New Student Convocation

August 18, 2016

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.

As I welcome you today, I recognize the road to becoming a Trojan was not an easy one. You have worked hard, and some of you have traveled far to be here.

USC is a place today where more than 54,000 applicants competed for 2,700 spots in the freshman class.

And this year’s admission rate – less than 17 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.

In the last year, our admissions staff visited twenty-one-hundred high schools in all 50 states and in 15 different nations – more than any other university.

Twenty percent of you had 4.0 G.P.A.’s in high school, but we turned away more than 3,600 applicants with straight A’s.

And the great majority of you had standardized test scores above the 95th percentile… but we also rejected thousands of students who had scores in the 99th percentile.

Getting into USC is about more than excellent grades and test scores.

We looked 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!

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, where you and the other person each derive some benefit from the alliance, such as a business partnership.

Such a friendship is easily broken, however, because it is based on common interest between two people. And common interests often change.

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

But Aristotle reminds us that this kind of friendship, too, is easily dissolved if one party suddenly finds the other unpleasant.

Neither of these friendships lasts forever.

In fact, these friendships could only last forever if they develop into the third type of friendship.

This one is based on goodness, and given substance by a person’s character. It is one in which 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 fortifies the very heart of a strong and stable society.

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;
  • In democratic principles;
  • 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 123 different nations on this campus, and we are home to more than 90 religious views.

We have students from all walks of life and highly diverse socioeconomic conditions.

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.

And 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. Some of you have already done that.

Every year, close to 3,000 USC students participate in traditional study-abroad programs for a semester.

Through these programs and other overseas study options, students excel academically while becoming world citizens.

To recognize and celebrate the best of these students, USC annually offers its Global Scholars program.

Nearly 100 students seek the distinction of being named a Global Scholar each year. Of those earning this distinction, the top 10 will also earn a prize award that can be applied to graduate study.

This past year, Global Scholars traveled to every continent. From Palau to Panama, and from Brisbane to Beijing, Global Scholars participated in unique research studies, service projects, and internships.

These scholars remind us that when you journey abroad, you should 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.

And through such movement, you will gain a greater understanding of every moment.

The next area in which you should become literate is the arts and humanities. 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: cinema, music, theater, art & design, dance, and architecture.

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.

Literature is so important to me that each spring I will send you a summer reading list.

This year’s summer reading list included Pulitzer prize-winning author David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers.

The number-one New York Times best seller tells the remarkable, behind-the-scenes story of how Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane.

McCullough’s book also holds many important lessons for leading research universities like USC. Chief among them is that innovations are borne through unbridled curiosity, imagination, and determination.

The Wright Brothers put pen to paper, and through ingenious design and relentless drive, they put wings to man as had never been done before.

In no small way, these bold and brilliant dreamers reinvented modern transportation through their study of books.

And I truly believe that the books you read will determine the person you become.

Another area in which I want you to become literate is democratic principles.

The ideals of democracy concern more than one’s right to vote. They also include other elements of a free and civil society, such as the right to own property and the right to have a trial by a jury of one’s peers.

These principles offer humanity its clearest path to truth and advancement, for when you are free to inquire, you are free to discover.

The last century saw the dramatic rise of democracies across the world. This growth has now mostly halted, and in some nations, democratic principles have begun to fray.

Indeed, the struggle to nourish and maintain democratic values is an ancient one.

In Barry Strauss’ The Death of Caesar – another offering from my summer reading list – the author recounts the rise of Caesar as Rome’s first emperor over 2,000 years ago.

Although the Roman Republic had no written constitution, it knew liberty. Yet the specter of corruption and military dictatorship hung over it.

In this environment, Caesar would amass too much power, which led to his assassination. After his death, the loss of democratic values would live on in future governments.

Today, in this election year, while our discussions might inspire passionate division, America’s prevailing devotion to democratic principles empowers us to witness the peaceful transition of power…

…But history teaches that we must remain forever vigilant.

While you are at USC, I hope you will take electives that expose you to the importance of democratic principles.

And by becoming conversant in these ideals, you will help ensure that you have a free voice, and build a society in which these values flourish.

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.

Ethics is the foundation to integrity.

Certainly we all know of people who have had ethical lapses. And we all know about plagiarism. That is something you will be reminded about in every class at USC.

Simply, plagiarism is taking someone’s idea or argument or copyrighted work and passing it off as your own – without crediting your source.

In the age of the Internet, it is so easy to ignore intellectual property rights, or fair use, as we copy material with just two clicks.

Sometimes, the theft is deliberate. Other times, it is unintentional, such as when careless note-taking leads to confusion over what material is yours.

Either way, there are consequences. At USC, we want every student to be careful.

Cicero, the great Roman politician and philosopher, laid out the importance of ethics nearly twenty-two hundred years ago.

All of the wealthy and powerful families in Rome wanted to send their sons to Plato’s famous Academy in Athens. Cicero was no different, and sent his only son, Marcus, there.

There was only one problem. 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!

And 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 Idaho, if you recognize another Trojan, you flash the victory sign and say, “Fight On!”

So, on the count of three, let’s all raise our hands in the Trojan victory sign and say those two special words:

One… two…. three… ”Fight On!”

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