State of the University Address

February 2017
C. L. Max Nikias
President

Serving as a member of the USC faculty for the past 25 years has been one of the greatest joys of my life. I have always admired our faculty’s competitiveness and ambition; creativity and foresight; collaborative spirit; and commitment to the most sacred values of the academy, which are ancient yet forever youthful.

These qualities have driven many victories of the human mind, body, and spirit. As a result, our scholarly work is more dynamic and influential today than ever. Our student body is more talented and diverse today than ever. And our university is performing at a higher level than ever in research, teaching, patient care, artistic creation, athletics, and yes, community service.

Others finally confirmed our progress: in their new ranking of top American universities, The Wall Street Journal and Times of Higher Education listed only three universities west of Chicago in their top 25. All three were privates. And USC was one of them. USC ranked 15th overall out of 1,061 universities nationally.

What especially gratified me is that, among the top 25 research universities, USC was tied for second in faculty and student diversity, alongside Columbia University. In fact, a member of our faculty recently wrote to me, saying, “We have finally placed the notion of the University of Spoiled Children on the ash-heap of history.” Indeed, we did it. We all here did it together! And we did it by being true to our own identity.

Rather than looking to copy others, this academic community created its own pathway in establishing its own identity: “the USC of American higher education.” My colleagues, we have reached a point where truly we have no one else to chase anymore. But I believe it would be a big mistake to rest on our laurels. We are defined by the magnificence of our dreams. So, why should our dreams narrow while USC blossoms? This is the moment to accelerate our efforts even more. Ÿ

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In this era, change is the only constant. The only certainty is constant uncertainty and disruption. But for our academic community, uncertainty opens the way for new adventures. And this newest adventure can allow USC to serve in perpetuity as an undisputedly elite academic institution.

When our founder Robert Maclay Widney nurtured our university into being in 1880, USC was not in position to be an exclusive, insular institution. By necessity, in this American frontier of expectation, we were open to all—enrolling women and drawing students from across the Pacific in our earliest years. We were global before it became the fashion or the new reality.

And, there is a reason that USC and America’s leading research universities remain the envy of the world, and the last unrivaled asset of our nation: we have protected and encouraged a singular set of core academic values—including intellectual freedom, an unfettered search for truth, collaboration, diversity, inclusion, openness, and gender equality.

For generations, this has made American universities a magnet for the best talent from every continent. For generations, this has kept America at the vanguard of innovation. And for generations, this has defined the American character.

Yet today, two American values have come into conflict: the security of America’s citizenry and our openness to the peoples of the world. We honor efforts to keep our nation safe. However, we will champion the inclusiveness and openness that set our nation and its top universities apart.

USC in particular reflects an unprecedented degree of inclusiveness. Our university was founded with a commitment to international diversity. And our university has been nourished to greatness by the rich exchange of ideas spanning a limitless range of religious viewpoints. If we lose that inclusive spirit, we lose our souls and our selves.

Combine that with our unmatched academic scope and breadth; our large scale, which allows for high-level experimentation and impact; our independence and entrepreneurialism; and our record of public service.

All these traits will allow us to shape this new century like no others can. And while USC imitates no one, I do believe our university has the chance to serve as an intellectual engine in this 21st century—in much the way Oxford University served in an earlier century as the intellectual engine of the United Kingdom and the British commonwealth nations.

USC is better positioned than anyone else to serve as the intellectual and cultural fabric of a world that is tied to the Pacific; to become the foremost laboratory of experimentation; and, to become the place where the influencers of this new age will be educated, shaped, and molded.

These ambitions are audacious but attainable. And they require addressing five key areas going forward.

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The first area involves the scholarly faculty, who represent the foundation for all academic excellence. Here we must note the tragic passing of our colleague, Professor Bosco Tjan, this past December. He was a beloved mentor and a dedicated professor within the academy. We honor him by celebrating his example as a scholar and a person; and we are also seriously addressing the faculty-student relationship, for the well-being of our entire academic community.

Today our campuses are home to Nobel laureates, national medal and award recipients, and hundreds of members of national academies and other prestigious societies. This year alone, we celebrated a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur fellowship, two national medals, and many other honors.

USC’s academic foundation now runs deeper than ever—as evidenced by the ranks of our outstanding junior faculty. They are in a position to lead their disciplines, and to define new areas of scholarship in coming decades.

But, now, let us unleash this faculty’s full power! Let us accelerate the recruiting of game-changing faculty, while also identifying and supporting the very best scholarship at USC. And let us forge the next phase of interdisciplinary research, which could be described as “convergence.” This requires harnessing the energies of various disciplines and then focusing them on society’s most pressing challenges.

Major convergence initiatives for our university, as we move forward, include biosciences and the discovery of vaccines; precision medicine for improving health; strengthening national security and defense; pioneering the digital media frontier, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things; exploring new energy sources; nurturing a global cohort of artists; creating economic opportunities for our region; and, establishing more academic partnerships around the globe.

The provost is also working with the deans to increase faculty diversity, and we have taken action to increase diversity and depth in the postdoctoral ranks. All this will bring us closer to achieving critical mass academically, so that everything can be pulled within USC’s orbit, as a world-class research university.

But as we move forward, my colleagues, let us be guided by the humanistic principles of Petrarch. He believed that the innovations of any generation are sterile unless they are illuminated by timeless human wisdom. Petrarch found such light in the works of Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Homer, and other classical authors. This helped birth the Renaissance and usher in an era of renewal.

Yet Petrarch saw himself not as a founder, not as a pioneer, but as a faithful servant of a humanistic tradition that knows no beginning and no end. May, therefore, our own work as an academic community be guided by this same humanistic spirit. And may it be the binding and quickening force for all the intellectual convergence that takes place on our campuses.

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The next major area for us to address involves USC’s student body. The talent and diversity of the student body continue to reach new levels. This year alone we celebrated two Rhodes Scholars, a nationally award-winning poet, and more. Those of us who have been here for many years can feel a change in the classes we teach. But we must redefine the curriculum and the experiences that will best serve them.

There is unprecedented demand for our freshman class: 56,000 applicants for 2,700 seats. The largest applicant pool ever! From this we will again assemble a class representing all 50 states, 120 nations, and 90 different religious views.

USC today, among peer private universities, ranks first nationally in Pell Grant recipients; second nationally in Latino students; and, third nationally in African-American students. In terms of traditional academic quality, we now draw as many Stanford-caliber students as Stanford does—and nearly three times as many Caltech-caliber students than Caltech does. But we also compete with the world’s finest conservatories for the best young artists: unconventional talents who infuse our community with creative energy and imagination.

The new Kaufman School of Dance has expanded our ability to nurture the elite dancers of our times. We also take great pride in being home to more than 1,100 ROTC members and students studying under veteran benefits.

Our students graduate at an incredible rate—92 percent. Those who take out loans have manageable debt—$24,000 on average with an extraordinarily low default rate: less than 1.6 percent. This has been supported by more than $320 million in financial aid—the largest pool provided by any university in America.

I believe we must also energize our academic culture. We need to find ways to increase teacher-student interaction. Our students deserve the highest levels of access and support—not only in the classroom, but beyond the classroom and in residential settings. Each of us must take responsibility for everyone else’s educational experience. And we must reinvent our curriculum to reflect the convergence of disciplines within our times.

We must encourage risk-taking. We should offer far more challenging electives on a pass/fail basis so our students can explore without damaging their future prospects. We must also recruit a more geographically balanced representation of countries and regions. And we must continue to find ways to improve access and affordability.

When the USC Village opens in August this year, we will finally have the chance to establish an elite residential academic environment. The USC Village will add 1.3 million square feet for our use, and room for 2,600 students.

Make no mistake about it: it will be the envy of American higher education. It will house eight world-class residential colleges. Each will have its own flags and symbols. Each will have its own theme and focus. Each will nurture a distinctive community. Each will feature faculty masters. Together they will give birth to powerful new student-life traditions. Consider one more priority for maximizing the student experience: we have an obligation, we have a duty, to all USC students, to steer them to the best career placement opportunities.

The Trojan Family network is indeed legendary. But moving forward we need to make serious investments in job placement, in each one of our schools, especially as the career landscape morphs rapidly.

These are technological times. And the educational process can and must be informed by new technology. I am proud of how the USC faculty has innovated digital technology to expand traditional teaching paradigms. Let us intensify our efforts to build an environment for experimentation in learning and teaching models, especially by taking advantage of breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.

But let us be mindful that technology can enhance but never replace certain aspects of the educational experience. Especially during a person’s formative undergraduate years, the USC campus residential experience cannot be replaced by online programs.

Yet USC has established the model for online graduate education—academically rigorous and financially viable. We have 13,400 students in 40 countries enrolled in graduate and professional degree programs, as well as executive and continuing education programs. We are particularly strong in health-related fields. We are becoming the online institution of choice for health professionals. Our projected tuition revenue this year from online education programs will reach $180 million. We should continue expanding our online programs, while preserving academic integrity and rigor.

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I’m very proud of the fact that USC today combines excellent academics with excellent athletics. USC’s legendary athletic heritage has undergone a renewal so that the glories of our student-athletes will continue serving as the glue binding our Trojan Family across nations and generations. As for USC’s indomitable championship spirit: we saw it proudly on display on January 2 in a Rose Bowl game for the ages!

The Trojan women won USC’s first-ever Women’s Capital One Cup, which goes to the nation’s best overall sports program. Our women’s teams also won national titles in beach volleyball, soccer, and water polo. And our women’s and men’s basketball programs continue to ascend nationally. Student-athlete graduation rates are at all-time highs for football and the overall athletic program. And finally, next year we expect nine of our 21 sports to exceed 90 percent graduation rates.

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The third of the five areas we must address involves medicine and patient care and the health professions. Medicine, biology, and biotechnology together have emerged as the indispensable Queen of the Sciences for this 21st century. And because of this academic community’s efforts—Keck Medicine of USC has experienced its greatest period of academic ascent and expansion. Because of disruption, many elite academic medical centers are struggling. Some are operating under heavy losses and lowered expectations.

 But as usual, a disrupted game is one that USC is nimble enough to capitalize on. The Keck School of Medicine has made close to 100 key faculty hires in recent years—many of them towering figures in their fields. Medical student quality and diversity have reached new highs, with an acceptance rate of only 5 percent and with underrepresented minorities comprising 23 percent of the entering class. And more than 50 percent are women.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding is up 20 percent over the past year. And non-NIH funding is up a full 50 percent over that period. USC’s clinical revenues have more than quadrupled in six years to $1.5 billion. And our Keck Hospital now has the highest acuity rate in the United States. This means that our doctors and their teams take on the most difficult cases in the country.

Now we can see what the identity of USC Medicine can be in coming years: one that proudly delivers high-end care; one that combines medical sciences innovation with true community service; and, one that brings Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) into an ever-closer partnership.

Let us never forget: we are building the medical enterprise of tomorrow while those anchored in yesterday will struggle. My colleagues, we have reached the point where we can recruit anyone we want—better than excellent faculty. We must continue capitalizing on this, especially as the aura of invincibility of other academic medical centers in California is evaporating, because of your achievements. We have opportunities and duties to guide a human healthcare renaissance. But we must begin serious planning for our future.

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I’m very pleased to announce that we have begun planning for the fundraising and the construction of a new hospital, to be built next to the current Keck Hospital, for the high-end, high-acuity work that is our core mission in healthcare service. This new hospital will ensure a significant expansion of important operating rooms, intensive care units, cancer patient programs, and of course patient beds. It will be a state-of-the-art facility that will reflect the needs of the future, as far as technology and revolutionary therapies. It will make a statement that we are the destination to treat the very sickest patients.

We should finalize this process quickly, to make such a hospital a reality. We are also working to establish a biotechnology park adjacent to the Health Sciences Campus, where the county yards are located. This can spur miraculous breakthroughs. This can accelerate new businesses. This can create many thousands of construction jobs and permanent jobs. And, this can help make Los Angeles County a global leader in the biotech revolution.

Indeed, USC can become the biggest and most influential health system in Southern California and the Pacific Rim:

  • By building this new hospital and Biotech Park;
  • By becoming the academic partner for community-based health systems in the Los Angeles region;
  • By expanding our patient footprint in Southern California communities with multi-specialty satellites, and local physician partnerships;
  • By establishing an exclusive provider organization for USC employees;
  • By strengthening our collaboration with CHLA and Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center; and
  • By creating a patient experience second to none.

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As for the fourth area—infrastructure—many institutions are struggling to maintain their current physical plant. But over the past six years, our university has been able to add 30 percent more square footage of new buildings on both campuses—top quality academic, clinical, and residential space. I believe the results are visible to everyone!

We should be proud of our nationally acclaimed community partnerships. We are expanding our Neighborhood Academic Initiative to East Los Angeles. And we are taking the lead in a major city-wide initiative on homelessness.

Not only are we the largest private employer in the city of Los Angeles, but also USC’s economic impact to the region is $8 billion annually. Therefore, no detail should be overlooked in creating the best environment for the best academic community.

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The fifth and final area involves private philanthropy, which is the lifeblood for our academic ascent. When we announced a record $6 billion fundraising campaign during the economic downturn six years ago, skeptics said our quest was impossible. Yet today, we stand at $5.9 billion. We are 18 months ahead of schedule! An impressive 64 percent of that total has come from non-alumni. About half the money comes from 33 transformative gifts of $25 million or more. And we have benefited from five landmark gifts of $100 million or more.

The other half of the money has come from nearly 320,000 donations of every size. More than 70 percent of money raised—$4.1 billion—is already in the form of cash supporting our scholarly work. Our trustees have modeled incredible generosity, giving nearly 30 percent of total money raised. In annual giving, 42 percent of our alumni are active donors. That is more than at any other premier university, public or private.

Investment in the best talent is paramount. And this campaign has allowed us to invest in two significant ways. We have endowed nearly a hundred new faculty chairs spanning every discipline. And we have made a USC education more affordable to thousands of American students from every background. Even as the price of a university education has increased around the nation, at USC, two-thirds of our students receive significant forms of financial aid.

Academic investments remain crucial as we move forward. So rather than declare victory this semester, I have a special announcement to make: USC is extending this historic fundraising campaign, Fas Regna Trojae, for five more years—until December 31, 2021. During this time, we will seek out tens of thousands of new supporters. We will intensify our work in meeting many people, making new friends, and promoting USC’s ambitious academic initiatives.

My wife Niki and I are as excited as ever by the challenge, because we know it will bring our university to its ultimate final and glorious destination. While we have an ambitious vision for USC’s future, let’s remember that our dreams have a deadline. Urgently, let us continue gathering the resources to make them a reality.

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Allow me to conclude with one final thought: while we have come so far, we see today that we must go much farther. The last leg of any journey is usually the most difficult, the most demanding, and the most expensive.

There is an image from antiquity that I believe comes to fresh new life—if we see ourselves within it. Xenophon, the famous student of Socrates and renowned general, told the story of Kyrou Anabasis, an expedition of 10,000 Greek soldiers stranded in Persia 2,400 years ago.

Seeking their way back to their homeland, Xenophon and his 10,000 fought hunger. They fought fatigue and sorrow. They endured snow and ice. And they overcame harsh conditions and hostile forces who constantly outnumbered them greatly.

Then, at a pivotal moment, as they ascended to the top of Mount Theches, the front ranks of soldiers finally caught a glimpse of the Black Sea—of Euxeinos Pontos—which represented their long-awaited salvation.

Together they roared, “Thalatta! Thalatta!” The sea! The sea! They wept. They embraced. They thanked the gods. Yet, they had only seen their beloved destination from a distance; they had not yet reached it. Their saga would require many more chapters to be written—many more trials, more skill, more endurance. However, that moment when they viewed their destination with their own eyes would fortify them for the rest of their way, through every challenge still to come.

My fellow Trojans, we are at exactly that moment in our academic ascent. We have caught our own glimpse of an ocean of grand possibility—the promise of a brighter future as an undisputedly elite academic institution. Let us now go forward. And let us transform the promise into a magnificent reality.

Thank you, and Fight On, Always!