State of the University address 2023: University Park Campus

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

March 28, 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.

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

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 and pioneering discoveries 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, 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.

So, let’s return to thinking about “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

One of our countless privileges is that we’re tasked to help our students and society transform this frenzy into work that improves humanity and builds lives of purpose. And that happens every day at USC.

Our 49,000 students – and almost 30,000 staff and faculty – across our excellent 22 schools are engaged in every imaginable endeavor. 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. All of you turn panic into purpose, and our academic 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.

What I’d like to do today is 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 have a fuller appreciation for the immense variety and capacity of USC. And most importantly, 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.”

Let’s get started by talking about our students. They’re a vibrant group: close to 49,000 of them are learning, growing, flourishing, and moving forward to build lives of purpose. And we’re adding support resources every year.

Our faculty and staff are energetic, too. They’re conquering health issues with new therapeutics and finding ways to eliminate health care disparities and save lives. They’re designing world-class buildings, launching new businesses, and creating innovative digital media – while delighting global audiences on the stage and screen.

They conduct groundbreaking research, probe political and societal issues, and develop and implement policies at every level. They’re educational innovators, run free legal clinics, and help the most needy with street medicine. They mentor neighborhood students and work on sustainable initiatives to make our neighborhoods greener and healthier.

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

Moreover, Trojans take their ideas and discoveries to market, and their 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 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 the grand opportunities here. We all can rub shoulders with leading thinkers of a generation. We can seek out the great diversity of thought and culture thriving on campus and in LA, generate new ideas and fields with people outside our own sphere, and connect with our neighbors and our incredible Trojan alumni network.

It’s a rare privilege to be part of such a community. As such, we should not only do our best to enjoy it, but we should also improve it for those yet to come.

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

From my view, our commitment to each other – and to our university – has grown even stronger. USC is on the move, the state of the university is strong, and we are thriving in so many ways.

Our strength begins with our ambitious and diverse students. Yes, they say they’re drawn to our sunshine, but also to our culture of optimism, big dreams, inclusion, and multidisciplinary fusion.

Just last week, we offered undergraduate admission to students from the largest and strongest-ever cohort of applicants. They’re curious and motivated and come from every background imaginable. And they’re self-starters – which is always a good sign!

A highlight of 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.Students served on the advisory team, which was guided by feedback from thousands of Trojans and the Culture Journey teams. It’s meant to catalyze discussion about university culture and responsibility – and to specify expectations regarding integrity, respect, and being responsible neighbors.

Many of you also may not know that Student Affairs, with help from the Provost’s Office and faculty, completely revamped our student judicial system, SJACs, this year. They created a new, friendlier student handbook and two new accountability offices. The new model puts student development at the center.

It’s a bold step for a university to sunset old processes and create new ones that are solidly anchored in university values. I’m pleased to report that we’re already receiving positive feedback on the new program from students and faculty.

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

Annenberg professor and MacArthur Fellow Josh Kun is the perfect inaugural leader for this position – and he’s already working on collaboration among our arts deans, USC museums, and the rest of our campuses.

We also welcomed Ikenna “Ike” Mmeje as CEO of Arcadia Hospital and Scott Rabenold as our senior vice president for university advancement. Ishwar Puri moved into the newly created role of senior vice president of research and innovation. And law enforcement veteran Lauretta Hill joined USC as the new chief of DPS.

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

Three hundred and fifty-one full-time and 519 part-time new faculty joined USC this year. And we’re adding $50 million more to the diversity pool managed by the provost.

Advising is also on our minds: 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.

While groundbreaking STEM research often requires groundbreaking funding, not all fields have access to external funding. And we’re doing a lot to seed 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. That has helped support everything from a much-needed 500 megahertz NMR spectrometer to Humanities and Humanistic Social Science awards.

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, media, and artistic creations. It’s national leadership, community service, and new businesses and technologies that – together with the success of our graduates – drive USC’s reputation for excellence and impact.

While there are far too many examples to cover, here’s one meaningful example: Viterbi was awarded an NSF grant to make coding accessible for persons living with physical disabilities. Our researchers developed personalized prototype interfaces, enhanced by AI, to help them 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 become a much-needed part of our economy.

USC’s financial position is also strong. Yet in the current environment, we’ll continue to need careful management. Our teams have done an excellent job managing our budgets, with the result that this year we balanced our budget; made strategic investments in compensation, student aid, and capital projects; and 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. Efficiency and purpose will be especially important next year.

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 invested nearly $500 million in capital projects last year. We also invested in strategic new programs – including a new $10 million Center for Generative AI and Society that will be used to seed research, convene experts, and expand our national leadership in arts, media, and education.

USC has an extraordinary number of strong, long-lasting collaborations with our communities, K-12 schools, public health systems, and local businesses. And these relationships are growing.

For example, this Thursday, we’re opening our eighth Head Start center. USC’s early childhood centers serve almost 600 low-income children in neighborhoods adjacent to the University Park Campus and the Health Sciences Campus. And our Street Medicine teams who provide health care to unhoused Angelenos have become a national model.

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 the number of highly ranked schools.

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

First, USC Rossier’s teacher-in-residence program – in partnership with LAUSD – is increasing the number of underrepresented teachers of color in public schools.

Second, Cinematic Arts has launched its Location-Based Entertainment major. It explores how audiences of the future will seek entertainment experiences that move beyond traditional movie theaters into theme parks, restaurants, stadiums, airports, and more.

Third, USC School of Architecture’s A-lab is providing critical exposure about architecture to underserved high school students in LA. It’s the first of its kind in Southern California.

Fourth, USC Annenberg’s Center for Climate Journalism and Communication is teaching professionals across sectors about the consequences of climate change. They trained 25 journalists across eight markets over the past year alone.

Fifth, the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology launched a first-of-its kind program called the Doctorate of Longevity Arts and Sciences. It focuses on healthy aging over the entire lifespan, which is the leading edge in the field of aging.

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. For me, like you, living the mission starts with embracing the principles, and it’s been rewarding to see our community place these principles front and center. You see this in our Student Commitment and new SJACs rules, our commitment to workplace flexibility, our work on Title IX, our expansion of mental health services, and so much more.

As ever, realizing our mission depends on our having a powerful, contemporary vision – a blueprint for action. Our blueprint increases 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. With our breadth and excellence, we can rewrite the roadmap for higher education, 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 and school, 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 were awarded to undergraduates from all sources, including school-based scholarships. 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.

Top of our agendas now is a focus on transfer student aid and graduate program 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.

We’re also improving work-life balance, helping subsidize mass transit commutes, and connecting employees to childcare and pet care resources. We’re enabling more work-from-home flexibility – and have, for several years, added an additional week of holiday vacation at year’s end.

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 all 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. And construction of the new 260,000-square-foot Discovery and Translational Hub on our Health Sciences Campus will begin soon.

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.

Together 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 health sciences, engineering, and other basic sciences at USC.

We designated more than $100 million for early investment in research and to add new endowed chairs in biomedical engineering subject clusters in 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.

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 gives USC a strong voice in the national dialogue on sports.

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.

Last year, we began a stunning turnaround of our football program when we hired Lincoln Riley. We’ve also hired a number of transformational coaches for many of our impressive teams. And, as you know, Caleb Williams won the Heisman Trophy. He gave an incredible speech and is known widely as a caring person – and as a Trojan who stands up for important national causes.

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 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, such as reducing carbon emissions, even as our footprint and size has grown; eliminating single-use plastic beverage bottles; diverting half our waste from landfills; and reducing our water use.

We’re now purchasing renewable electricity from LADWP that is 45 percent less carbon-intensive. This is a real win-win because our agreement also ensured that our neighbors can purchase lower-cost renewable energy.

Finally, we’re about to finalize our first cohort of five new Presidential Sustainability postdocs, and we’ll be moving soon into our new Sustainability Hub on the University Park Campus.

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 – manage through challenges, seize opportunities, and get even stronger. But we’ll need to build critical infrastructure, manage our finances prudently, and invest in the success of our students, faculty, and staff.

We’ll also need to keep strengthening our culture by raising the bar on our ethics and values, and improving the ways we live and work as a community. 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. In fact, 27 percent of our student population – 13,000 students – are international. We’re also the largest private employer in the City of Los Angeles.

USC is excellent. Our schools are leaders in their fields. So many of our students, graduates, faculty, and alumni are changing the world. And the Trojan call to excel in everything extends to our teams, hospitals, professors, doctors, nurses, IT specialists, 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 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. The “connective tissue” linking our 22 schools and powering interdisciplinary collaboration comes directly from your determination to stretch, and it sets USC apart. I believe we must foster this with every tool we have.

I could rattle off many examples of the powerful connections you’re already making, and each of you could come up with a dozen more.

There’s the new combined degree just launched by Price and Marshall that brings together Price’s strength in real estate development and urban planning, and Marshall’s prowess in finance and investment. A big win!

And what about the new program created by Kaufman and Keck called Dance and Mobility? It teaches students to facilitate dance classes for people living with disabilities.

In the AI space, Viterbi and Marshall just created a joint undergraduate degree called AI for Business.

The Gould School of Law just launched an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in Legal Studies to study how law affects society at all socioeconomic levels. It’s one of the only such degrees nationwide.

Finally, the Leventhal School of Accounting and the Marshall School of Business are forming a new, joint undergraduate degree in Accounting and Finance.

The Accountants at Leventhal also partnered with the IRS to provide 1,500 hours of volunteer tax service assisting low-income residents in the communities surrounding the University Park Campus and Health Sciences Campus. They secured over $600,000 in refunds for their clients.

As president, I see the creative interplay between our schools all the time, and I hope you can see it too.

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 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 in the center of our democracy, where we can play a much bigger role.

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, cutting-edge initiatives, location and resources, relentless self-evaluation, care for each other, and some very ambitious goal-setting.

Being bold and determined is propelling USC forward today as it has in the past. However, I believe the most important aspect of our success is our deep and abiding commitment to placing our students, 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 so many more – you ensure every part of our university moves efficiently and safely.

And to our incredible faculty, students, and the Trojan alumni family: you make USC what it was, what it 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.