August 18, 2011
By C. L. Max Nikias

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 connects the students of today with scholars around the world and throughout time. Today, we induct you into the academy, and we embrace you as scholars.

You are the latest link in a long and unbroken chain of knowledge that extends from modern day Los Angeles to classical Athens – the place where the academy was first introduced and where the essence of modern civilization first emerged. The gowns you wear today are more than merely costumes. They represent an unbroken chain uniting scholars of today with those of the Middle Ages.

We have gathered here in this place at a very important moment in this university’s history. You may have heard that, over the past year, USC has raised more than $1 billion. This total includes three historic gifts:

  • $200 million from Dana and David Dornsife to name our college of Letters, Arts and Sciences;
  • $150 million from the W. M. Keck Foundation for our medical enterprise; and
  • $110 million from Julie and John Mork.

We are very fortunate to have two of these devoted donors here with us today. Last April hundreds of people from around the university assembled for a joyous celebration in honor of Julie and John Mork and their family. On that day, we expressed our enduring gratitude for the lives they have touched and the futures they have transformed. And we thanked them for contributing the largest gift for undergraduate student scholarships in USC’s history. Today Julie and John returned to campus to march in our procession and to take a privileged place on this platform.

While the Morks marched in this morning’s procession, it was their legacy that was walking along with them. For the first time ever, 20 young men and women from 15 different states can proudly proclaim that they are the very first group of Mork Family Scholars. Thanks to the Mork family, these 20 students are now members of the Trojan Family. Their knowledge and their experiences will become part of this university community. And this community will become part of them.

Today, as we induct you into this academy, I want to talk to you about something that may seem like an unusual topic, especially at an elite research university like USC.

That topic is literacy. When I talk about 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 that during your time at USC you will become literate in:

  • Imagination;
  • In the world;
  • In the arts;
  • In the great literary works;
  • In digital media
  • 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.

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 imagination. Imagination is less of a skill to be learned than a process to be observed. The best ideas often appear as a fleeting thought, an impulse, a faint feeling that captures your attention and captivates your intellect.

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. Spend time with them. Get their advice. Seek out people – professors, your roommates, your classmates – who challenge you, who inspire you with their viewpoints and their passions.

USC offers a highly diverse environment. We have students from all 50 states and from 115 different nations, and representing more than 90 different religious groups. 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 the right connections.

Today the economy is global, and competition is global. Throughout your lives and careers you’re going to have to work and interact with people from other backgrounds and other nationalities. USC provides the proper setting, and gives our students the proper training, to understand other cultures, to understand other people, to form friendships with people from other parts of the United States and other parts of the world.

I also urge you to explore as broadly as you can in your classes. You may have declared a major, or you may declare one soon. But then you may take a class outside your major that captures your imagination, or you may find a professor that inspires you. I want you to know that it’s okay to change your major. Both of my daughters graduated from USC last May – and they both changed their majors more than once!

So, don’t feel guilty if you become curious about another field of study. Instead, find out more about that major, talk to your advisor, and then make your decision. So students, and especially parents, don’t worry about this if it happens. I especially encourage you to take advantage of USC’s advising services. If you face a personal challenge, or if you face a challenge in one of your courses, don’t hesitate to go to your advisors. It’s part of what this university has to offer, and I’m very proud of the work they do.

As you go forward from here, you’ll find that if you are literate in imagination, you will also be literate in exploration. And the best way to gain this knowledge is to travel. Travel is important because your physical surroundings affect your interior landscape. When you see the world from an unfamiliar angle, you gain a fresh perspective and a new vantage point.

Some of you may think travel is too expensive. But you can find deals even on a college student’s budget. Take an afternoon, or even a day, and go somewhere new. Find a week, and find a cheap flight to another state or a foreign country. And when you do, venture beyond the well-worn paths. Others may have gone before you and mapped the territory. But always remember, for you, where the trail ends, new adventures begin. As you travel, you will learn that the world around you has the power to shape the world within you.

The next area in which you should become literate is the arts. Although my background is in engineering, I have always had a passion for the arts, especially theatre. I believe that science and technology are tools toward an end, but great art is our end as fully mature human beings. When I was a student, I immersed myself in the Greco-Roman classics —the plays, the chronicles, the myths. These classics 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 part of life. They should be a way of life. In the arts, we see how individual creativity can express universal values. Through the stroke of a brush, or the curve of a sculpture, or the plot of a play, we find the timeless truths that echo throughout human history.

At USC we have five schools devoted solely to the arts, as well as Visions and Voices, our arts and humanities initiative, which is 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.

Here at USC, we have a special love of literature. As you may know, last spring – after 15 years at UCLA – the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has a new home – the campus of USC. This is the largest literary event in the United States. Over two days, we hosted more than 400 authors and welcomed more than 150,000 people. And I invite you to join us next April for another wonderful weekend with your favorite authors and your cherished books.

Literature is so important to me that each spring I will send you a summer reading list. This year I suggested four books for our students:

  • The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch;
  • Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt;
  • Washington: A Life – a biography of George Washington, written by Ron Chernow;
  • And Rock ‘n’ Roll, a play by Tom Stoppard.

When we read works like these, we can reflect on them together as an academic community, sharing the insights we have learned and the knowledge we have gained. And I truly believe that the books you read will determine the person you become.

The next area in which you should be literate is digital media. I don’t need to tell you this, of course. Yours is the generation of texting, and blogging, and social networking. Your world has always been connected and online. At USC we are here to help you remain on the vanguard of new tools and new ways of communicating. We are here to encourage you to read or write or tell a story not just on a traditional page, but in new digital forms.

At the same time, however, remember that data is not wisdom, that sometimes more information can make us less informed. Yes, we welcome the creators. But we also need the interpreters. I hope you will develop into people who can sift through this constant stream of information to find the nuggets of wisdom. We need people who can analyze, examine, and explain. People who bring together information in new ways, people who can give it new meaning.

Many of you know how to use digital media better than your parents or professors do. You’re helping to blur the line between the teacher and the student. We are all a community of learners now. And we must all, together, keep pace with a world that is constantly speeding into the future, and we must innovate even as the tools of creation are constantly changing.

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.

Nearly twenty-two hundred years ago, the great Roman politician and philosopher Cicero sent his only son away to college. All of the wealthy and powerful families in Rome wanted to send their sons to Plato’s famous Academy in Athens. There was only one problem. Cicero’s son, 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.

So, Cicero wrote an entire book of letters to his son to remind Marcus 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 man 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 man, 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 benefit you, your family, and your society. Cicero also tells his son, “We are not born for ourselves alone. We do not live for ourselves alone. Our country, 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 USC 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 – and that includes parents and students. Like any family, we share many traditions, which we pass down from generation to generation.

Let me close with one of these traditions. It’s a simple gesture that all Trojans know. It’s a gesture we all use whenever we hear the song “Conquest.” No matter where you are in the world, whether you are walking along the street in Southern California or in the heart of New York City, or Mumbai, or London, or Shanghai, if you recognize another Trojan you flash the victory sign and say, “Fight on!”

So, let’s all raise our hands in the Trojan victory sign and say those two special words: “Fight on!”

Welcome to the Trojan Family, where we enjoy an unusually deep and loyal bond to one another. And thank you for choosing to attend the University of Southern California.