New Student Convocation

August 20, 2015

I would like to thank all of you – our freshmen, our transfer students, and our parents – for coming to USC on this very special occasion.

This ceremony is a rite of passage, an enduring tradition that links the students of today with scholars across time and across continents. Today, we induct you into the academy, and we embrace you as scholars.

We have gathered here in this place at a very pivotal moment in your lives, and a very pivotal moment in this university’s history. USC today is one of the academically elite universities, drawing the attention and envy of institutions from every corner of the world.

Transformative faculty and top talented students from around the world now strive to make USC their home. USC is a place today where 53,000 applicants competed for 2,700 spots in the freshman class. And this year’s admission rate – less than 18 percent – is the lowest in USC’s history.

As hard as you worked to get in here, we worked just as hard to get you here. We traveled far and wide to find you. In the last year, our admissions staff visited twenty-one-hundred high schools in all 50 states and in 16 different nations – more than any other university.

Nearly 30 percent of you had 4.0 G.P.A.’s in high school, but we turned away nearly 3,000 applicants with straight A’s. The great majority of you had standardized test scores at or above the 95th percentile, but we also rejected hundreds of students who had perfect scores.

We searched for well-rounded students of immense achievement, impeccable character, and immeasurable drive, dedicated to leading lives of service and leadership. In other words, we were looking for Trojans!

So, if you feel very special that you are here today, it’s because you are. And you deserve it!

The coming years promise to be some of the most intellectually rewarding ones you will ever know, but I hope they will be some of the most socially rewarding ones as well. In four years, you will leave USC with friendships that fulfill your entire life.

Aristotle reminds us in his Nicomachean Ethics that there are only three different kinds of friendships – those based on:

  • Common interest;
  • Love; and
  • Goodness

He also reminds us that “without friends, no one would choose to live…”

During your time at USC, I have no doubt you will forge friendships that will help you flourish.

The first kind of friendship is based on utility and common interest, where you and a friend each derive something materially useful from each other, such as a business deal or partnership. It is easily broken because it is based on common interest brought to the relationship between two people.

The second type of friendship is when two people truly fall in love with each other, drawn to each other’s wit, personality, passion and looks. I have no doubt you will experience this type of friendship here in the next four years.

But remember, Aristotle reminds us that this kind of friendship is also short-lived. It doesn’t last forever.

However, the first two kinds of friendships based on common interest or love could only last forever if they develop into the third type of friendship, based on goodness, where friends:

  • Truly care for each other;
  • Admire and enjoy each other’s company, character, and goodness; and
  • Help one another attain and maintain this goodness.

So, always remember: Friendship based on goodness is indeed the moral oxygen that holds a strong and stable society together.

Unlike any other university in the world, USC offers a unique setting in which to build these kinds of friendships. We bring together different backgrounds and experiences, we bring together scientists and artists, and we create a small college atmosphere within a major research university.

Today, as we induct you into our academic community, I also want to talk to you about something that may seem like an unusual topic, especially at an elite university such as USC. That topic is literacy.

When I speak of literacy, I’m not just referring to the ability to read and write. Today you need to be literate in more than the traditional meaning of the word.

You need to be fluent in many different areas. I hope during your time at USC you will become literate in:

  • Imagination;
  • In the world;
  • In the arts and the great literary works;
  • And, finally, in ethics

Let me begin with imagination. What is imagination? It has been called “what the eyes cannot see, what the ears cannot hear, and what the heart cannot feel.”

It has been called the beginning of all creation, a preview of life’s coming attractions, and our one weapon in the war against reality. It is the eye of the soul, the oxygen of the mind.

Imagination is less of a skill to be learned than a process to be harnessed. In youth, children are encouraged to use their imagination. Yet in adulthood, many are encouraged to lose their imagination – but for what gain?

All of the world’s greatest breakthroughs – from timeless works of art to timely innovations – first appeared as a flash of intuition, a flicker of insight, a spark of inspiration. We live in an age of imagination where novelty continually remakes the world, and each of you is a spool of ideas whose threads have the potential to reweave the global tapestry.

Pay attention to those ideas. Follow where they lead. Listen to what they have to teach you.

To be truly imaginative, you will have to open yourselves up to new ideas and new experiences. Find creative people – within the walls of academic buildings and beyond. Spend time with them. Get their advice. Let them challenge you.

USC offers a highly diverse environment. We have students from all 50 states and 115 different nations on this campus, and we are home to over 90 student religious groups.

These students – and I mean you – come to USC for different reasons, but you share the same ambitions. You have a thirst for acquiring and creating new knowledge, and you want to make a difference in the world.

To further enrich your imagination, I also urge you to broadly explore classes outside of your major. At some point, you may take such a class that captures your imagination as no other has before. I want you to know that it’s okay to change your major – don’t feel guilty. Several years ago, both of my daughters graduated from USC – and they both changed their majors more than once.

So, students – and especially parents – don’t worry if this happens. It is all a part of opening up one’s imagination!

In addition to imagination, you should also become literate in the external world around you. Today the economy is global, and competition is global. Throughout your lives and careers, you will have to work and interact with individuals from other backgrounds and other nationalities.

USC provides the proper setting and training to understand other people and cultures and to form friendships with those from other parts of the United States and the globe.

One of the best ways to become familiar with the world is to travel. When you take in the world from an unfamiliar angle, you gain a new vantage point.

Take advantage of the USC opportunity to study abroad. Every year, more than 2,500 USC students participate in traditional study abroad programs for a semester. And if one includes shorter academic programs as well, nearly 40 percent of all USC undergraduates study abroad in some capacity. When you do, venture beyond the well-worn paths.

As you travel, you will learn that the world around you has the power to shape the world within you. Through such movement, you will gain a greater understanding of every moment.

The next area in which you should become literate is the arts. Although my background is in engineering, I have always had a passion for the arts, especially theater. I believe that science and technology are tools toward an end, but great art is our end as fully developed human beings.

When I was a student, I immersed myself in the Greco-Roman classics —the plays, the chronicles, the myths. They helped shape my views and helped define me as a person.

I believe in the power of art to transform us. I believe that the arts should not be located on the outskirts of our lives, but at the heart of our existence. The arts should not be a part of life. They should be a way of life.

At USC, more than one out of six undergraduates are majoring or minoring in the arts. Our university currently boasts six schools devoted solely to the arts. The newest of these – the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance – opens this semester.

We also offer you Visions and Voices, our expansive arts and humanities initiative, whose programs are free for all of our students. Regardless of your major at USC, I encourage you to graduate with an appreciation for, and a solid foundation in, the arts and humanities.

The fourth area in which you should be fluent is great literature. You are what you read!

Literature is a window into the human heart, the human condition, and the human spirit. It gives us insight into our hopes and dreams, passions and desires, triumphs and failures.

The literary voices of the past still call out to us in the present. By opening up a good book, you are engaging in a conversation with a great mind whose wisdom resonates across the ages.

Here at USC, we have a special love of literature. As you may know, every year we host the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on our campus. This is the largest literary event in the United States. Over two days in April, we host over 400 authors and welcome more than 150,000 people. I invite you to join us this coming April for another wonderful weekend with your favorite authors and books.

Literature is so important to me that each spring I will send you a summer reading list. I truly believe that the books you read will determine the person you become.

Now let me talk to you, finally, about the one thing that makes all of the previous types of literacy worthwhile – and that is ethics.

Nearly twenty-two hundred years ago, the great Roman politician and philosopher Cicero sent his only son away to college. All of the wealthy and powerful families in Rome wanted to send their sons to Plato’s famous Academy in Athens.

There was only one problem. Cicero’s son, Marcus, like many students of his age, was more interested in the social aspects of higher education. Let’s just say that he was neglecting the great books in favor of having a good time in Athens.

So, Cicero wrote an entire book of letters to Marcus to remind him of his responsibilities to himself, his family, and his society. In short, he wanted to remind his son of the principles that lead to an honorable life.

Cicero titled his book On the Obligations of a Good Citizen, or, in Latin, De Officiis. This was in fact Cicero’s last book. Even as he wrote it, he was aware that his opposition to Mark Antony might tragically end his life.

Let me share with you some brief thoughts that Cicero hoped would be meaningful to his son, and that I hope might inform your days at USC.

What, Cicero asks, distinguishes a human being from a beast?

Animals are moved only by their senses, and cannot perceive the past or the future. Humans, on the other hand, possess a unique ability to reason and to comprehend the chain of consequences, perceive the causes of things, and connect the present and the future.

A human, Cicero wrote, “can therefore easily survey the course of his whole life, and make the necessary preparations for its conduct.”

So, to paraphrase Cicero: The choices you make today will shape the person you become tomorrow. The actions you take in the present will have consequences in the future.

Use your reason to make honorable decisions – decisions that will ultimately benefit you. Cicero also tells his son, “We are not born for ourselves alone. We do not live for ourselves alone. Our country, our family, our friends, have a share in us.”

Today, as you embark on your Trojan journey, remember that you do not live for yourself alone. Simply by living in our society, you have obligations to others – those closest to you and the wider human community.

By enrolling at the University of Southern California, you are now part of an extraordinary community known as the Trojan Family. All of you come here from different parts of the country and the world. You have different majors and career goals. You have different beliefs and backgrounds.

But what unites you, what unites us, is our membership in one family – the Trojan Family – that includes all parents and students. This Trojan Family currently has 300,000 members worldwide.

Like any family, we share many traditions, which we pass down from generation to generation. You can witness some of those traditions in the Coliseum while cheering our football team!

Allow me to close with one of these traditions. It’s a simple gesture that all Trojans know.

No matter where you are in the world, whether you are walking along the street in Los Angeles or in the heart of New York City, or Mumbai, or London, or Shanghai, or you are on the island of Santorini or you are bike riding in the Midwest, if you recognize another Trojan, you flash the victory sign and say, “Fight On!”

Welcome to the Trojan Family, and thank you for choosing USC!