September 20, 2019
Good morning. Just a few months ago – on a crisp, bright morning – my husband, David, and I took a walk in Griffith Park.
We were there to witness a once-in-a-decade or so event – the desert superbloom of 2019.
Stretched across the bright green hills was a carpet of wildflowers – red, blue, orange, and purple –patches of color swaying in the breeze.
Forty-eight hours later, the USC Board of Trustees honored me with the great privilege of becoming your 12th president.
My mind jumped to those ribbons of color cutting through the hills, and to the endless progress of renewal and evolution they symbolize. It made me think how universities and people blossom – here I was about to become part of the perpetual flowering of hopes and dreams taking place every day right here at USC.
My heart is full with gratitude. To Chairman [Rick] Caruso and members of the board; to our students, faculty and staff; to our community partners; to the academic leaders; to my presidential predecessors; to all of you, thank you for building the USC we celebrate today – gloriously beautiful, global, diverse, and research-intensive.
To interim president, and Trustee, Dr. Wanda Austin, for your wise and caring counsel. It’s an honor to follow you.
To the amazing performers and scholars at events on Wednesday and Thursday, and to the teams of staff who did all they could to make our campus ready, and this event special, for me and for all of you.
Finally, I am delighted to have members of all my families, from Dartmouth, from UNC, from birth and marriage – right here with some of my new, fiercely loyal and accomplished 400,000-plus Trojan Family.
My sister Lee (who looks like my twin), brother-in-law Larry, my brother Bob (crying in the front row), my husband David, my son Noah, son-in-law Matt, my daughter Tessa, and little baby Ellie (who really could be crying in the front row, but isn’t). I love you all.
To be president of one of the nation’s leading research universities, in one of the most vibrant and growing regions in the world, is humbling.
And to be given that honor at a time of unprecedented social, economic, and technological disruption and discovery, is the opportunity of my lifetime.
I believe deeply in the power of education and exploration to change individual lives and advance societies. I’ve lived it.
My grandparents immigrated from war-torn Albania to America via Ellis Island, believing in American democracy and opportunity.
They drilled “work hard and get an education” into my mom, and she drilled it into the five of us kids – and we did that – just as many of you did.
I’ve been so fortunate. My educational opportunities have taken me from the rainforests of Borneo to the High Sierra, working as a scientist with students and colleagues on problems of ecosystem and human health, climate change, and conservation.
As a university leader, I’ve worked alongside brilliant people to build new academic programs, expand the arts, reduce carbon and water footprints, and raise hundreds of millions of dollars for financial aid.
I sometimes wonder whether my grandmother could have imagined such opportunities for her granddaughter as she looked at the Statue of Liberty from the boat that brought her here. And then I think – yes, that is what she believed, and what I still believe.
And that’s why today, as your president, more than ever, I want for people from all circumstances and walks of life, including the immigrants and the dreamers of today, to have opportunities like this, and to feel as welcome and safe as I do.
This isn’t complicated – it starts with acknowledging that diversity is strength. At USC, we have so much to draw upon – whether you are first-gen, military, or a transfer student; whether you come from Los Angeles or the other side of the world; whether you learned about USC from parents who worked for or went to USC; or just fell in love with the Trojan spirit.
You are what makes the Trojan Family strong and resilient.
Seeing you today – I feel boundless possibility. I’ve been buoyed up by the special energy here from my first stroll across campus, past Tommy Trojan, the hammocks on the hill in McCarthy Quad, weaving through students skateboarding and strolling to class. I also saw the care and love from our staff who keep our campuses so beautiful.
I felt energy and purpose in my first visit to the Health Sciences Campus, up and down the hills past research centers where life-saving discoveries are being made.
And from the students and faculty who welcome me on campus; the alumni and staff who come up to me at events – sometimes with tears in their eyes to tell me how much they love USC and want to help us succeed – I gather optimism and energy too. Thank you.
As long as you continue to channel your energy and passion into purpose and joy, our future is bright.
As you can imagine, I’ve been thinking about our future a lot; and much of what I see ahead arises directly from our distinctive history and location. From the start, USC was designed to be part of the fabric of this great city. Our founders believed that a great city needed a great university, and both would rise together.
Our foundational principles, ahead of their time, were to leverage the diversity of the city, serve the community, strive for excellence, and innovate and be entrepreneurial. USC became a place where new trails are blazed, old barriers are toppled, and openness is cherished.
Just think: 40 years before women could vote in America, our first valedictorian was a woman; 70 years before the civil rights movement gained speed, our first African American graduated with a degree in music; and from the start, international students were respected members of our university.
Opportunity for all here wasn’t perfect – and it still isn’t — but I’m confident we can push to advance the diversity and inclusion here further. And by doing so, we will get stronger and more relevant for the world of the future.
Today, we are more than 80,000 strong. Our students are wonderful – smart, creative, and caring. All of the students who talk to me want to talk about how they can help other people – not themselves – others. It’s striking and inspiring.
Our faculty push boundaries. It was electrifying to listen to the TED talks at HSC and UPC earlier this week, and to see how they and their colleagues and students are leading game-changing, often brave efforts in a number of fields.
And of course, our talented staff are integral to everything we do. Because of you, USC has made enormous strides in the last two decades expanding the scope and impact of our research, arts, humanities, social sciences, and clinical practices nationwide, and our victories on the field are legendary, too. But I think the best is yet to come.
Finally, our recent growth simply could not have happened without the generous support of our alumni and our devoted Trojan Family. Not only did their support allow us to renovate the historic LA Memorial Coliseum without a dollar of public money, their philanthropy makes it possible for USC to provide more than $600 million in student aid every year, placing us at #1 among leading American private universities in terms of dollars toward aid.
In short, I’m confident we have the expertise, optimism, and passion needed to build an extraordinary future, and to move decisively to address the serious issues we have yet to resolve: problems that have harmed our reputation and taken a toll on the Trojan community.
I understand the anxiety many are feeling: that unless resolved quickly, these issues could undo much of what we have built over many years and taint those unconnected to them. I assure you – we’ll continue to tackle these problems until they are corrected, with urgency and candor, and with the involvement of our community and governance structures.
We’ll continue the work of the Culture Commission. Our new provost, Chip Zukoski, will lead a team to overhaul our admissions, supplementing the many changes already in place. And we’ll be working with you on other critical issues, like faculty governance, sustainability, mental health services, and assistance for students who are hungry or in need.
We’re already taking meaningful actions, and as importantly, together we’ll live the solutions. Today, we’re turning a page at USC – starting a new journey of exploration that will take this university – and the people who are part of it – to amazing places.
This is a time of seismic change worldwide.
- Digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality have expanded possibilities in medicine, science, business, and communications in ways unimaginable even 10 years ago.
- Climate change has accelerated rapidly. Some say we have less than a decade to respond without irreversible planetary ecosystem changes.
- Mass personalization – sounds like a contradiction in terms – the attention to individual needs taking place at mass scale – is here and driving everything from how we personalize medicine to how, what, and where we buy and maybe even learn almost everything.
- Migration, changing work, war, environmental degradation are leading to the rise of megacities – 70 percent of the world’s population will live in a megacity in just 25 to 30 years.
- And social media is dramatically reshaping the way we interact with each other at all levels: personal, professional, and political.
Our mandate now is to ensure that our students and faculty are prepared not only to thrive in these highly dynamic times, but to ride and guide the massive waves of change affecting all of society. This means nothing less than rethinking what our university should do and can be over the next decade.
Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” We’re at our best when we spark imagination – and channel it toward finding solutions that are innovative, sustainable, and just.
We’re already doing this is by letting students across disciplines delve into different fields taught in our top-rated schools. This broadens their perspectives and opens up new and unimagined possibilities.
We should push that into high gear, unleashing the capacity for innovation everywhere. In concrete terms, we can accomplish our next decadal leap by:
- Expanding access and affordability – by eliminating the burden of huge student debt for our graduates to ensure we remain a highly diverse and welcoming place.
- Furthering sustainability – by starting immediately to take extensive actions to lower the carbon, water, and waste footprints of our campuses and region.
- Embracing the urban future – USC can lead the way as a university by anticipating and planning for the healthy urban future. How? By leveraging the power of all our schools in new ways and in complete partnership with our vibrant communities and neighbors.
- And finally, doubling down in areas where USC has a distinct advantage, such as, but not limited to, building the fast-growing creative and technological economies here, and leading in the transformation and practice of medicine in key areas like cancer, personalized medicine, and Alzheimer’s disease.
I’ve talked a lot about USC but remember our region and other California universities just close-by are hotbeds of excellence, experimentation, and imagination – and we need to collaborate more with them too. People come here from around the world to be part of the change. And they’ll keep coming.
And our democratic principles and freedoms – among them equality and free speech – and the principles that underlie our university – inclusion and openness, shared governance, experimentation and boldness, accountability and values – give us a moral compass for the future.
When we get this all right – when our values and actions line up – the marvelous happens, and with it, the joy and fulfilment of life and work we seek.
This is the decade of collaboration on warp speed, the decade we eliminate barriers and build bridges. Working as Trojans together, there are no limits on the power for change we have.
Before closing, I want to say a few words about our home in Los Angeles. We’re honored to have Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti with us today. We had a wonderful talk last week about the future of the region and the vital role USC can play.
We talked about the burgeoning creative and innovation economies, needs of our communities, and combating inequalities in health, wealth, and education. And we agreed that every day we delay meaningful action on sustainability, we push the environment into futures we do not want for our kids and grandkids.
When the world turns its eyes to LA for the 2028 Olympics, USC will be front and center too, as a trusted partner for the future of LA and the region. There are so many iconic landmarks in this city – who can forget the Hollywood sign? Or Felix? For me, one of the most poignant ones is the Watts Towers.
This fanciful collection of towers and sculptures was built over a 34-year period by an Italian immigrant, Simon Rodia, as a kind of valentine to his disadvantaged and neglected neighborhood. He assembled his towers from tiles, bits of glass, porcelain, and seashells he found. Soon neighbors, strangers, and children began bringing him items to add to his tower. He named it Nuestro Pueblo, our town.
When Watts convulsed with unrest in the mid 60s, the towers and mosaics stood untouched – to this day a symbol of beauty and resilience. I like to think of our diverse city and our diverse USC community as towers of strength and beauty, standing side by side, proudly displaying the colorful mosaics that capture the diverse essence of who we are and what we believe in.
Mosaics are all about coming together – finding strength and meaning – and awesome beauty – in the totality and proximity of each unique piece. We rededicate ourselves today and ahead – to a renewed sense of community based on respect for the diversity of our world, to working with integrity, humility and generosity, and always striving for excellence.
Now, return with me and fix in your memory the explosion of color in the superbloom of 2019. Every wild bloom is the product of millions of generations of evolution, and rises from a seed bank that sits ready in the soil for the right cues (light and water), to germinate and reach for the sky.
Every bloom is different, not only because environmental conditions change, but because each year, new seeds disperse from other places. And, in turn, with every bloom, the flowers send their own seeds out into the world.
Our community, the Trojan Family, forms a strong, diverse, and magnificent seedbank. With the right conditions, conditions that we have the responsibility to create every single day, our capacity to blossom, to see our students blossom, to make real, meaningful change in the world, is unlimited.
It is my honor to walk down that path with you. Thank you and Fight On!