Inaugural Address

October 15, 2010
By C. L. Max Nikias

There is no adequate way to convey the sense that fills me, standing before you, the women and men of the university that I love, and knowing the profound responsibility with which I have been entrusted.

I shall forever be grateful to all of today’s representatives who have offered support and encouragement on behalf of the USC community—our trustees, faculty, students, staff, and our alumni, as well as our friends in the community of Los Angeles and the community of American higher education.

I thank each person in attendance today, for sharing with my family and with the Trojan Family this special moment in our history.

But first, I must take a moment to acknowledge my wife Niki, our first lady of USC. Today is an unusual milestone for Niki and me on our shared journey. Our voyage began more than a third of a century ago, when we decided to pursue the dream of a better life through better education, and to cast our fate across the Atlantic, toward America.

Coming from so far away, so many years ago, we could not have imagined how wonderful this American journey would be. I became forever fascinated, by the intellectual electricity and the openness you could find only at an American university. And, far from ending up lost, we were carried along on the gracious currents of goodness. We were welcomed and embraced, and we were given opportunities that we never could have found elsewhere.

So, on our journey, at last, two decades ago, Niki and I reached our Ithaca, by which I mean Los Angeles, and our home at USC. Georgiana and Maria, our daughters, were small children when we arrived in Los Angeles. Our family quickly became a Trojan Family, and we were grateful for how the larger Trojan Family embraced us. We have a passion for this university, and for what it represents. Our family is rooted here. We have immersed ourselves in USC’s rich intellectual and cultural life. And we have cherished the great Trojan athletic spirit, which serves as the glue for our worldwide Trojan Family.

Niki and I believe that, when you have been given so much, you have a debt to repay. Because we are grateful, grateful beyond words, we look for ways to repay that debt. One way is by ensuring that the best students—from here and from abroad—can pursue their dreams here, the dreams that are made possible by the best education.

We have always believed that education is the Great Equalizer for a society. Education lifts up the weak from despair, and it teaches humility to the mighty. Education is what helps us to be fully human and to appreciate the full range of human experience in our own life. Education is what expands our lives to be as vast as the frontiers of the cosmos and the edges of eternity, and yet it gives us deep insight into the fleeting moments of our own inner existence.

Working together to take USC higher, to the undisputed mountaintop, will be our payment on the debt—our debt to this great nation, to the Trojan Family, and to Steve and Kathryn Sample.

In a coincidence of fate, one that the playwrights of antiquity would have loved, we never could have imagined that Steve Sample, the man who signed my diploma and Niki’s diploma in Buffalo, New York, would be such a wonderful mentor. Steve and Kathryn Sample demonstrated for us what it means to dedicate oneself fully to the demands of the presidency.

The best way to honor their legacy is to take this great university they have given us and make it even greater. Indeed, we owe it to future generations of Trojans to do so. We owe it to our children and grand-children.

Uncertainty as Opportunity
Today we live in a time of great anxiety. The wisest experts can find little agreement on what the future holds for our society. Regarding the next twenty years, there is no consensus on

• which institutions and industries will exist in their current form; or
• whether the career or specialty that a person has chosen today will still exist then; or
• whether the ways in which we interact and communicate will resemble the way we do so now; or
• whether the United States can remain at the forefront of technology, commerce, and culture.

Universities have their own special concerns. The college-age population will decrease in size in the next few years, making competition for students even harder. Universities will be under added pressure to make college affordable for capable young people from every background.

One of the few certainties in our world is that, as the pace of change accelerates, the level of uncertainty will increase.

But what is uncertainty? In the proper light, uncertainty is the beginning of adventure! And the ability to turn uncertainty into adventure, into a magnificent journey forward, is what defines a Trojan. It is what it means to be a Trojan.

As a child, I grew up reading the various legends of the ancient city of Troy. The Trojan Empire represented a classical tradition of excellence and purity of purpose. The Trojans represented a tradition of ongoing renewal. They renewed their great society many times, each time achieving a new glory for themselves and for those who would come after them. No one worked harder than the Trojans, no one was more determined than the Trojans. And their will toward greatness could even bend the will of the gods in their favor.

So in this moment of our renewal, allow me to look back to an epic story told two thousand years ago, by the Roman poet Virgil. In the epic poem The Aeneid, Virgil chronicled the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas and the Trojans responded with courage when fate made it clear that the Trojans would have to seek their destiny beyond the walls of the old City of Troy. So the Trojans set sail and navigated the uncertainties of their times. They navigated their way through raging winds and waters. They navigated through the extreme anger of gods and spirits. They navigated through the full catalog of uncontrollable monsters of antiquity. Aeneas and the Trojans would reach their destination, where they would lay the cornerstone for a new city of Troy. This Troy would grow into the great city of Rome. Rome–the home to the mightiest and most enduring of all empires. That was the destiny the Trojans began to claim, when they moved from what was comfortable and familiar, when they were willing to lose sight of their native shores and undertake a Great Journey. Virgil’s Aeneid makes the timely eternal, and the eternal timely.

For this university and for our Trojan Family, our own quest for undisputed elite status could be likened to the voyage of Aeneas. It means the difference between being a “hot” and “up-and-coming” university and being undisputedly one of the most elite and influential institutions in the world! A Great Journey awaits us, and on the other side of the adventure lies our destiny.

My own commitment to you is to clear and lead the way for you as we move forward in this Great Journey.

My commitment to you is to champion your cause in every way, around the nation, around the Pacific Rim, in our nation’s capital, in Sacramento, in City Hall, in Indianapolis, and wherever else you need allies.

My commitment to you is to point the world’s attention to you, as the women and men who will drive society forward.

My commitment to you is to seek the outside resources and raise the funds USC needs, relentlessly, in order to secure academic excellence for the long haul.

My own commitment to you, and that of my administration, is to run the next marathon at a sprinter’s pace. We can make incredible progress in just the next few years!

The Five Priorities of USC’s Great Journey
Look how far USC has already come. Consider the small and dusty village that represented Los Angeles and USC in 1880. Look at USC’s breathtaking rise in the past two decades. Look at the impact we are now able to make because of the lofty position USC has now claimed.

And now, consider the voyage that still lies ahead.

USC’s Great Journey will be different from that of other great universities. And USC’s role and identity will be different, once we have reached our destination of undisputed elite status.

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. This way is entrepreneurial, imaginative, collaborative, ethical, adaptable, and global. We must place this USC stamp on the intellectual and the social revolutions that lie ahead.

The Great Journey for USC is ultimately about five priorities, which are ultimately embodied in people—the very best people.

First, our Great Journey requires that we achieve a critical mass of the world’s most brilliant faculty minds— the most productive and renowned intellectual giants of our generation. Transformational faculty whose reputation for productivity will place USC at the vanguard of every intellectual revolution. This requires that we give our faculty the resources to fulfill their immense potential. This requires that we aggressively recruit new, interdisciplinary superstars who can raise the skyline of our entire academic community.

Second, we must build an unsurpassed network and quality of young women and men capable of leading the future—students from all 50 states and from across the Pacific Rim—from East Asia and South Asia and India and the emerging economies of Latin America. And for these students, let us make them a pledge. Let us pledge to build for them a curriculum of unique quality and variety, a rich curriculum that presents them with an unsurpassed range of choices, so that they may explore and discover their strengths and their passions.

Let us pledge to ensure for them unlimited social and cultural opportunities that prepare them for life in the new world that awaits them. May we do this through the most engaging environment for learning and for living. May we do this through an experience that immerses them in the arts and through emerging forms of media literacy. May we do this through an experience that immerses them in the very manner of global diversity, which they must learn to understand and to navigate.

In this way, our students will become world citizen leaders, who can find and open new doors, and who can support one another as a worldwide Trojan Family.

For our third priority, our Great Journey demands that our academic community be equipped to explore and to lead the major new frontiers of human progress:
• in the arts and humanities that infuse our society with imagination, creativity, and wisdom;
• in the social sciences and the professions that organize and mobilize our human society;
• in engineering and sciences that reach out across the cosmos;
• in the digital media that enable human interaction, entertainment, news, and information;
• and in medicine and biology and biotech, which together represent the most promising frontier of our young century.

Fourth, our Great Journey demands that our Health Sciences Campus and the University Park Campus represent one unified USC. Though they are seated at different ends of downtown Los Angeles, they must have one character and one shared identity. Our faculty and students must bridge the distance between the two campuses, with interdisciplinary work that provides USC with a crucial leadership asset as biology and medicine emerge as the queen of the sciences in this century.

The residential and academic environment on both campuses must be perfected—for undergraduate students, for graduate and Ph.D. students, and for faculty masters. USC should be an around-the-clock living and learning community, a rare social and physical environment that radiates academic energy.

And our fifth priority must be to recognize the surrounding community as the jewel that it is. The 224 languages that are spoken in this city, and the 115 nations represented today on this campus, are distinctly representative of a new world that is tilted toward the civilizations of the Pacific. A simple drive up Vermont Avenue does not simply show us a city. It displays to us the extraordinary span of Pacific Rim, in microcosm. We will embrace this community as a unique social laboratory, within the context of our mission in education, social-science scholarship, health care, and public service.

This local microcosm of a new, global reality will help USC guide the tectonic shift that is already underway in this world. The old City of Troy was in the heart of the great Mediterranean civilization, which long represented the center of gravity for much of human society’s development. The center of gravity gradually moved westward. And for the past two centuries, we have lived in the Age of the Atlantic. Many institutions gained prominence by their proximity and relevance to this region.

For most of this time, Southern California was a far-off outpost in the American West. Yet for decades or even centuries to come, this remote Western outpost will be the hub connecting the United States to a world that is centered around the Pacific Rim. Cultures and ideas will collide in this global Age of the Pacific in ways we cannot yet predict. Who will have the ability to lead, to bring shape to the changes?

A story comes to mind about the chief founder of USC, Robert Maclay Widney, who would also become USC’s first chairman of the Board of Trustees. He personally wrote the USC articles of incorporation. In the 1870s, Robert Widney had a strong desire to establish a great university in Southern California. He had accomplished much in his life. He was a U.S. district judge. He helped bring the Southern Pacific Railroad to L.A. He organized the first chamber of commerce and the city’s first light and power company. But he wasn’t yet able to build a university that could shape the future of this region. For 10 years, Judge Widney struggled. Yet he did not give up.

During that same time, the American West was struggling with an early collision of cultures: Anti-Chinese sentiment ran high across the West. Jealousy, economic fears, and labor disputes fanned the flames of violence and murder. One night, anti-Chinese riots broke out in Los Angeles. Deadly mobs took to the streets. And at a moment of high fever during those riots, Judge Widney plunged into the crowd, at the risk of his own life. Judge Widney held his gun high and fired a single shot. The crowd stepped back. And the future founder and first chairman of USC then escorted a number of Chinese immigrants to safety.

It was at that moment, on that evening that the DNA of USC as a global institution was called into being. In that moment, on that evening, the ethos, the character, of USC began to take shape.

Character is destiny, and USC would have a global character. A few years later, Japanese students would be among USC’s first graduates. And USC would develop the largest body of international alumni in the world, mostly from the emerging nations of the Pacific. USC would develop an international curriculum that benefits both our American and international students. USC would pioneer transcultural scholarship that addresses the pressing needs of this age.

What USC has accomplished locally and regionally can now be done at a global level.

The New City of Troy
While USC imitates no one, I do believe USC has the chance to serve as an intellectual engine in this century, in much the way Oxford University emerged earlier as the intellectual engine of the British Empire and commonwealth nations.

As our world today is shifting away from an Atlantic to a Pacific Century, USC is better positioned than anyone else to lead this change. To become the intellectual and cultural and spiritual fabric of a world that is tied to the Age of the Pacific. To become the foremost laboratory of experimentation of “East-West” ideas, in scholarship and the arts and media and journalism and culture. To become the campus where the influencers of the Pacific Age will be educated, shaped, and molded.

This is our moment. And, I believe, that should be our vision!

Do you know what alma mater means? It means, literally, “Mother who feeds us all.” Consider what it could mean for USC to firmly take its role as alma mater for this Age of the Pacific.

Let the best young minds from across the Pacific Rim compete to receive a USC education. Let us build special scholarship programs for students represented from all Pacific Rim nations. Let them take full advantage of a highly diverse environment they won’t find anywhere else.

Great talent exists in America and around the Pacific Rim. Let that talent be refined in the unique intellectual crucible here, which represents a dynamic blend of the arts and humanities and culture, and cutting-edge science and technology, and social sciences and professions.

Indeed, USC, as an American university, is strategically positioned to serve as the intellectual crucible—the intellectual melting pot—of the Pacific Rim.

Destiny has dealt a favorable hand to USC. Let us play this out wisely.

The hero Aeneas and the Trojans completed a great adventure that led to a new City of Troy, which would grow into mighty Rome. For the Trojans of USC and for Southern California, our own New City of Troy can indeed be a New Rome in Higher Education for the Age of the Pacific.

It was said, “A thousand roads all lead to Rome.” And in the coming years all roads will lead to Southern California and a great university that sits at its center.

Does all this sound far too audacious? Does all this sound far too bold to be our goal?

Many prestigious universities attract brilliant people. But consider for a moment the full power, the full potential of our university: USC will allow brilliant people to make a dramatic difference, to improve the lives of women and men and children around our world!

And as we move forward in our new Great Journey, what are the signposts that we are approaching our destination?

When people around the world think of the intellectual giants of the 21st century, they will be thinking of the faculty and students of the University of Southern California.

When people look back in the next century at how the medical revolution exploded forth in life-giving ways, they will see that USC’s stamp was placed upon that revolution, as well as on many other revolutions of the mind such as the arts and social sciences.

The critical mass of academic excellence on our two campuses will give us the academic gravitas necessary to pull everything else into USC’s orbit.

We will see a dramatic boost in our ability to recruit the world’s best graduate and Ph.D. students, who serve as the manpower and womanpower of America’s research innovation enterprise.

We will celebrate a Trojan heritage of student athletics that will be more glorious than before. Yes, our Trojan student-athletes are indeed students first and foremost. And so our athletic heritage will demonstrate that the triumphs of athletics and the triumphs of education are the same, at their core. Body and mind, working together, in pursuit of excellence.

We will also know we are reaching our destination when the Trojans are known as the premier network of leaders across the Pacific Rim.

We will all enjoy access to the greatest international network of rain-makers and decision-makers— leaders in scholarship and business and government and the arts and culture.

Thanks to the dedication of countless Trojans and USC friends, USC has already made a remarkable impact.

But as we look ahead, and see what remains to be done, I would like to ask: Are we, the Trojan Family, ready to embark for the most important leg of this journey?

After all, the last part of the journey is often the most complex and the most costly and the most difficult. And yet the greatest prize of all lies ahead.

Let me draw your eyes to the familiar statue behind you, in the southwest corner of this park. Behold there is the figure of Tommy Trojan, who has stood guard for 80 years . . . without losing his youth or his strength or his optimism.

On the southwest-facing base of the statue are some words from Virgil’s Aeneid. I ask you to pass by the statue today and read those words, which are written in both Latin and English. You may need your glasses to read these lines, which are inscribed in very small letters: “Here are provided seats of meditative joy . . . where shall rise again the destined reign of Troy.”

Consider those words: “There shall rise again the destined reign of Troy.” Those words call us to work together to claim destiny’s promises, and to renew those promises within our individual lives and our collective lives. The destined reign of Troy is an intellectual community that has achieved undisputed elite status—at the very epicenter of global influence. When you are there, there is no doubt, there is no argument, you belong within the pantheon of world-class universities. There is no question that your voice shall be heard, and that your ideas are received. And there is no limit on the impact USC is able to make upon the world.

Ours will indeed be the task of nurturing and guiding this global, Pacific age, and rejuvenating the American pioneering spirit. Ours will be the privilege of finding new ways to bring healing to the ill and insight to the innocent. Ours will be a movement that illustrates the power of a diverse and democratic community in full blossom. Ours will be the task of shaping the most pressing debates of the day. Ours will be an ongoing rebellion against the conventional order of things, as we help individuals and societies, to consider and to create limitless possibilities for themselves.

So too ours will be an intellectual renewal which delights in uncovering and discovering new knowledge, so that we are tantalized by the chance that what we discover today will change what we believed yesterday.

All this is the Great Adventure. All this is the Great Journey. All this is the way forward to the Destined Reign of Troy.

Thank you, and Fight On, Always!