September 16, 2011
By C. L. Max Nikias

It has been a privilege for Niki and me to enjoy this historic academic celebration, surrounded by our faculty, staff, students, friends and the Trojan Family. This is indeed “family time,” a moment to consider what this university community has been and to imagine what it can be for generations to come.

A key theme of this unprecedented fundraising campaign is about bringing destiny forth from possibility: the destined reign of Troy.

Consider the case of one man in a remote outpost of the American continent in a dusty village, thousands of miles removed from where the power center of his nation stood. He stood one evening in an empty field, one that had been dismissed by its owners as having limited use for agriculture, or for most commercial purposes. And in that quiet field, he had a dream.

He looked around, and he saw one of the most favorable environments ever known to humanity: majestic mountains within easy reach; a vast ocean nearby, which offered open access to the world; and a climate that seemed to be designed by heaven itself offering for the unlimited expression of the human mind, body and spirit. This, he said, is where the next great world city will arise. This is where the next great university will arise.

That man was Robert Maclay Widney. This extraordinary man had been a U.S. district judge and helped bring the Pacific Railroad to Los Angeles. He organized the first chamber of commerce and the city’s first light and power company. He was a real estate developer and co-founder of the city of Long Beach. He was known as the “pistol-packing judge.”

But it was in a dusty field, that Judge Widney realized his most ambitious dream. That field was part of a plot of land owned by Childs, Downey and Hellman. Looking across that field, Judge Widney sensed that, for Southern California to prosper, it needed to build the right university at the right time. We stand today just a few yards away from where the first USC building was constructed, the white building now known as Widney Alumni House, which since has been moved close to Figueroa and Exposition.

It actually took nearly a decade for Judge Widney to realize his dream of a University of Southern California. The economic uncertainties of the 1870s had convinced many that such a university could never happen. But Widney kept planning for the right moment. And when that moment arrived, he and the tiny Los Angeles community seized it.

Yet I am most touched by the words of USC’s founder, Judge Widney, describing the scene during the construction of USC’s first building:

“The unfinished building in the middle of an empty field was a lonely looking object to those who only saw the present.

But for others, the curtains rolled aside, and they could see the coming centuries clearly before them, with the great possibilities standing in strong outlines that encouraged them to keep working.”

Keep working. Keep working. And they did. The Trojan Family kept working for 131 years to build a great national research university, brick by brick, building by building, achievement by achievement, gift by gift, generation after generation after generation. The Trojan Family did it, though. We all did it together, because we share our founder’s passion and love for this university. Judge Widney could not have imagined, in his wildest dreams, what USC is today – a rising global powerhouse in the cultivation of the human mind, body and spirit.

Ours are times of uncertainty, just as were the times that USC faced in its infancy. But we know that the spirit of success, the spirit of the Trojans, is one in which we do not blame the prevailing winds. Instead, we find ways to make those winds work for us. After all, my fellow Trojans, what is uncertainty? It is the beginning of adventure! It was an enormous adventure of a lifetime for Judge Widney and the early founders of USC.

And with this $6 billion campaign goal, we are embarking on our own adventure of a lifetime. We know our journey will not be a short one or easy one. USC’s endowment is currently ranked 23rd nationally. But it must rank in the top tier of private institutions, if we want our university to have the resources to compete for the long-term, if we want USC to be taken seriously as an undisputed, academically elite university, and if we hope to attain the level of academic excellence that can improve every aspect of the human condition.

This campaign is ultimately an investment in people – faculty and students of unmatched ability and ambition. This campaign will allow us to continue to bring the best people to this campus, so that they can do their best work together here.

USC’s history can be seen in two phases. In the first phase, USC produced the professionals and the leaders who could turn Southern California into the global hub that Robert Widney envisioned. The Widney family would be instrumental to this phase, as Judge Widney’s brother Joseph, who was a physician and a poet, would emerge as a leading booster of Los Angeles and as the second president of USC. Joseph Widney was also the founder of our medical school.

The Bovard family would also play a major role. Marion McKinley Bovard served as USC’s first president. His younger brother, George Finley Bovard would be a member of USC’s first graduating class, and would later serve as the university’s fourth president, overseeing a period of explosive growth.

Then USC’s second phase began fifty years ago, when President Norman Topping and the Trustees announced a Master Plan for Enterprise and Excellence in Education. That would be the most ambitious fundraising campaign in USC’s history, with a goal of $107 million. That’s close to a billion in today’s dollars. Many people felt the university would be fortunate to achieve its goal in 20 years. The Times Magazine wrote that USC faced difficult odds, and that some of USC’s rivals were “incomparably better.”

But USC achieved its campaign goal in just five years, because President Topping’s boldness paid dividends. The Master Plan allowed USC to move quickly from the role of a metropolitan university to a national research university and a member of the AAU. The subsequent campaigns were each more ambitious than the ones before, which solidified USC’s role as a leading national research university.

Under President John Hubbard, who passed away a few short weeks ago, USC completed a $309 million campaign designed to prepare USC for its centennial. Then, under President Zumberge, USC shattered its own record again, raising $642 million in the next campaign. Next, Steve Sample’s Building on Excellence campaign of $2.9 billion was one of the most successful campaigns ever – it served notice that USC could win in the heavyweight league! That has allowed USC to put many of its rivals, who once were academically stronger, in our rear-view mirror. It allowed USC to begin to define excellence for our new era.

And now, USC enters this public phase of this adventure with incredible momentum. USC has raised a total of $1.2 billion – the most of any American university ever over the course of a single year.

This momentum will allow USC to move to the vanguard in the sciences and the social sciences and the humanities, in engineering and medicine and patient care and professional practice, in community service and in globalization, and in artistic and cultural and athletic excellence. This will allow the USC community to do in the coming years what it was born to do: bring disruption and innovation where there is stagnation, and bring order and meaning where there is change and uncertainty.

From a small two-story schoolhouse here, which began to provide the intellectual capital for a growing region, USC has been on the move, toward an ultimate destination that is within reach: an undisputed, academically world class university.

There is a future to be created, and there is a distinctive USC approach to such creation. It is an approach characterized by boldness, by a readiness to challenge convention, and by an instinct for problem-solving across every area of intellectual endeavor. The time has come to bring the USC approach to bear on the deepest issues of the human condition.

Recall the words from Virgil’s Aeneid that are inscribed at the base of our famed Tommy Trojan statue, foretelling “the destined reign of Troy.” For almost a century, the USC community has been associated with the glorious spirit of the Trojans, with the unconquerable optimism and determination of the people of Troy, which found its fulfillment in the legendary tale of the establishment of a New Troy – the city of Rome.

It was said, “A thousand roads all lead to Rome.” As the world tilts from the Atlantic toward the Pacific, and as Southern California emerges as the most influential American hub for the Age of the Pacific, all roads can lead to USC, which serves as the intellectual, cultural and artistic wellspring for this great region.

Many have observed that USC has a chance now to make history. But the Trojan Family is also characterized by an intention to make the future. And in this spirit, my fellow Trojans, may we now go forward and write USC’s most glorious chapter together.

Thank you, and Fight On, always!