Students at the University of Southern California got a crash course in investigative journalism this summer by reporting on a powerful, scandal-ridden institution: their own school.
The undergraduates were part of an unusual program that paid them to look into the university where, in recent years, a gynecologist was accused of sexually abusing hundreds of women at a campus clinic and a former medical school dean was reported to have done methamphetamine and was in a hotel room with a woman who overdosed in his presence.
Those episodes were reported in depth by The Los Angeles Times and occurred before U.S.C. made news yet again, when it figured prominently in last spring’s college admissions scandal, with federal prosecutors charging that the school had accepted children of wealthy parents who had cheated the system.
The students started looking into the university after professors at U.S.C.’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism got administration approval for the program that put them in the role of campus watchdogs.
The initiative, called the U.S.C. Beacon Project, was led by three faculty members: a visiting professor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Mark Schoofs; the head of the Annenberg Media Center, Christina Bellantoni; and another Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter, the adjunct professor Gary Cohn.
A standout student was Sasha Urban, who arrived at U.S.C. in 2017 with the idea of studying drama, only to end up spending much of his time working on the second floor of the Annenberg School. Over the summer he unearthed new accusations of sexual abuse against Dennis Kelly, a doctor at U.S.C.’s health center for two decades until his retirement last year.
Mr. Urban, a 20-year-old junior, started his investigation with a previously reported lawsuit filed by six male U.S.C. graduates in February. His reporting led him to dozens of other men who said they were also victims. A few of them, he reported, had complained to the university.
“Year after year, for more than 20 years, young men who entered the University of Southern California student health center were sent to Dr. Dennis Kelly,” Mr. Urban wrote. “Once the exam room door closed behind them, say 48 former patients who are gay or bisexual, Kelly subjected them to sexual abuse, such as fondling their genitals or making them kneel naked on the exam table for rectal probes.”
On the day those words were published, Harriet Ryan, a Los Angeles Times journalist who shared a Pulitzer Prize for her own reporting on the university, posted a tweet that linked to the article with the caption: “The call is coming from inside the house! This investigation was done by a USC j-school student with support from faculty.”
The university called the suggestion that it did not respond to complaints about the doctor “misleading.” Dr. Kelly has declined to comment on the accusations against him.
While proud of his work, Mr. Urban, whose parents are editors at Bloomberg, said he wasn’t sure if he would go on to be a reporter. “This opportunity came about less because I’m interested in journalism,” he said in an interview, “and more because I’m interested in my university and the secrets they hold.”
The story of Dr. Kelly had personal resonance for the student reporter. Mr. Urban is gay and visited the health center while Dr. Kelly, who accusers say preyed on gay men, was still practicing, though he was not treated by him.
“I think of it as a debt I owe to all the men who have had such traumatic experiences,” Mr. Urban said.
He earned around $15 an hour for his Beacon Project work, he said, along with overtime and expenses. He was also paid the standard freelancer’s rate by BuzzFeed News.
“This was an idea in my mind, something I was passionate about,” Mr. Urban said, “but there was no way I could do anything without the resources — the pay, the space, the reporting tools.”
The project introduced students to skills that are hard to pick up in a lecture hall, like navigating public records requests. Mr. Urban, who grew up in Manhattan and attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, also forced himself to try the old reporting technique of knocking on strangers’ doors, which he called “nerve-racking and scary.”
Dr. Kelly’s residence in Santa Monica was an early stop. Ms. Bellantoni went with Mr. Urban but stayed in the car as he approached the door holding a clipboard with five pages of notes.
“My heart was racing,” he said.
As Mr. Urban wrote in his article, Dr. Kelly told him, “This is all very traumatic to me,” before declining to comment further. Dr. Kelly did not reply to a request to comment for this article.
Mr. Schoofs and a few other U.S.C. journalism faculty members had the idea for the Beacon Project over spring break, when federal prosecutors unveiled the sting operation, Operation Varsity Blues, that found evidence of corruption in the admissions processes at several universities, including U.S.C.
News of the sting operation came a month before three reporters at The Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize in the category of investigative reporting for their articles on the former campus gynecologist George Tyndall. The university agreed to pay $215 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by many of his former patients. Dr. Tyndall has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges of sexual abuse.
Gordon Stables, the director of the journalism school at U.S.C., said he liked the idea of students digging up facts close to campus. “I was incredibly supportive,” he said, “because I think the right way to teach students the notion of keeping institutions accountable is relevant, whether it’s Washington or Sacramento or Los Angeles.”
Despite having called some of Mr. Urban’s published work “misleading,” U.S.C. was seemingly on board with being put under the journalistic microscope by members of its own community. “The student reporters have been both passionate and professional,” a university spokesman said. “We expect nothing less from students at one of the top journalism schools in the country.”
Ashley Zhang, a sophomore who took part in the project, said, “We’re not reporting to bring down the school; we’re doing it because we care and want to make it better.”
She added, “It’s pretty incredible that they’re paying us to investigate it.”