State of the University address 2023 – Health Sciences Campus

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

March 29, 2023

Good morning everyone, and welcome.

To start our morning off, I’d like you think about this wonderful phrase: “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

Yes, that’s the name of this year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture. And USC Cinematic Arts alum Ke Huy Quan won an Oscar for his brilliant performance in the film.

(This isn’t the only movie or TV title you might hear nestled like Easter eggs in my remarks today.)

Not only was the film mind-bending, the title captures our imagination, and the tenor of our times.

2023: Contemporary life at warp speed, fast and furious. New technologies, pioneering healthcare treatments, and changing expectations taking place in every area. We’re living the proverbial “winds of change” every day.

Shifting demographics, the need for new foundational skills, the changing nature of work, and I don’t have to tell you, the STEM revolution – these issues and more are sweeping us into a swirl of confusing signals.

It’s a lot to take in. The swirl is magnified at universities because the nation’s campuses are the frontline for big, tough societal and political issues.

We’re fortunate at USC because we won’t be forced – or choose – to go backward. We’ll honor, support, and learn from the experiences of our diverse and global communities. And we’ll support the multitude of voices, perspectives, and ideas that make universities such compelling forces for change.

In fact, with the Dobbs decision last year, I stated publicly that USC, as a leading educational institution with a major health care system, must continue to champion safe access to women’s reproductive health care.

So, let’s return to thinking about “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” One of our countless privileges is that we’re tasked with helping our students and society transform this frenzy into work that improves humanity and builds lives of purpose. And this happens every day across our campuses at USC.

Our 49,000 students – and almost 30,000 staff and faculty – across our 22 schools are engaged in every imaginable endeavor: everything from patient care to accounting to dance to engineering. Add to that our 450,000-plus alumni network and USC’s reach and impact are staggering.

Our creative output is enormous. Our research turns chaos into cleverness and panic into purpose. Our academic and clinical programs provide opportunities for complementary and competing ideas to collide, coexist, and transform the future.

Our work together matters more than it ever has, and I’m honored to be your president.

Today, I’d like to take you out of the parts of the university you know best – and spur you to ponder what it means to be part of the greater USC. It’s a bit like the story of several people trying to describe an elephant while blindfolded! I’m going to give you a view of that elephant from my privileged vantage point as president of the entire university. 

When you leave today, I hope you’ll take away a greater appreciation for the people from every walk of life who are here truly doing – with purpose – “Everything, Everywhere All at Once.”

So let’s get started by talking about our students. They’re a vibrant group: our students are learning, growing, and flourishing. And we’re adding support resources every year.

At the Keck School, for example, we’ve seen record numbers in graduate and professional applications since 2001. Currently, we have almost 3,000 students and trainees – medical students, graduate students, and residents/fellows – and around 1,000 undergraduates studying here.

Our 8,600 doctors, nurses, clinicians, and caregivers are servicing more than 300,000 patients a year.

Our faculty and staff across the university are energetic, too. They’re conducting groundbreaking research, digging into political and societal issues, and providing educational innovations across every discipline. They’re designing world-class buildings, launching new businesses, and creating innovative digital media – while delighting global audiences on the stage and screen.

Here at the Health Sciences Campus, you’re conquering health issues with new therapeutics and finding ways to eliminate health care disparities and save lives. And you’re helping the most needy with street medicine and mobile dental clinics.

This work is noticed and appreciated. Just consider the more than 500 mentions in The New York Times this year alone!

Moreover, more and more of you are taking ideas and discoveries to market, and research from bench to bedside – and increasingly, to our phones.

Just last week, I visited an amazing carbon capture project around the corner from my office. They’re literally pulling CO2 out of the water on ships, sequestering it in inert compounds, and helping slow the Spectre of climate change.

If you’re like me, USC becomes more exciting – and the size and weight of the “elephant” becomes much clearer – when you explore our world from outside your own school, department, or activity.

I urge you, as well as our students, to take advantage of grand opportunities here. We all can rub shoulders with leading thinkers of a generation, and we can seek out the great diversity of thought and culture thriving on our campuses and in LA. We can generate new ideas with people outside our own sphere of influence, and connect with our neighbors and our incredible Trojan alumni network.

It’s a rare privilege to be part of such a community. We should do our best to enjoy it – and improve it for those yet to come.

2022-23 has been a year ofpurpose and push. We’ve faced down challenges that come only once in a lifetime.

Yes, the most serious global pandemic in more than a century affected all of us, but you were on the front lines, steering our health system and associated schools to protect and care for the USC community and millions of our fellow Angelenos.

From my view, our commitment to each other – and to our university – has grown even stronger. USC is on the move, and the state of the university is strong. We’re thriving in so many ways, and I’d like to show you why I can say that.

Our strength begins with our ambitious and diverse undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Yes, they say they’re drawn to our sunshine, but also to our culture of optimism, big dreams, inclusion, and multidisciplinary fusion. They’re curious and motivated and come from every background imaginable.

Here’s one example about our students you may not know: USC has a legacy of more than 100 years of ROTC on campus, and this year alone we have almost 300 students in all three branches of our programs.

Each year, we have 1,000 undergraduate and graduate student veterans enrolled. Our faculty and staff also include more than 400 veterans.

Fun fact: today, five members of our Air Force program are commissioning into the U.S. Space Force! Only 130 cadets were chosen nationwide, with most universities having only one or two selected.

Our students are also self-starters. And that’s always a good sign!

A highlight this year was the development of USC’s first-ever Student Commitment. It stands as a blueprint, but not a binding pledge, for living USC’s unifying values.

Many of you may not know that Student Affairs, with help from the Provost’s Office and faculty, also completely revamped our student judicial system, SJACs, this year. And, great news, people seem to really appreciate the new approach.

Momentum always builds from recruiting and retaining inspiring academic leaders, faculty, and staff. I’d like to introduce a few new leaders: Julia Ritter, our Kaufman dean; Jason King, our Thornton dean; and Josh Kun, our first vice provost for the arts.

Josh is an Annenberg professor, a MacArthur Fellow, and the perfect inaugural leader for this position. He’s already working on collaboration among our arts deans, USC museums, and the rest of our campuses – including all our health sciences.

We brought Arcadia Hospital into our roster of hospitals and just recently appointed a new leader, Ikenna “Ike” Mmeje, as its CEO. We also welcomed Scott Rabenold as our new senior vice president for university advancement, and Ishwar Puri moved into the newly created role of senior vice president of research and innovation. And we just welcomed law enforcement veteran Lauretta Hill to USC as the new chief of DPS.

Our faculty also continue to garner national and international awards. Eleven professors this year were inducted into prestigious national academies – a testament to their excellent scholarship and recognition by their peers. 

We also just announced eight new University and Distinguished professors, including Dean Hassy Cohen, Tom Buchanan, and Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati from the health sciences schools. Congratulations!

Three hundred fifty-one full-time and 519 part-time new faculty joined USC this year. Advising is also on our minds, and we’ll soon launch Advise USC – one of our largest student and faculty-focused technology initiatives ever.

On the research front, USC’s grants continue to grow, with funded grants in 2022 rising 8 percent above 2021 and surpassing $1 billion. More than 3,500 proposals – valued at $3.5 billion – were submitted this year, and 40 percent were awarded. That exceptional figure places USC researchers among the top in the nation.

I don’t have to tell you that groundbreaking research often requires groundbreakingfunding. Here’s a figure that gives me great hope: USC’s federal funding for Alzheimer’s and related dementias has eclipsed $1 billion during the past 10 years. And many of you in all our schools are involved in this research, including both Dean Meltzer and Dean Cohen.

Given the success of our researchers, we know if we build it, they will come, and they will excel.

We’re excited about our new Discovery and Translational Hub (DTH) right here at the Health Sciences Campus, as well as our recently opened cGMP facility. DTH will include space for 84 research groups – many in new positions – from Keck, Mann, and Ostrow, with a total workforce of more than 850.

This takes us one step closer to our ambitious goal of doubling research in seven to 10 years.

Of course, across the board, it’s the quality of research, clinical practice, and creative arts that drives impact. The grants, yes, but it’s really outputs such as discoveries, books, artistic creations, and new medicines and therapies. It’s national leadership, community involvement, and the people we touch that, together with the success of our graduates, drive USC’s reputation.

USC’s financial position is strong. Yet, in the current environment, we’ll continue to need careful management.

Keck Medicine’s finances remained healthy throughout fiscal year 2022, with a positive 3 percent operating margin. During the second half of 2022, however, national trends caught up with us as expenses climbed due to higher labor and supply costs. The health system undertook an aggressive plan to mitigate expenses and enhance revenues – and the results are paying off.

I’ve never seen a team work this hard. In fact, across USC, our teams have done an excellent job managing our budgets.

This year, the university balanced our budget and made strategic investments in compensation, student aid, and capital projects. And we paid off USC’s nearly $2.5 billion in legacy legal and COVID expenses. We’re also diligently managing the risks associated with potential downturns in the markets and inflationary pressures.

On the advancement front, our donors and rating agencies are expressing optimism about USC’s future. Last year, we raised $770 million in pledges and gifts, and we’re in the process of launching new campus-wide – as well as school-specific – fundraising initiatives.

While we can’t fund everything, everywhere, all at once, we will also continue to invest in capital projects and new programs like the $10 million Center for Generative AI and Society we announced last week.

We’re also making strategic investments across our campuses. Next month, we’re having a topping-off ceremony for the Dr. Allen and Charlotte Ginsburg Human-Centered Computation Hall – our new home for computer science. And we’re investing in a new home for the School of Dramatic Arts in our arts corridor, which also includes Thornton, Kaufman, and Cinematic Arts. It’s a beautiful historic building that will have modern spaces for rehearsal and performance. All of these buildings will generate a significant increase in our capacity and speed up many areas of research and the arts. 

We’re also doing a lot to seed other projects across the university. For instance, under Ishwar Puri, our Office of Research and Innovation provided more than $2 million in seed funding during the first two months of 2023 alone – much of it in the arts and sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, and engineering.

USC has an extraordinary number of strong, long-lasting collaborations with our communities, K-12 schools, public health system, and local businesses. These relationships are growing, and many of them are closely associated with our health system.

USC is more committed than ever to serving the residents of Los Angeles County as part of our commitment with LA County Hospital. We’ve been working together for well over a century – almost 140 years – and we’re looking forward to 140 more.

Now, I’m going to share a Fast Five of examples of community collaborations I think you’ll find interesting.

To start, Thursday we’re opening our eighth Head Start center near our University Park Campus, and a ninth one, right in Boyle Heights, is coming soon. USC’s early childhood centers serve almost 600 low-income children in neighborhoods adjacent to the University Park Campus and the Health Sciences Campus.

Our Street Medicine program to provide health care to unhoused Angelenos has become a national model, and is of great interest to the new mayor.

The Herman Ostrow School of Dentistryspent the last year restarting its community health clinics and fairs that were closed or significantly curtailed due to our own Contagion, COVID-19.

In November, the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Worklaunched a Trauma Recovery Center. It’s the first victim recovery behavioral health clinic at USC. It provides free and safe mental health services to survivors of crime, violence, and trauma in LA.

Our Leonard Davis School of Gerontology is partnering with local nonprofits to help older Angelenos age in place, particularly those living in areas surrounding USC.

The final reason I say USC is “on the move” stems from the momentum I see in our schools. In fact, USC is at the top of leading research universities for our number of highly ranked schools.

I’d like to share two examples of momentum, among the hundreds out there.

First, under the USC Institute for Addiction Science, we’re offering a new masters degree in addiction science, the first of its kind to be offered at a major university. It melds social work, medicine, and pharmaceutical efforts, and it’s a cross-disciplinary curriculum partnership with Dworak-Peck, Keck, and Mann.

Second, Viterbi was awarded an NSF grant to make coding accessible for persons living with physical disabilities. Our researchers developed personalized interfaces, enhanced by AI, to help learn and practice programming skills.

The goal is to break down barriers for the more than one billion people (15 percent of the world’s population!) who live with disabilities. These Viterbi researchers are acting as Avengers for social good, helping the 80 percent of people with disabilities who were excluded from the 2021 workforce to become a much-needed part of our economy.

Now, I’m going to switch gears to focus on USC’s future. In my just over three and a-half years here, I’ve been impressed by our commitment to excellence in everything, and by the extent to which our community has embraced change.

I love the fact that our mission has guiding principles for remaining relevant in a fast-changing world. I urge you to read it.

As ever, realizing our mission depends on having a powerful contemporary vision – a blueprint for action. Our blueprint is to increase our stature and impact by making USC the international standard bearer and innovator for collaborative learning and discovery, and the top choice for students, faculty, and staff who seek purpose-driven work and lives.

To achieve this vision, we must build on USC’s distinguishing traits and capacities.

To begin: USC is the leading “school of schools” in America. At our size, everything we do affects many people. We can rewrite the roadmap for higher education and health care, transform the professions, make belonging and mattering real, and partner with our communities to improve health, fairness, and prosperity.

We’ve been making significant progress on this vision within each academic unit, school, and clinic, and with our moonshots.

Our moonshots are bold strategies for cross-institutional collaboration – missions impossible, if you will – designed to increase our national leadership for years to come.

For the next few minutes, I’ll briefly update you on them, starting with the moonshot referred to as USC Competes. This initiative is designed to attract and retain the best and brightest in one of America’s most expensive cities.

It includes financial aid. USC enrolls more than 4,700 Pell-eligible undergraduates, more than most private research universities. We also have one of the largest financial aid pools in the nation – this year, $635 million in scholarships and grants. And in 2023-24, this pool is expected to increase by another 7 percent.

Our successful affordability initiative is entering its fourth year. It eliminates tuition for families making less than $80,000 a year. Approximately 21 percent of new first-year students have benefited, and about one-third are first-generation students. This represents nearly $22 million in additional annual funding to students.

Top of our agenda now is to focus on transfer student aid, graduate aid, and medical school tuition. We’re seeking to raise more than $1 billion in financial aid by the end of the decade.

USC Competes also focuses on our dedicated faculty and staff. Last year, we began implementing a five-year, $700 million investment in increasing compensation, benefits, and market adjustments at all levels.

In year one, we exceeded our target of $150 million and included substantial raises for graduate students, postdocs, and research, teaching, practitioner, and clinical-track faculty, as well as staff, tenured, and tenure-track faculty.

I want to give a special shoutout to our university-wide HR teams who ensured USC’s compliance in record time with California’s new Pay Transparency Act, which was legislated and then required to be in place.

The second moonshot is the transformation of our USC Health Sciences. I’ve reported previously on our governance changes, including a Board of Trustees Health Care Board and alignment of our health-related schools under Dr. Steve Shapiro, USC’s senior vice president for health affairs.

The new governance structure is speeding up new programmatic initiatives and propelling the $3 billion Campaign for Health forward. We’re planning for faculty growth, research support, and student aid. We’re making other big investments, including our new partnership with Arcadia Hospital, and a new, 100,000 square-foot medical office building in Pasadena, which includes an ambulatory surgery center, an imaging center, an endoscopy center, and much more.

In November, we took a highly unusual step by reimagining the use of a marvelous gift from physicist, inventor, and former USC Trustee Alfred E. Mann. This gift had grown to more than $230 million in two decades.

With the Alfred E. Mann Charities and Alfred Mann Foundation for Biomedical Engineering’s directors, we redirected these funds to enable growth in academic and research activities at the intersection of the health sciences, engineering, and other basic sciences at USC.

We designated more than $100 million for early investment in research, and we added new endowed chairs in biomedical engineering subject clusters across a number of schools. We also endowed both our newly named Alfred E. Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the Mann Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Viterbi School.

And stay tuned – we’re about to launch a new joint biomedical research and innovation initiative between USC and Children’s Hospital LA to improve children’s health. More on that soon.

Our moonshot to reimagine athletics is also progressing well. We’re committed to ensuring all our student-athletes can compete at the highest level athletically – and achieve at the highest level academically.

Our move to the Big Ten Conference next year places us on the national stage. It positions our programs and athletes for long-term success and sustainability, and gives USC a strong voice in the national dialogue on sports.

It’s been a great year for our teams as well, with a huge football turnaround under Coach Lincoln Riley. Caleb Williams won the Heisman, men’s and women’s basketball both made it to the NCAA tournament, and many teams are competing for national titles as we speak.

Some of you may not know: Keck Medicine has been treating our student-athletes for many years, providing training and support to ensure they perform at their highest ability on the field – and off.

This year we also had the honor of naming our main track field after Allyson Felix. Allyson is the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in Olympic history and a proud Rossier alum. Most importantly, she exemplifies winning the right way – with honor – and using her voice to drive change. My hope is that students and alumni walking past her namesake field will be inspired to learn more about her story.

In the next few weeks, we’ll publicly launch our fourth big moonshot, a 10-year, billion dollar-plus initiative to accelerate advanced computing at USC. So, I won’t talk about it until the announcement comes.

Of course, this won’t be the first time USC is at the forefront of an exponential leap in technology. In fact, Viterbi’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) helped develop the internet, including the Domain Name System and TCP/IP protocols that remain the digital backbone of the web today.

Finally, we’re developing additional moonshots in areas such as sustainability. There’s so much going on in this area. For example, we launched Assignment: Earth, our framework for a more sustainable university and planet. 

We’ve already achieved significant milestones. We’re now purchasing renewable electricity from LADWP that is 45 percent less carbon-intensive. It’s a real win-win because our agreement also ensures that our neighbors can purchase lower-cost renewable energy.

The Keck School is also placing these issues front and center by addressing the health care industry’s carbon footprint – and finding key ways to reduce it.

I hope I’ve helped you understand the true spirit of USC, to appreciate our “beautiful elephant” in its fullest form. No matter your vantage point, you can see that it’s a time of great promise, as well as challenge, for USC.

Going forward, I’m confident we will continue in the great Trojan tradition – managing through challenges, seizing opportunities, and getting even stronger. But we’ll need to build additional critical infrastructure, manage our finances prudently, and invest in the success of our students, faculty, and staff.

We’ll also need to keep raising the bar on ethics and values, and improving the ways we live and work together. This is how USC can truly become the exemplar for what I call “excellence at scale.”

So, what does it take to be excellent at scale? Size, quality, speed, and connection.

USC is big. Each year, we graduate more than 5,000 diverse undergraduates and 11,000 graduate students – and 2,300 of those are medical professionals. We enroll 13,000 international students – 27 percent of our student population! We’re also the largest private employer in the City of Los Angeles, and one of only two university-based medical systems in the LA area.

USC is excellent. Our schools are leaders in their fields. The Keck School, for example, is number one in NIH funding per investigator (among the top 40 medical schools) and seven Keck departments are top 10 in their fields.

And the Trojan call-to-excel in everything extends throughout the university, and includes our physician scientists, our architects and artists, our engineers and nurses, our IT specialists, and our faculty and staff.

USC can do fast. We have a history of boldness and inclusivity. We take big swings – and we do them decisively. And boldness often drives the day.

Yet as strong as we are individually, USC’s biggest boost comes from the strength and power generated by the bridges that connect us.

Connection is, to my mind, the most important element needed to achieve excellence at scale. And I believe we must foster this with every tool we have.

I could list many examples of powerful connections you’re already making, and each of you could come up with a dozen more. Here are three brief examples:

The Center on Artificial Intelligence Research for Health connects ISI and the Keck School with our Silicon Beach campus. It promotes collaboration between AI researchers and health sciences researchers. It’s called AI-4-Health and it’s delivering exciting new discoveries.

We’re also collaborating with other universities. Keck researchers and their peers have conducted the largest-ever genetic study of prostate cancer in men of African descent. Their work is leading us to new understandings of a very serious problem.

Finally, The Accountants at Leventhal are collaborating with the IRS to provide 1,500 hours of volunteer tax service. They’re assisting low-income residents in communities surrounding the University Park Campus and the Health Sciences Campus. Just last tax season, they secured over $600,000 in refunds.

As president, I’m so fortunate to see this kind of creative interplay all the time, and I hope you can see it too.“Excellence at scale” defines the best part of who we are today, and captures our aspirations for the future. 

When you think of challenges facing the world, I think you’ll agree that USC is a tremendous force for good. Our nation needs education, research, and health care institutions with the size, excellence, flexibility, and a culture of collaboration like USC’s to drive real change in the face of heavy turbulence.

Not only is USC uniquely positioned to address these tectonic shifts – we’re primed to expand our reach in ways that are important to humanity’s future. 

Our new Capital Campus in the heart of Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, for instance, places USC at the center of our democracy, close to The West Wing, where we can play a much bigger role. Research and policy decisions drive the conversation in Washington, and we now have an important seat at the table.

In closing, I’ll answer a question I’m often asked: what is USC’s blueprint for success?

Well, you can start with our fiercely loyal and ambitious Trojan Family. Add to that our academic strength, location and resources, relentless self-evaluation, and some very ambitious goal-setting.

However, I believe the most important aspect of our success is our deep and abiding commitment to placing our students, patients, and humanity at the center of all we do. Our commitment to them powers our greatest journey.

Now, before I end, some thank yous.

Thank you for attending today.

To USC’s leadership team, The Incredibles – thank you for bringing diligence and resolve to steering our great university.

To our dedicated Board of Trustees – we could have no better stewards.

To the staff, faculty, and students actively involved in all types of shared governance – thank you for keeping vigilant.

To our incredible staff: our building and groundskeepers; our hospitality, events, and production teams; DPS; and many more – you ensure every part of our university moves efficiently and safely.

And to our incredible faculty, students, and the Trojan alumni family – and to all of the health care scientists and frontline workers – you make USC what is and what it will be: a truly Modern Family.

When I speak at commencement this year, I’ll feel a little like a senior in the Class of 2023 after four transformative years at USC. And I’ll want to leave our seniors with a sense of hope and purpose.

Even from our Inception in 1880, USC’s connection with the surrounding community was a core principle. Our students learn the importance of that connection in their time here, and they ultimately become community builders, innovators, and connectors leading our world to a better future.

People have a choice. They can see the future as daunting and other places and people as something to fear. Or they can see the future as connected and meaningful, filled with endless opportunity to create, help, and innovate.

I choose to see USC’s future as limitless, just as many of you here today do as well.

And I hope when people think of USC, they’ll think of a place where there is excellence in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.

Thank you, and Fight On!