State of the University address

April 29, 2020

Hello and welcome Trojans.

It’s such a privilege to speak with you today, about the state of our university, the times we’re in, and about our future – a bright and promising one.

Thank you for attending this event; I hope you and your families are well.

Students are joining us for the first time; to them I say, welcome and I’ll address you directly at the end of my speech.

I never expected to make history by Zooming this event and I would much prefer seeing and chatting with you before and after the talk. But I’m confident those days too will return.

First though, I want to talk about the obvious. COVID-19 has hit us hard.

I know people are hurting and worried. Many are out of work. Thousands are in hospitals. Too many are dying, and it is heartbreaking.

Our people at USC are hurting too.

Your schedules and plans have been disrupted. Cherished events, like performances, competitions, thesis defenses, and commencement, have been postponed or changed. An entire athletic season has been erased. You’re missing friends, colleagues, and family you haven’t seen for weeks.

Some of you are working or studying from homes that weren’t prepared for this crisis, perhaps surrounded by people who need your attention or help.

Others are coming in to work, to help people still on campus, in spite of their own fears of the disease.

And I know, we’re all missing the joy and energy of being with our fellow students, colleagues, and friends.

It can feel very dark right now, but I see Trojans stepping up in this crisis every single day, under very difficult circumstances.

I’m in awe of all of you.

Your strength is a beacon of hope.

Here are a few snapshots of that hope out of hundreds, I could cite –

I’ll start with our healthcare workers, in our hospitals, pharmacies, and clinics – you heroically transformed yourselves overnight, to meet the pressing needs of patients throughout our region, prepare us for a surge, and advise the university about how to protect safety.

Faculty and staff, you swung into action, re-organizing completely the way you taught, mentored students, and went about your work.

Within five days, more than 6,000 courses were being reimagined and delivered remotely.   

Our student life and housing staff helped 1,600 students who couldn’t go home, to stay safely in their dorms. We began the Care-for-the Caregiver program, and are providing beds for USC and LA County health care workers. And our emergency staff began taking care of everyone.

The common denominator in all these examples, is a spirit of service and selflessness that animates so much of what we do.

For 140 years, USC has been part of the fabric of our region, and our city. And from the start of the crisis, Trojans have joined hands with community-based organizations, to support our most vulnerable neighbors.

USC’s tireless volunteers delivered tens of thousands of meals to our neighbors, including those without shelter. They’ve made all sorts of PPE, provided two meals a day to our 500 Head Start kids and their families, organized a blood drive, and are helping nearly 3,000 small businesses to survive.

We see that same spirit of service in the remarkable work of our researchers, who are moving with lightning speed, to advance clinical trials, drug and vaccine development, pre-clinical therapeutic studies, and expand COVID-19 testing.

They’re also helping people directly, providing telemedicine mental health counselling, and assisting public schools to adapt to COVID-19, and so much more.

Chances are, if you’ve heard about it, someone at USC is working on it – and this is thanks in large part to COVID-19 innovation funds, created by the Provost, and added to, by generous parents, friends, and alumni from around the world.

Over my entire professional career, I’ve never seen researchers and innovators come together, so quickly and with such purpose. I truly believe that in the end, science and human ingenuity, and care, will beat this.

COVID-19 may have knocked us hard – but it’s also revealing sides of ourselves we may not have seen before.

As a biologist, I’m reminded of the history of the microscope. Just over 400 years ago, Galileo, the extraordinary innovator he was, saw the power of magnifying lenses being made by Dutch master crafters – and he used the lenses to complete the first microscope.

All of a sudden, the vast world of tiny organisms never seen before, became open to us, and just like that, human thinking was altered forever.

A year later, Galileo also perfected the telescope, expanding humanity’s view into the universe, again changing forever what could be imagined.

One of the things I love most about teaching, is seeing my students reach that moment of clarity, when their understanding becomes crystal clear, and their horizons broaden.

I am seeing this in all of you, right now.

We are experiencing our own Galileo moment.

We’re seeing problems as opportunities, exercising muscles we didn’t know we had, tapping into wells of expertise and knowledge – and compassion – we didn’t know were so deep.

Our entire workforce has turned on a dime, finding new ways to work together and solve problems, and helping people faster and more flexibly than ever before.

I believe now that we’ve seen and put these capabilities to use, in service of something bigger than ourselves, we won’t, nor could we, go back.

This is what it feels like to collaborate at warp speed – something I’ve talked about before.

We see this happening so fully at USC because our community has been changing for some time now – and, in important ways.

We’ve been transforming our culture, our structure, and our governance, to enable us to become the university of the future – and these changes are benefiting us now, as we adapt to meet the COVID-19 crisis.

So, let me turn to some of our key achievements that are driving a bold new vision for USC, for the coming decade. A full compilation of these accomplishments will be available on the USC website.

I’ll start with our students, drawing on 48,000 individual stories, of achievement and cultural diversity.

USC has one of the most diverse student populations, and largest financial aid programs – almost $650 million last year alone – of the leading research universities in America.

And our incoming class, drawn from almost 60,000 talented applicants, is shaping up to be as accomplished and diverse as ever.

In fact, both Viterbi and Marshall are leading the nation among top-ranked schools, by welcoming classes at roughly gender parity.

Our students continue to say, they are coming to USC because it is the best place for them, to explore and pursue their passions, improve communities, and become game-changers.

Here they have the chance to work with some of the greatest minds of our times, and to get involved in so much.

This year, our students won numerous prestigious awards, with their talents on display in so many amazing ways.

They perform on Broadway, conduct ground-breaking research, write music, invent things, win competitions, and launch rockets. They volunteer their services and run businesses, and evaluate capital markets. They provide free legal clinics and medical and dental care. And they help feed, design, and house those without homes.

As graduates, they’ll have an even bigger impact on their communities and in their fields, as our alumni always have. 

USC is distinguished by its extraordinary breadth and strength. We see it, in our 23 academic units, in nearly $900 million in competitive research, and in our 28,000 graduate and professional students, and roughly 8,000 faculty.

The number of leading, top 10, and top 20 rankings received, by USC, our schools, and our departments, grew again this year.

Keck was ranked for the first time, as one of America’s top 20 hospitals. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) – ranked number one in California, number one in the western United States, and number five in the country – is the only leading children’s hospital that is a safety net hospital with more than 70 percent of its patients on Medicaid.

Reuters designated USC the eighth most innovative university in the world, and our graduates are often named Forbes “30 under 30” game-changers, in fields from arts to tech.

Our faculty continued to receive prestigious national honors including eight USC additions to the national academies of engineering, sciences, and inventors. Wow.

They’re writing books and papers, changing the course of science, humanities, and policy. They’re performing on stages worldwide, launching new companies, and pushing the frontiers of stem cell research. They’re pushing to cure Alzheimer’s, cancer, and helping people to see again. They’re leading the way in emerging fields, like Immuno bio-engineering, and working to end the educational, social, health, and economic disparities that plague our world.

And of course, all our achievements happen in partnership with our nearly 28,000 wonderful, determined, and dedicated staff – many of whom are also our alumni. I’m proud of the fact that we are the largest private employer in Los Angeles.

Our staff run our services from transportation to hospitality. They’re part of our research and our teaching teams, they take care of our finances and our campuses; they keep us safe and our IT secure, they coach and care for our athletes.

They also care for our health and well-being, manage our operations, and organize our events. And they help us communicate, work with our stakeholders, and raise much needed financial support.

Our staff and faculty are incredibly generous as well, and I want to call this out. This year, we celebrated 25 years, during which thousands of our employees, donated 1 percent of their own salaries to support our Good Neighbors Program, to the tune of more than $26 million.

We also welcomed Chief Alma Burke, the first Latina and first female to serve as an Assistant Chief in USC’s vitally important Department of Public Safety.  

Finally, no State of the University speech would be complete without acknowledging the strength that comes from the Trojan family. Our alumni, parents, friends, and others are on the frontlines with us all the time, and they give generously to support our university.

USC simply wouldn’t be who we are, without our alumni and their love of this very special place. They serve with great distinction, on our councils, in our Centers, and on our Board of Trustees.

Looking ahead, we know COVID-19 will continue to challenge us for some time. But I promise you, it will not deter us from reaching our goals.

Instead, we must take everything we’re learning in the fight against the pandemic – like our newfound strength in collaboration, our willingness to change, our fresh perspective about where we are going – and use it, to accelerate our transformation.

Specifically, we need to apply this knowledge and experience to deepen culture change, reinforce high ethical standards, and restructure our governance for a new, multidisciplinary, collaborative age.

Last September, I laid out four strategic goals for the university, and we’re making good progress here.

The first goal is to open our doors wider for students from all backgrounds. We want to make sure they truly flourish at USC, and become the leaders who build and succeed in the new economy.

We’re making good on the historic pledge we made in the fall, to provide significantly more financial aid to low income students.

We’re also on the way to doubling the mental health professionals at the student health center, expanding programs for First Gen, transfer, and undocumented students, and designing new spaces for student cultural groups, that do not currently have homes.

Our second goal is to take on sustainability, like never before, and build expertise that can reach around the world.

You may have heard about nature, returning to our locked-down cities along with clean air. Here in LA, once again, you could stand in one spot, and marvel at the crisply defined mountains to the east, and the sparkling Pacific Ocean to the west.

It reminds us what is possible, but it also shows us how much more we must do in the area of sustainability, to foster the kind of environment that will nurture us, and bring us joy.

I’m proud of how far USC has come this year – my zero-waste inauguration diverted an estimated 4,500 pounds of waste, from local landfills. Over 90 percent of waste is diverted at the Coliseum now, and I look forward to setting similar bold goals for the university overall.

We’re on track to engage 75 percent of our departments in responsible purchasing, so that we can phase-out single use, non-essential plastics.

We’re aggressively, pursuing a timeline for carbon neutrality, installing solar panels, subsidizing public transit, and supporting sustainability innovation funds.

And in just a few months the Presidential Working Group on Sustainability united around a number of recommendations to create the governance and educational programs, that will best help USC become a leader in sustainability.

Our third goal is to deepen our public partnerships, and become the leading university in reimaging the urban future. Here too, we are well on our way.

The COVID-19 crisis accelerated our efforts, to build and strengthen partnerships with city, county, state, and federal leaders.

It also put in stark relief, persistent inequalities in our society, that are having deadly effects, particularly in underserved communities of color.

For USC to be a leader in the urban future, we can’t limit ourselves to being part of the recovery and building out of new economies; we also must be partners in the development of solutions to eliminate these enormous and destructive inequities.

For example, education and health systems need to accelerate efforts, to narrow disparities in the communities they serve, with solutions that can make a lasting difference.

As just one example, I’m proud of the multidisciplinary efforts underway at Keck Medicine and the School of Medicine, to increase diversity in clinical trials.

They are energetically recruiting participants from areas of Los Angeles with large Latino populations, so they can be better represented in cardiac surgery clinical trials. This could go a long way in improving cardiac care for a large population.

And the fourth goal is to leverage the formidable talent of our faculty and schools, by pursuing bold ideas in areas where USC has a distinct advantage.

Our people are already hard-at-work considering moonshots, in big data and computational analytics, in building out the blue and green economies, in revolutionizing K-12 education, and in fast-tracking COVID-related research, that shows the greatest promise.

And there may be no other university better positioned than ours, to accelerate efforts to reimagine online education, and students’ educational experiences.

We have the experts right here: the best cinema school, the best gaming program, the most original technology for virtual reality, the best communications school, and extraordinary innovators in Viterbi, Iovine and Young, Rossier, Dornsife, Roski, and so on.

We sit at the epicenter of the imagination economy, and have extraordinary storytellers and technology leaders, who can bring education to life.

A great example of this is “Dimensions in Testimony” at the USC Shoah Foundation, a 3D educational experience, that is among the best in the world.

If we come together, and use the talent and tools we have, here and in Los Angeles, we can create a student experience unique to USC, that is second to none.

Underpinning these four goals, is our commitment to maintaining the highest ethical standards, in everything we do as a university.

Past scandals tarnished our reputation, and caused so much pain, across the Trojan community.

I spent a great deal of time this year listening, to students, faculty, alumni, and friends of USC, who shared their thoughts, on how we could bring back the luster to our university. I probably interacted with more than 40,000 people, and it was a wonderful, reaffirming experience.

We’ve taken important, decisive steps this year – in compliance, accountability, and transparency – and we will continue these efforts, to ensure we stay on the right track going forward.

As we talk about the future, you’re probably wondering what a post-COVID USC will look like. The pandemic will eventually subside, and when it does, we’ll be ready.

We’ve already launched “Project Restart”– and are deep into planning for everyone’s return.

Schools are running full speed this summer online, and adding exciting new opportunities, and we’re re-building our infrastructure, to support more innovation and flexibility, when we do return.

Our decisions, about when and how to return, will be informed by a team of our leading public health professionals, along with state guidance and teams of experienced folks on our campuses.   

Many of you are asking about the fall. To begin, we will be fully operational, running all of our courses and degrees, as we are this summer, and welcoming incoming classes.

Even if, as we hope, we are able to be back in person, most if not all classes will be available, in parallel, online.

Our teams are actively exploring options, including delaying the start of on-campus classes by several weeks, retrofitting facilities for social distancing, and pursuing hybrid models that include online and in-person activities in all classes.

We’re also well along in preparing the campus to bring research back very soon.

But the truth is, we still cannot know for certain about the in-person aspects of the fall.

We plan to decide about that in the next two months. We appreciate your patience, and will keep you closely informed.

The pandemic is also imposing a large financial burden on USC.

As we calculate it today, we are facing a $300-500 million operating shortfall through June 2021, associated with costs and lost revenues, grants, and gifts due to the pandemic. And leading experts are saying it will be 12 to 18 months before we see an economic rebound.

That’s a big hit, and it will cause pain.

But I’m confident we’ll make a strong recovery.

We’re evaluating our financial situation guided by our priorities in three areas: first, maintaining safety, well-being, and support of our people; second, protecting the excellence and continuity of our programs; and third, positioning USC for a strong recovery and long-term success.

To get out ahead of this gap, we’ve taken initial actions already, such as pausing merit raises and hiring, reducing discretionary expenses, and delaying capital projects. We anticipate the need to do more, and the Provost and I will be communicating with you frequently as we move forward.

I know the financial effects of COVID-19 are also top of mind for many of you personally. Please know, we want to keep our people working.

Most of our employees are working, from home or are considered essential workers, and still working on our campuses. We’re also extending through June 1, the full pay administrative leave already in place for the staff who cannot do their jobs at home or on campus.

We’ve launched new emergency funds for students, employees, healthcare workers, and neighbors, and are starting to distribute the full $19 million USC received from the CARES Act, designated for students in need.

There is no doubt, we will need to do better with less. But I’m convinced we will emerge from this even stronger, with a nimble infrastructure, and a culture that takes risks, learns from mistakes and puts its people first – all while remaining a leader in research, education, and discovery.

A return to status quo won’t be good enough for any of us – we have something better that we’re working towards.

Finally, I want to talk directly to our students.

Thank you for being you. I really miss seeing you, but I’ve loved seeing you playing music everywhere, dancing, making animations, sharing stories with each other, online.

I’ve loved participating in several classes, and seeing your faces up close and talking with you.

You’re incredible.

We’re seeing your needs and concerns more clearly too. I’ve talked with many of you over Zoom, about deeply personal things, and appreciate your willingness to share the pain many of you are experiencing, and the anxiety you’re feeling about your education here at USC, and your future after college.

You’re being tested in ways that may not have confronted students since times of world war.

I deeply admire your strength, your resilience, and your capacity to weather life’s challenges.

And I want you to know that we have your back. We’re all committed to helping you get through this crisis, complete your education on time, and launch your careers.

In the near term, we’re keeping dorms open into the summer for the many students who have nowhere else to go – adding to our wellness and mental health offerings – and people are trying to answer your questions as quickly as they can.

And let me also emphasize, we are keeping our steadfast commitment to affordability, accessibility, and the continuity of your financial aid.

For our seniors, folks in career services are accelerating their efforts to help you take your next steps, and I promise you, we are deep into planning for your grand in-person commencement, when we can.

Above all, we want to make sure that all our students continue to dream big and act boldly. You are needed more than ever.

You have so much to offer, and we’re going to work with you, to make your USC experience rewarding and successful.

In the face of so much uncertainty, it’s always good to pause – and breathe – and take a step back to reflect a bit.

In my inaugural speech, I described the explosion of color in the wildflower superbloom of 2019, that bowled over my husband David and me as we walked in Griffith Park.  

I think about that superbloom a lot these days, and what it symbolizes for me, still: hope – renewal – the endless cycle of life, through good times and bad – and the strong, diverse, and magnificent seedbank reservoir that is our Trojan family.

It also reminds me of the many things we have to be grateful for – especially the talent, bravery, and generosity of spirit I see in you.

I want to offer special thanks

  • To our essential employees – in healthcare, food service, maintenance and other critical areas – for literally keeping us going day and night. “Essential” truly describes the work you do;
  • To our Deans, faculty, and staff, who are stepping down or retiring this year, for your distinguished service;
  • To the many students, faculty and staff who serve in our governing bodies, and on the Culture Commission;
  • To my inspiring, caring, and hard-working President’s Leadership Team (with whom I Zoom daily) and Deans of our schools, for your work days that stretch too often into work nights; and
  • To Chair Rick Caruso and the USC Board of Trustees, who serve our university every day. You took historic and challenging steps this year to reimagine governance that will best support our shared vision for the future of USC.

I began my remarks by saying we have a beautiful and promising future at USC, and I want to end by returning to that. Together, we’re building a stronger university for the future, tested by adversity, and capable of achieving even greater things, always in service to others.

Thank you so much for your efforts, support, and encouragement, and please, be sure to take care of yourselves.

As soon as safely possible – I look forward to seeing you again – in person – and around campus! Thank you and Fight On.