President’s Special Address to the Health Sciences

August 25, 2010
By C. L. Max Nikias

Good morning. This represents my first major address regarding the academic future of the University of Southern California.

You may wonder why I chose this campus as the setting for it. And why I invited you to be here so early on a Wednesday morning, taking you away from your morning rounds, or your laboratory work, or your sleep!

Why this campus? Because, in the coming months and years, we will be placing a spotlight on this campus. This is your moment to shine—to shine on the Los Angeles stage, the national stage, and the international stage, as the Pacific Rim grows in power and influence.

Why this campus? Because this ancient and noble profession – involving medicine and human health—is getting ready to dominate this century. And every other academic discipline would be wise to join it as an active partner.

Even today the unifying symbol of this profession remains the great Rod of Asclepius, entwined by a single serpent. But the leading universities of tomorrow will be those which can wrap a full range of intellectual disciplines around it. Here we are talking about the wide range of disciplines that are so richly represented on the University Park Campus.

Allow me to place USC’s future ambitions in historical context:

USC wasn’t the only private college that opened its doors in California around 1880, when Los Angeles was just a small and dusty village. There were others, including Chapman College, Woodbury University, the University of Redlands, the University of the Pacific, Mills College, and the University of Santa Clara.

USC didn’t have great advantages of land or money over them. But USC became a global research powerhouse, and they did not. We must ask, Why?

I believe it was because, over almost 130 years—from the Industrial Age to the Aerospace Age, to the Space Age, to the PC Age, to the current age of the Internet and Digital Media and Wireless Communication—in every age, USC was committed to conquering new intellectual frontiers for the sake of Southern California and the nation.

And now, our university has been planning for the next major intellectual frontier.

Most of us can recall the popular science fiction from a few decades ago, with their thrilling predictions of amazing new technologies. Yet so far, reality has surpassed fiction in only one area—electronics.

Think about how different our world is because of electronics: The personal computer, the Internet, medical devices, and wireless and satellite communication.

My two daughters are USC students, and both of them are too young to comprehend the cosmic shift that some of us went through during the development of color television and answering machines and fax machines—right up through high-powered digital computing and 4G cellphones and iPads.

Yes, the queen of the sciences in the 20th century was physics—and, as a result, electronics. At USC, we believe electronics will continue to be important: But she will give up her crown to another queen in the 21st century.

The very laws of physics limit the growth of conventional electronics. But because of electronics, forces are gathering in such a way that this century is poised to be the Age of Medicine and Biology.

We can hope for breakthroughs in these areas—which will open up entire new sectors of the global economy. It is here that we will see the fastest-growing industries of this century. New technology can reshape medicine—with applications in drug delivery and patient care. We can see new therapeutic products unlike anything to date. And we can see new ideas move from the bench to the bedside—faster and more intelligently than ever.

But what does this mean for all of us here, for the future? For the kind of future that the USC community wants to be able to shape?

During the electronics revolution of the past 60 years, the most productive research universities were the ones with great programs in the sciences or engineering, or both. But they may not have had great medical schools, or any medical school at all.

But we realize that, in the new revolution, this is changing. Yes, America’s 62 leading research universities—which we know as the Association of American Universities, or AAU—are indeed the envy of the world today.

Across the Pacific Rim and Europe, they are not waking up today with a feeling of envy for our financial institutions on Wall Street. They are not sitting in their corporate offices or political assemblies feeling jealous about our K-through-12 school system. They are not imitating our automobile companies. But they all envy our top AAU research universities.

And any research university that seeks to be the envy of the world must gain admission to the royal court of the new queen of the sciences. In other words, medical schools and biological sciences and health sciences will be assuming more central roles in the life of the American research university.

So the leaders of the future will be universities that generate research and innovation in these areas, through cross-disciplinary approaches that generate intellectual friction and intellectual sparks; intellectual friction and sparks between medicine, and engineering, and biology, and chemistry, as well as pharmacy, and dentistry. Take any combination you like!

Also, the leading universities will be those with medical and health sciences schools that perform translational research and deliver world-class patient care—by quickly translating new ideas from the laboratory to the clinic.

So are we in a position to be a leader? Does USC have the medical sciences enterprise that it needs? Does USC have the combination of health sciences, and biological sciences, and engineering sciences that it needs?

As we continue to build excellence, we can see that we have much in our favor. The USC College now boasts one of the strongest undergraduate student bodies in the world.

And most of our professional schools are ranked in the top 10 nationally. This includes our Viterbi School of Engineering, which has been a research powerhouse over the past several decades at USC.

Our USC School of Pharmacy and our Ostrow School of Dentistry have produced the lion’s share of pharmacists and dentists to serve a rapidly growing Southern California. Both have been trailblazers in research and curriculum. Our pharmacy school has been helping pharmacists to play a greater role in patient care. And our dental school has been at the forefront of community service and international collaboration.

These assets, working in harmony, can help our Keck School—and our various biological sciences and bioengineering and health-related programs—reach elite status.

Yes, some of our competitors may seem to be ahead of us, but they are not moving. Some may even be slowly moving backward. We are moving forward, and we intend to accelerate our pace. USC has some crucial advantages. Many of the established academic leaders have a vested interest in how things have been done yesterday and today. But we have a vested interest in how things will be done tomorrow.

Leadership in the 21st century will not necessarily belong to the richest universities. The great recession has hastened this reality. The great public universities are being hammered by economic challenges facing their states. They may never be the same. And many private universities saw their endowments shrink.

Although USC has not been as rich in endowment as some private competitors, we have managed USC prudently. So USC has found the sweet spot in how to address our challenges and opportunities.

When we lift the Keck School at USC to elite status, it will reflect the culmination of a critical third phase in the life of this medical school.

The first, long phase lasted from 1882 all the way through the late 1980s, when USC functioned primarily as a county-hospital medical school. It served an incredibly important support role for the well-being of Southern Californians.

As this campus and the Keck School continue to blossom, we will continue to treasure the unique relationship we have with L.A. County. We are thrilled with the modernized County+USC complex, the largest and busiest hospital of its kind. This relationship with the county allows us to give some of the best educational experiences possible to our medical students and to nearly 900 residents, who will go on to be leaders in their profession.

We are proud of how this century-old relationship has allowed USC to carry out a public-service mission unlike that of any other private university, not only in California but in America. We have served indigent and underserved and undocumented families who would have otherwise been exposed to terrible medical conditions, human tragedy, and loss.

While this relationship remains strong, a second phase began in the 1990s, when Dean Steve Ryan initiated a period of growth at the school—through cutting-edge research, faculty recruiting, and collaboration with Tenet in the USC hospitals. Steve Sample and Steve Ryan punctuated this phase with the historic and transforming gift from the Keck Foundation to the medical school.

Now, the third phase has begun. This phase began when we purchased and upgraded two major hospitals last year, with 471 combined beds. Then USC smoothly integrated the 19 faculty practice plans for 500 clinical professors of the Keck School. And we soon saw the number of inpatient admissions and surgeries rise.

Now, for the first time in USC’s 130-year history, we do have fiduciary control over all of these interconnected medical enterprise operations. The USC medical enterprise now constitutes close to 50 percent of our annual operating budget, double the 25 percent figure from just a year and a half ago. I believe this is a welcome development—a tangible sign of our incredible investment in the future.

So, quietly and suddenly, USC has become a different kind of animal. More precisely, it placed us on a path of a delicate but dramatic metamorphosis. And now we must keep moving forward, to secure the future of this university.

Let me move into what that metamorphosis looks like, especially as it involves this campus.

First of all, the campus will be one befitting the spotlight we will place on it: We are immediately beginning a major beautification project for the Health Sciences Campus. This campus will soon offer the most welcoming face possible to potential patients, and it will offer new grace and poetry to inspire the faculty and staff and students who pour out their time and energy and passion here.

We will move quickly, making as many improvements as possible with as little bureaucracy and as few permits as possible. By next summer you will see a transformation of major corridors of the Health Sciences Campus. Landscape improvements will include new flowers and trees, and improved signage and increased lighting. All of this will establish a more unified look – a majestic and inviting appearance, consistent with the best elements of the University Park Campus.

We are also developing a long-range landscaping plan, in conjunction with USC master planning efforts. This will establish a lush, green pedestrian network connecting buildings and courtyards, both existing ones and new ones, through tree-lined and well lit streets and dedicated pedestrian walkways.

It was Christopher Marlowe who first said that the face—the beauty—of Helen of Troy could set in motion a thousand ships. If the new face of our City of Troy can bring in a few thousand new patients, we’ll be very happy!

But, seriously, beneath cosmetic improvement of this campus, the world will discover a dramatic strengthening here of muscle and bone. There are four elements here: teaching, translational research, basic science research, and patient care.

These four areas are interdependent, flowing into one another. That is again why the hospital purchase was so crucial. It gives us the opportunity to develop a sustainable financial model for our medical school. It gives us the opportunity to establish a first-rate academic medical center, which the academic reputation of our medical school heavily depends on. It gives us an autonomy we never enjoyed before. But with this autonomy comes great responsibility. With this opportunity comes risk—and a much greater duty to manage our medical enterprise prudently.

Building up excellence in these four areas requires building up, and bringing in, the very best people. The scholarly faculty are the foundation of all academic excellence. And this foundation will receive our utmost attention and investment. We will support our faculty here in the great work you do. And we will bring outstanding partners from around the world. Not just excellent faculty—better-than-excellent faculty! Not just superstars, but undisputed difference-makers, who can galvanize the intellectual environment and reputation of this campus.

We will specifically seek out people who can work not just on this campus, but who can serve as bridges between our two campuses—new star faculty with joint appointments in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, the College, engineering, business, and the other professional schools.

We will pay special attention to bringing top people who can place USC at the vanguard of research in cancer, stem-cell work, neuroscience, the biological sciences, preventive medicine, new pharmaceuticals, and community health outreach.

I’d like to take a moment to illustrate an accomplishment that addresses the full scope of our ambitions. You may have heard about a dramatic achievement last month: USC’s faculty won a $56.8 million Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health. Many medical schools in California have won this award. However, the UCLA medical school did not. Cedars didn’t either. The award will highlight discoveries and applications that will promote the health of people living in dense urban environments.

This project joins eight different USC schools: Keck, pharmacy, Viterbi, social work, dentistry, law, cinematic arts, and the Rossier School of Education. Eight schools. Now that is an interdisciplinary effort! And it will make a difference, for families and children living in urban settings and large cities around the planet.

Still, that is just one interdisciplinary victory out of many. Our Keck faculty have been collaborating with Viterbi faculty experts to herald new forms of cancer treatment, and to serve as bellwethers of bioinformatics. They are adding prestige to Keck by playing guiding roles in collaborations with Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, Chicago, Northwestern, Cold Spring Harbor, Mass General, and other top institutions.

There is also, of course, our interdisciplinary ERC in Biomimetic Microelectronic Systems. To a general public that has some familiarity with science-fiction discussions of bionics, the actual field of biomimetics has the potential to dazzle our society’s imagination—and also serve its deepest needs.

There are already many heroes and heroines in USC’s efforts to build disciplinary bridges. These are stars who have been willing to set aside traditional measures of academic prestige in order to be a part of teams that can make a difference.

I believe there are two ways in which such interdisciplinarity pays off. The first is in the area of discovery, and the second is in the area of invention. To discover means, literally, to uncover something that was already there. To invent means to create something that never existed before.

Both take a childlike frame of mind, a humble sort of innocence, and a playfulness. It is when our faculty and postdocs and students join with others, and learn from each other’s worldviews, that discovery and invention can reach new levels on our campuses.

With all the genius that is represented in this room, and on our campuses, we can still enjoy the sense of wonder of a child staring at the heavens, just beginning to understand reality, and how we might place our stamp upon it.

These represent some of the marvelous intellectual heights which USC’s faculty are reaching and exceeding. But let us come down from the stratosphere and talk about a major concern for any president: money.

With our new hospitals and our new ambitions, we must develop a sustainable financial model for a medical enterprise, unlike any we have had before for this school or for any other school at USC.

It is the nature of any medical school, not just our Keck School, that student revenue can only supply a very limited amount of its revenue. To ensure success, we must increase three other revenue streams.

First, we must increase the volume of our clinical patient care.

Second, we must increase federal government funding for our basic science and translational research. In the past few years, our Washington D.C. Office for Research Advancement has been helping faculty to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars into USC, and it stands ready to help you even more.

And third, we must boost our fundraising efforts dramatically.

Two days ago, I introduced a new senior vice president for university advancement, Albert Checcio, to the assembled deans and their chief development officers. I informed them that we intend to launch the largest fundraising campaign in USC history—and that we intend to do so within 12 months. I instructed them to begin making preparations for such a monumental undertaking.

My intention is for our overall medical enterprise to develop the ability in the next few years to raise no less than $1 million a day. I believe that is what we need just for medicine alone to reach our goals.

Are the odds, and the gods, in our favor? I personally believe our position is remarkably strong. Our potential has not come close to being fully tapped.

USC operates in a region with 14 million people. When it comes to academic medical centers, there is room for more than one, here in a great city which serves as the capital of the Pacific Rim. New York and Boston, or even smaller cities such as Philadelphia, are home to several top academic medical centers.

Los Angeles certainly has room for more than one. But even still, we are not content to be second-best. We are playing to win here. Let’s make no mistake about it: When it comes to doing good for the world, we believe there is a USC way of doing it, and we compete for the right to do it the USC way. This way is entrepreneurial, imaginative, forward-thinking, ethical, adaptable, and resilient.

We aspire to put this approach to work as we build the best academic medical center in Southern California. But that is just one goal on the way to having the best academic medical center in the entire Pacific Rim, at the very moment when the center of gravity in our world is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This will allow us to extend USC’s influence where it matters most in the coming years.

Given USC’s location and our international heritage and our academic strengths, this university can hope to embody the intersection of the Pacific Century and the Biological Century. This is an unimaginable opportunity, in which we can help shape the very fabric of this age.

Allow me to offer a concluding perspective.

I have always been profoundly struck by the manner in which humanity is given to venerate those who can bring healing. Our ancestors were exposed constantly to the harshest rebukes of nature. Disease and disasters could destroy precious loved ones unexpectedly. In that ancient age, the art of healing would indeed be seen as a sign of divinity–of power over life and death.

The power to give sight to the blind, the power to give mobility to those who have lost it, the power to extend the ordinary mortal lifespan–these have always been seen as the very power of the gods.

And today these powers are in reach as never before. It is a grand but humbling moment. It takes audacity for an intellectual community to reach out and seize these powers, and these opportunities. It can even seem subversive.

To use another image, it is as though we are storming Mount Olympus, as Prometheus did, to steal fire and knowledge from the gods, and to bring these gifts to humanity. This Promethean image reflects the ancient and enduring purpose of the academy. It reflects who we are and why we have come together. And it reflects, in particular, the drive and destiny of this USC intellectual community.

Shall we seize this opportunity? I say, Yes, we shall. And let us do it together. Thank you—and Fight On, always.