State of the University address 2022 – Health Sciences Campus

President Carol L. Folt delivers the State of the University address at the Health Sciences campus.

April 20, 2022

Good morning. Welcome to everyone here in-person or watching online.

We have a lot to talk about today – accomplishments of the past year and plans for the future, and I’ve personalized this talk to include more about achievements in the health sciences writ large.

I’d like to start by asking you to close your eyes and visualize a peaceful garden of rocks, paving stones, and trees.

Earlier this month, I had the great privilege to dedicate the new USC Nisei Rock Garden tucked next to the University Club at our University Park Campus. This type of dry garden is known as kare san sui in Japan, and dates to the 11th century.

We dedicated our kare san sui to honor the perseverance and hope of USC’s Nisei students who faced tremendous suffering and injustice.

Eighty years ago, thousands of Japanese Americans – including close to 150 Nisei Trojans from all our schools – were taken abruptly from their homes and universities and forcibly relocated to squalid, overcrowded internment camps based solely on their Japanese heritage.

After the war, then-USC President Rufus Von KleinSmid did the unimaginable when he barred USC’s Nisei from returning to campus, and even refused them access to their rightful transcripts.

These injustices were not only antithetical to our current dreams and mission but at odds with USC’s founding mission – to build a great university for a great city by educating the diverse people of the region and enabling them and the city to flourish.

Three weeks ago, after 80-plus years, we acknowledged this great injustice by dedicating the garden and by awarding posthumous degrees to all the remaining Nisei Trojans we could locate, at the Asia Pacific Alumni Association gala.

Family members from around the world came to receive these degrees in person on behalf of their loved ones. It was a moving and historic moment.

And three generations of graduates from USC’s Ostrow School of Dentistry will receive degrees on behalf of all the Nisei students and in honor of their father and grandfather at Commencement this spring.

The names of places where we work, also are deeply symbolic. A university doesn’t get to rewrite its history — but we do have the power to telegraph to the world who we are and what we aspire to be, now and in the future.

Last week, we removed President von KleinSmid’s name from one of USC’s most iconic and well-loved academic buildings with its towering globe.

In its place, we dedicated the Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow Center for International and Public Affairs, honoring a proud Trojan – leader and member of the Crow Nation, historian, humanist, musician, war hero, and educator – whose life and name provides a meaningful symbol of USC’s aspirational and life-affirming mission.

My own experiences have taught me that a powerful way to avoid repeating injustice is by admitting it, remembering it, and correcting it.

The renaming ceremony was joyful and uplifting, and it honored the legions of people who had been advocating for decades that we uncover the truth and make amends.

A great university like ours must have an arc of purpose that encompasses celebrating, learning from, remembering, and reckoning with our past – while at the same time striving, innovating, and building a better, more equitable, and sustainable future.

Our present-day arc is taking place at a momentous time of transformation, upheaval, and discovery. Our hearts are with friends, family and people across the world who are literally fighting for their lives and their freedoms.

You’ll find Trojans on the front lines addressing extreme health, wealth, and educational disparities, providing insights into the immigrant experience and assessing and reporting on political and social turmoil here and around the world.

Trojans are identifying remedies for our nation’s severe supply chain shortages, driving medical, cultural, and economic advances, creating arts to inspire us, and conducting cutting-edge research to improve and save lives.

That’s why, every week, USC’s people are featured in stories or on broadcasts by leading media outlets, including nearly 600 stories last year about USC people in The New York Times alone.

Climate change is another pressing challenge where the need for immediate action is acute – and where USC is providing solutions while ramping up to do even more.

I paraphrase Rachel Carson, famed environmentalist, saying: Humanity is part of nature, and our war against nature is inevitably a war against ourselves.

The news stories of that war are everywhere: climate change is leading to drought and deadly fevers; melting ice caps; burning forests; and the devastation of life-nurturing ecosystems and communities.

The planet is telling us, our communities are telling us, and our hearts are telling us that we must take actions now, toward a more sustainable balance with our climate, our oceans, our forests, and the creatures that share our planet.

We are turning our concern into action, starting right here at home. As an environmental scientist – I know how interconnected our environment is, and that we must take a comprehensive and integrated approach if we are going to find lasting, scalable solutions.

For this reason, we must embed a sustainability mindset in everything we do at USC. No effort is too ambitious, or too small.

This week is Earth Week, and we’re talking a lot about our ambitious Sustainability 2028 initiative.

Our key goals include achieving carbon neutrality by 2025 and a waste-free campus by 2028. We’re seeking to promote the greening of health care. Education also is a critical part of our strategy, and we plan to increase even further our educational, operational, and research efforts.

At a time when skepticism is great about the capacity of any institution and governments to take on big societal challenges, research and clinical practice are two of the most important ways that America’s leading universities – especially those with strong academic medical centers, like USC – can help restore trust.

Now, I’m going to cover some key achievements and challenges over the past year; and then I’ll briefly touch on some exciting initiatives we’re building together.

I’ll begin by saying that the state of our university is very strong.

In so many areas, USC continues to lead and grow. Across our schools and departments, we are taking actions to secure our legacy of innovation, academic leadership, service, and collaboration everyday with the broader Los Angeles and Southern California communities.

Here are some highlights:

First, we are back! However, I do realize that many of you never left – in fact you worked even harder in person to care for people.

During the most serious global pandemic in more than a century, through our world-class health system and associated schools, we successfully ensured the health and safety of the USC community – and millions of our fellow Angelenos.

Interesting fact: when the flu pandemic of 1918 hit, the population of L.A. was about 500,000. Today it exceeds 4 million. This has been a huge undertaking.

This slide shows just a few of the many ways USC met the COVID challenge. We turned on a dime to implement policies to protect the health and safety of our people and our neighbors, while high quality academic programs continued using and then improving our remote technology.

Thousands of our colleagues in health care, professional training programs, biomedical research, our volunteers, our Trojan Check teams, our emergency workers, and so many more got us through – again, thank you.

I firmly believe that USC has been – and continues to be – among the leaders in higher education in terms of our COVID-19 response. And you are a big reason for this.

Of course, the pandemic isn’t over yet, and we must continue to be vigilant and maintain our adherence to the protocols that are helping to keep us safe.

Second, our students are remarkable.

And they really want to be here. This slide shows the 350 percent increase we’ve experienced in grad and professional applications since 2001. Currently, there are 1,000 MDs and PhDs at our Keck School alone.

Third, we continue to recruit outstanding faculty, clinicians, staff, and academic leaders, including four new deans – all accomplished trailblazers in their fields.

Our new deans include:

  • Emily Roxworthy, USC School of Dramatic Arts;
  • Thanassis Rikakis, USC Iovine and Young Academy; and
  • Dana Goldman, USC Price School of Public Policy

In June 2020, Rod Hanners stepped in as interim CEO of Keck and served in this capacity during the darkest days of the pandemic. He led with a sense of calm and confidence that was greatly needed during those uncertain times.

Then, the following year, Rod was named CEO of Keck Medicine of USC and president and CEO of the USC Health System.

Also in 2021, Steve Shapiro was appointed senior vice president for health affairs to oversee Keck Medicine of USC, clinical enterprises, and the Keck School – and he has hit the ground running.

And, of course, we’ve welcomed our new dean of the Keck School, Carolyn Meltzer, whose installation we will be celebrating tomorrow here on the Broad Lawn. All of these individuals and their teams — and their teams’ teams — are fantastic.

I also want to thank Laura Mosqueda for her service as dean of the Keck School during an incredibly difficult time, and for her important work on DEI and health disparities that we all embrace and are continuing to grow.

And a final thank you to Narsing Rao for his time as interim dean. Transitions can be hard for a school. And thanks to Narsing’s steady hand, belief in all of you, and his measured leadership, Keck continued to deliver for patients, staff, and the community.

Let’s thank all of them.

We recruit great faculty and they achieve a lot and are recognized for their leadership.

Here are a few examples. We have quite a few new members in prestigious National Academies. Also, a huge shout out to the 24 junior faculty members from this campus who received NIH Early-Stage Investigator Awards – wow!

Fourth, recognition across USC keeps rolling in, as you can see from this list. It includes Oscar, Emmy and Grammy nominations and winners.

Two of our faculty were appointed by the Biden Administration to serve on the National Cancer Advisory Board.

And let’s not forget: 65 Trojans participated as Olympians in Tokyo last summer – winning 21 medals, including 11 golds, more than any other university. Remarkable!

I’m delighted to say we’ll have a Trojan Olympian – Allyson Felix – as our commencement speaker next month. She is USC Rossier Class of 2008, winner of seven gold medals, and the most decorated US track and field athlete in history. And she is a champion for women’s health, child care, and maternity policies. She’ll be terrific.

Fifth, we continue to advance cutting-edge research.

Our faculty are world leaders in research, creative and clinical practice. And our graduate students and our staff are right there alongside them.

I was impressed to see how strongly our people kept pushing their scholarship and creative work, even under the most trying conditions of the pandemic.

Over the past three fiscal years, the value of research proposals submitted rose from $2.99 billion to $3.83 billion, a nearly 30 percent increase. And USC has one of the highest success rates in the country – 43 percent of funds requested by our researchers are funded. Keck researchers are in the top three for dollars per P.I.

We are in the top 20 for federal research, and for the first time, USC joined the billion-dollar club for external research funding.

These funds increase our ability to attract and retain the best academic talent and to conduct the highest-impact studies.

Many of our largest grants are in the health sciences, including our SC-CTSI grant and the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center’s renewal, both of which received some of the highest scores ever.

Brain disease also continues to be a major success, with USC receiving major grants every year to conduct Alzheimer’s research across the continuum, and we just received a very large grant for tissue and organ regeneration as part of our cutting-edge stem cell research.

These are just a few examples among many, many more.

Sixth, our financial position is strong.

We achieved this despite the enormous hits we have taken over the last three years, from COVID expenses, legacy legal expenses, loss of clinical revenue during the pandemic, and significantly rising costs.

Along with research grants, our fundraising is among the best in the country, and we’re growing it in health sciences.

Most importantly, all the achievements I’ve mentioned came about because of your hard work and dedication.

We also recognize that our staff and faculty are facing increasing financial pressure due to competition and inflation.

Earlier this month, I announced our five-year plan for increasing compensation at all levels across USC. We will invest more than $700 million to support performance-based salary increases, benefits, and other adjustments, beginning this year with more than $150 million.

While we won’t close the gap in the first year, we will get there.

Finally, we are actively working with our schools and units to best provide more flexibility in the work week. This is critical for many people. Expect updates soon.

I believe our accomplishments reflect that we have the right mission – expressing guiding principles that remain relevant in our changing world. I urge you to read our mission statement – it is beautiful.

These ideals are integral to our ongoing achievements as well as to our successes ahead. For me, living the mission starts with some deeply held principles – what I call my “true north.”

These include being student-focused; strengthening USC’s reputation; seeking leadership and accomplishment in our academic, professional, creative, clinical, and educational endeavors; building a diverse, inclusive, and talented work force and student body; acting boldly and decisively to position USC for strength in the future; fostering an environment and a culture of collaboration and excellence; and leading with integrity and accountability.

To realize our Mission, USC must continue to develop a contemporary vision – a blueprint for action – what I call “USC Futures.”

We start with our overarching goal – to increase the stature and impact of USC, by:

  • making USC the international standard-bearer and innovator for collaborative learning, professional training, clinical practice, and discovery, and
  • making USC the top choice for students, faculty, and staff who seek purpose-driven work and lives.

USC is what I call the leading “School of Schools” in America. With our unrivaled size, scale, breadth, and excellence, we can rewrite the roadmap for transforming the professions – we can become national leaders in access and belonging, in sustainability, and in partnering with communities for health, safety, freedom, and prosperity.

We are moving decisively on this vision in several areas.

For example, we plan to double our overall research portfolio by 2028, roughly double our Keck Medicine footprint, launch a major fundraising campaign across our health sciences, and expand our telehealth leadership.

We also are working on what I call “moonshots.” I see these as bold comprehensive strategies for cross-institution collaboration in key areas. And I believe they will put USC on a path to even greater leadership and success in the next five to 10 years.

The first moonshot, which I call “USC competes,” is the goal of becoming the destination for the passionate, the creative and the brightest – change agents. The place known for being the school of great schools.

USC must be a national leader in accessibility, affordability, belonging, and debt reduction to recruit the top students in all fields.

A major focus of our Campaign for Health is to increase scholarships and aid and reduce student debt. We also plan to invest in our neighborhoods, with programs like Street Medicine, and as I discussed earlier, to keep investing in faculty and staff to ensure we recruit and retain the best of the best.

Our second moonshot pushes the frontiers of computing at USC with a 10-year initiative to accelerate advanced computing and its exponential impact on the world. You’re going to hear much more about this in the months ahead, but I’ll give you a brief overview now.

The USC Frontiers of Computing moonshot will take advantage of USC’s unique strength, breadth, location and scale, to:

  • exponentially accelerate developments in the field of computing;
  • build the computational power and backbone that imbeds computing and high-tech in all disciplines – and specifically here to advance telehealth; and
  • mobilize our breadth across 22 schools to find breakthrough solutions to societal challenges starting with but not limited to business, the creative economy, population health, and sustainability.

USC should be at the center of this vibrant innovation ecosystem, and we can do it by collaborating further with education and industry partners and by increasing our presence at our location in Silicon Beach (where there already are 500-plus tech companies and start-ups close by).

The potential here is mind-boggling: by some estimates, there are $12 trillion dollars of value at stake if society doesn’t address the digital skills gap.

This moonshot will be game-changing and it’s fully possible over the next ten years. But we have to move now to realize our potential – and we are.

USC already has a strong presence and legacy in computing and high-tech innovation, and a generous $261 million dollar gift from the Lord Foundation will help us launch this initiative.

Next, I want to say a few words about USC athletics, because we have been investing there as well.

Sports and related enterprises are one of the fast-growing areas of commerce, media, and job generation – and that’s significant for our students.

In addition, athletics and our student-athletes and coaches, are important to the fabric of our university – and our Trojan community. They bring together our students, alumni, and community in ways that nothing else can.

I want to thank the team of Keck Medicine faculty who provide comprehensive care for all of USC’s student athletes. 

Our final moonshot is to transform USC Health Sciences by re-structuring, growing, and building out our health sciences, medical training, and practice. This touches roughly half of our university in terms of people and resources, and addresses some of the greatest issues and opportunities of our time.

Our health-related schools and facilities already are recognized the world over for excellence and innovation. Of all academic medical centers nationwide, for example, Keck Medicine treats the most complex (and often the most critically ill) patients. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is the only top five children’s hospital in America whose patients are predominantly (74 percent) on Medi-Cal. And our faculty staff much of L.A. County Hospital.

Cross-school collaboration – beyond our health schools, clinics and hospitals – is essential to the success of this moonshot.

As you can see, we’re making many changes to support the growth and success of our health sciences.

To begin, we’ve made strides in board and school governance.

Second, we know we’re small and we know that a commitment is required to grow our health sciences to a size where we can make a greater impact. And we’re investing significantly in capital projects to enable our growth.

Third, we’ve been working on plans to support expansion in our research, clinical practice, community outreach, and student aid with the USC Campaign for Health.

No other university has the constellation of resources we have here – and no one can make the impact we can.

USC is poised to lead with the strength of education, research, and clinical care represented by our five health-related schools. Together, they represent 55 percent of the university’s total research, 70 percent of total full-time faculty, and 54 percent of full-time staff.

Put them together with the health-related programs and strength in the rest of the university, and you have a powerhouse like nowhere else.

Our goal is to further our confederation of schools with their disciplinary strengths, and to make it easier for them to work collaboratively to address giant health challenges, expand research, and develop novel interprofessional educational programs.

This is a time of great promise for USC – but also a time of challenge.

We continue to face the pandemic, economic uncertainty, competition for people and resources, a changing medical services landscape, outbreaks of hatred and intolerance, and challenges to free speech and debate.

In the best Trojan tradition, we will manage through these challenges and come out stronger.

How? By building the infrastructure – in our research and other academic capabilities – and the support systems – in HR, IT and student services — that will help us succeed. By managing our finances prudently and investing in our students, faculty and staff, boosting financial aid, salaries and benefits. And by building a culture of strong ethics and values, to meet the high bars we have set for ourselves.

When I think of the journey ahead and how we’ll get there, the word excellence comes to mind. We are accelerating excellence in research; redefining excellence in student experience and affordability; pursuing excellence in the way we operate with the highest ethical standards; and driving excellence in our moonshot initiatives.

And our dreams will only be possible if we pitch a wide tent and work together.

Before closing, I want to add a few more heartfelt thanks:

  • to everyone on this campus again who kept things running and who met COVID head-on;
  • to the many who participated in the Care for the Caregivers program and wellness effort – you kept us going;
  • and to the leadership of the health system and health sciences schools, as well as the faculty, staff, trainees, and students who used technology and creativity to keep operating rooms open, clinical skills training going, and kept COVID cases on both of our campuses remarkably low.

I want to especially thank student health for their compassionate care for the health of our students. They restructured and redesigned our student health centers, tripled mental health services for our students, and guided our university through one of the darkest times of our history.

Last night, I had the special honor of awarding Sarah Van Orman the Presidential Medallion for her leadership in these critical activities.

And finally, my thanks to USC’s leadership teams – harder working folks you’ll never meet.

Our collective work will drive the greatest changes ahead.

After so much discussion about excellence and achievement, I want to leave you with a final thought about humility, and our place as humans in the world we inhabit.

I want you to return to the rock garden image that I mentioned at the beginning of my talk. It represents permanence in the midst of change – much of that change caused by humans.

The poet Robinson Jeffers – who attended USC in the first decade of the 20th century – is known as an eloquent voice for the environmental movement in this country.

In his poem, “The Beauty of Things”, Jeffers celebrates his ability to “feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things – earth, stone and water, beast, man and woman, sun, moon and stars.”

But he conditions this by calling out the “blood-shot beauty of human nature – its thoughts, frenzies and passions”, and how our nature can become “unhuman” – and then be so damaging.

During this season of reflection, traditions, and graduation ceremonies, let us always keep top of mind the astonishing beauty of things around us and what they tell us about our place in the world.

Whatever paths we pursue in life – here at USC and elsewhere – whatever mountains we scale and successes we realize – the true measure of our worth will be in how well we take care of each other and our planet during our brief time here, and how we leave it for the multitudes who follow us.

Thank you.