State of the University address 2022: University Park Campus

USC President Carol L. Folt delivers the State of the University address.

April 14, 2022

Good morning. Welcome to everyone here or watching online.

We have a lot to talk about today – accomplishments of the past year and plans for the future.

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. 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, designed for reflection, 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 – were taken abruptly from their homes, made to leave their universities and forcibly relocated to squalid, overcrowded internment camps based solely on their 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 to flourish.

Two weeks ago, after 80-plus years, we acknowledged this great injustice by creating 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.

The garden was designed by renowned landscape architect Calvin Abe, whose own parents were incarcerated, and it is an enduring symbol not only of the Nisei resilience and hope, but for all who have suffered injustice and persevered.

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.

Earlier this week, we removed President von KleinSmid’s name from one of USC’s most iconic and well-loved academic buildings.

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. The renaming ceremony was joyful and uplifting.

My own experiences have taught me that a powerful way to avoid repeating injustice is by admitting it, remembering it, and correcting it. And I want to express my gratitude to the legions of students, faculty, staff and alumni and our own indigenous community, who had been advocating for decades that we uncover the truth and make amends.

Thank you.

A great university like ours should 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.

For example, our faculty and experts are helping us understand the roots of the heart-breaking war in Ukraine and suggesting ways to end it.

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

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 we ramp 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 this war are ubiquitous: climate change is leading to drought and deadly fevers; melting ice caps; burning forests; deadly storms; the devastation of life-nurturing ecosystems and communities.

The planet is telling us, our students 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.

I am grateful for the work of the President’s Working Group on Sustainability in Research, Education and Operations, which I created in 2019. This group of 100-plus faculty, staff and students has been a driving force behind our emerging sustainability initiatives.

Next week is Earth Day. I’ll say more then about our ambitious Sustainability 2028 initiative – which has been advanced by a coalition of hard-working students, faculty, and staff from across the university.  

Some of our key goals include achieving carbon neutrality by 2025 and a waste-free campus by 2028. Education is a critical part of our strategy as well. Last year, 17,000 students enrolled in sustainability-related courses, and we plan to increase even further our educational and research efforts.

An interesting new project is the development of AltaSea at the Port of L.A. This is part of an important USC initiative to help grow the Blue Economy – and our researchers and entrepreneurs are playing a seminal role in making it happen.

At a time when skepticism is great about the capacity of institutions and governments to take on big societal challenges – like climate change – research is one of the most important ways that America’s leading universities like USC, can help restore trust.

Universities like ours have taken on grand challenges in the past – we can do it again.

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

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

In these turbulent and uncertain times, 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 with the broader Los Angeles and Southern California communities.

At the same time, we are strengthening bonds with our legendary Trojan family, and flourishing from their expertise, generosity and loyalty – all of which are second to none.

Here are some highlights:

First, we are back!

That’s the best news! Our return to in-person activates is nearly complete.

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.

Here’s an interesting fact: when the flu pandemic of 1918 hit, the population of Los Angeles was about a half a million. 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 delivering high quality academic programs using and then improving our remote technology.

To our thousands of colleagues in Health Care, professional training programs, biomedical research, our volunteers, our Trojan-check teams, our emergency workers, and so many more – I say, 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.

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 in undergraduate applications since 2001. We continue to break records relating to our incoming classes: the highest enrollment in USC history, highest average GPA, highest number of first-gen students – to name just a few.

Our incoming fall class also looks remarkable – our admits are terrific.  I guarantee, we will be welcoming another academically strong, passionately driven and diverse, high-energy class of students come August.

Third, we continue to recruit outstanding faculty 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;
  • Carolyn Meltzer, Keck School of Medicine of USC; and
  • Dana Goldman, USC Price School of Public Policy

Here are a few examples of our faculty successes. These include a number of new members in the prestigious National Academies of Medicine, Engineering, Education, and Inventors; the Academy of Arts and Sciences; and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And our junior faculty also continue to win prestigious awards from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other organizations.

Fourth, recognition keeps rolling in, as you can see from this list. It includes Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winners, as well as our Olympians in Tokyo last summer – 65 Trojans participated, winning 21 medals, including 11 golds, more than any other university.

I’m delighted to say we’ll have another 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 U.S. track and field athlete in history.

Fifth, we continue to demonstrate the success of our community in advancing cutting-edge research.

Our faculty are world leaders in research, creative and clinical practice, and teaching, and they are making their mark in every field imaginable. Our graduate students and our staff, too, are right there alongside them.

It is impressive to see how strongly our people keep pushing their scholarship, research 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. USC has one of the highest success rates in the country – 43 percent of funds requested by our researchers are funded. We are in the top 20 for federal research, and for the first time, USC joined the billion-dollar club for external research funding.

This is important because it increases our ability to attract and retain the best academic talent and to conduct high-impact studies.

Several of our largest grants are in the health sciences, including $49.5 million dollars to address health needs in diverse communities, $33.8 million for cancer research, and $30 million for tissue and organ regeneration.

Brain disease continues also to be a major focus of our biomedical research, with USC receiving $36 million dollars in fiscal year 2021 alone to conduct Alzheimer’s clinical trials.

Our faculty in computer science are among the top five for funding in the country, and the number two producer of computer and information sciences degrees in the country.

And in the arts and humanities, our research spans projects from poverty, racism, and the Pope to a recent Mellon grant to create the first ever memorial for every individual incarcerated during World War II.

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 and significantly rising costs.

Our fundraising is among the best in the country, thanks in large part to our amazing teams in all schools, and to the generosity of our alumni and friends. And these gifts provide vital support for our cutting-edge research and student life experiences.

Most importantly, all the achievements I’ve mentioned came about because of you – they reflect your passion for USC, your commitment to our values, and your dedication to one another.

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. 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.

Our goal is to bolster the excellence and innovation of our academic programs, strengthen our workforce, and recruit and retain critical talent. 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.

These ideals are integral to our achievements so far 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 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 – that 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 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, as we engage in extensive planning in each school and academic unit.

For example, we plan to double our research portfolio by 2028, to launch soon a major fundraising campaign to significantly expand our health sciences across schools, and to look to further grow our international and digital presence.

We also are working on what I call “moonshots.” I see these as bold comprehensive strategies for cross-institution collaboration in key areas. These 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. And to do this we are actively seeking to raise funds to increase scholarships and aid and actively reviewing student debt in all schools.

We’re also investing in the younger students from our local neighborhoods. Because of our Neighborhood Academic Initiative, our JEP programs, and Advising Corps, many more local students are graduating high school and attending colleges, including USC.

An interesting fact is that USC’s number one feeder school is the Foshay Learning Center, an L.A. public school adjacent to the University Park Campus.

Finally, as I discussed earlier, for USC to compete, we must keep investing in faculty and staff and ensure we recruit and retain the best of the best.

Our next 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.

For example, plans to expand our Department of Biomedical Engineering, build out digital health, and be a public health leader already involve all health-related schools, and will also include Viterbi, Keck, Cinematic Arts, Annenberg, Price, Dornsife, Architecture, Marshall, and others.

No other university has the constellation of resources we have here to create a healthier society for the future.

Our third moonshot pushes forward the frontiers of computing at USC with a ten-year initiative to accelerate advanced computing and its exponential impact on the world.

Like the transformation of the Health Sciences, 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
  • mobilize our breadth across 22 schools to find breakthrough solutions to societal challenges starting with but not limited to business, the creative economy, health, and sustainability.

Sixty-seven percent of today’s workers lack the digital skills for the jobs of the future. USC can help fill that gap, by innovating our academic programs and becoming the largest source of diverse, tech talent on the West Coast, with trust and ethics core to our curriculum.

Finally, L.A.’s tech industry is already the fourth largest in the U.S. and it’s growing fast. 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 – something this initiative is designed to do.

In quantum computing alone, some say there is at least $1 trillion in value that can be unlocked by 2035, and USC created the first quantum computer at a university in 2011.

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 gift from the Lord Foundation will help us launch this initiative.

I’m confident that when we look back in five and then 10 years, the innovation and leadership we see in this area will be breath-taking.

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

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.

Sports and related enterprises are one of the fast-growing areas of commerce, media, and job generation. Our top goal in athletics aligns completely with our emphasis on building the right kind of culture across USC – a culture that puts high ethics and strong values at the core of everything we do – in the classroom, on the playing field, in the laboratory – everywhere.

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, outbreaks of hatred and intolerance, and challenges to free speech and debate.

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

We’re 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.

We’re managing our finances prudently and investing in our students, faculty, and staff, boosting financial aid, salaries, and benefits.

And we’re 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 cast a wide tent and work together.

This seems like a good place for me to pause and acknowledge a very special anniversary that directly relates to our commitment to equality and opportunity for all.

Fifty years ago, on June 23, Title IX was signed into law, giving women equal footing in the academy – not just in athletics but in many other areas as well.

Title IX is very meaningful to me personally – I wouldn’t be here today without it.

USC was international, diverse, and co-ed from the start, unlike many universities across the country – but we still had far to go, and Title IX helped us get there.

In 2018, Marshall was the first top-20 business school to reach gender parity its full-time MBA program. And in 2019, Viterbi achieved gender parity in its undergraduate engineering program – in a field that perennially suffers from a large gender gap.

Of course, the fight for gender equality – along with diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging more broadly – continues and remains central to our mission and our goals.

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

  • to USC’s leadership team – harder working folks you’ll never meet;
  • to everyone who works in governance in the university and school levels –that’s such important service;
  • and especially to the many people who are participating in our critical task forces, REDI, CAB, IFC and so many more.

Your 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 and contemplation represented by Easter, Passover and Ramadan, 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 – in arts and science; in business, politics or law; in medicine and social work; or any other endeavor – the true measure of our worth will be in how well we take care of our planet during our brief time here, and how we leave it for the multitudes who follow us.

Thank you very much.