created this fake controversy with Ridley-Thomas to make that happen sooner. It’s just my speculation.
But what I do know, based on facts, it appears that the USC Board of Trustees, under the leadership of billionaire developer Rick Caruso, has lost its mind.
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