State-of-the-University Address
USC Global Conference, Hong Kong
October 14, 2011
By C. L. Max Nikias

Good morning, and welcome! It is a pleasure to see old friends in Hong Kong, and also to make new ones.

I would like to begin by offering my deepest thanks to the co-chairs of this year’s global conference, USC trustee Ronnie Chan and USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett.

Ronnie has been an invaluable adviser and indispensible friend to USC and to me for many years. As a passionate Trojan, and as one of the first international trustees for an American research university, Ronnie has led USC’s efforts to become a global institution for a global era. Thank you, Ronnie!

And Provost Garrett has been bringing academic leadership, wisdom, skill, and energy in advancing USC’s global enterprise in education, research, and public service. Thank you, Beth!

Let us begin this morning by asking some questions that are on the minds of people everywhere:

  • “How do we feel about the times that we live in?
  • And, are we ready for what the future holds?”

These questions consume all of us from New York to New Delhi, from San Francisco to Seoul, from Los Angeles to Latin America, and from Hong Kong to London. But, if you are a member of the USC Trojan community, I like to believe that you address these questions with a distinctive attitude. If you are a Trojan, you do recognize the challenges of an increasingly complicated and increasingly uncertain world. But it never reduces your ambition to do great things.

After all, what is uncertainty? Uncertainty, my fellow Trojans, is the beginning of a great adventure!

There are 300,000 members of the Trojan Family around the world, with 25,000 living and working across the Pacific Rim and India. This conference itself represents a down payment on USC’s commitment that all these members of the Trojan Family be in the best position to learn and to succeed along this grand, global adventure.

As countries and societies of our world become tightly interconnected, and as the economic center of gravity is shifting from the Atlantic toward the Pacific, I believe USC has a special role to play. As cultures and values and ideas collide in this Age of the Pacific, USC is uniquely suited for a leadership role to bring shape to this change.

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.

Widney 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 the L.A. 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. He 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 addressing the needs of this new age.

Indeed, USC has the opportunity to weave its positive, forward-thinking values into the very intellectual and cultural and spiritual fabric of this new world.

What has USC been doing to seize this once-in-a-century opportunity?

First, we have been making sure that USC can be home to the very best people from around the world. USC has the largest enrollment of international students in America—close to 8,000. For example, one in four graduate students at USC in an international student.

Last year, some 38,000 applicants of very high quality competed for only 2,600 seats in our freshman class. More than 400 of those students in the freshman class come from outside the U.S., as we continue to build a truly national and global student body. We are proud that USC has become a true microcosm of our larger world, with 50 states and 115 nations represented on our campuses.

As a sign of USC’s cultural diversity, 93 different religious groups operate on our campus. And USC is the only American university with a Hindu person serving as its dean of religious life.

I believe these forms of diversity energize us, but they are matched by a diversity of intellectual talents. Today, USC has almost three times as many Caltech-quality freshmen as Caltech itself has—along with a broader range of top-quality artists and humanists and professionals than any other university. This gives USC an environment that is electric with intellectual collaboration and innovation.

And while we want to create a uniquely global character on our own campus in Los Angeles, we also want our educational experience to be far broader. We introduced a Global Scholars program. This is for students who spend a minimum of 10 weeks overseas—not as tourists, but doing important study, research, or service in emerging economies. These are students who will know how to find their way around the world and who can make an impact while doing so.

Yet when people around the world think of the intellectual giants of the 21st century, we want them to be thinking of the faculty at the University of Southern California. This will require a critical mass of faculty superstars.

We do have world-class faculty at USC—but we need more, many more, to build the foundation of what I call academic pre-eminence. So the provost has begun a sweeping campaign to bring in rising talent, Nobel-prize-caliber talent from around the world so that they can super-charge our academic community.

Provost Garrett, working with our deans, has brought in some superstars in just the past 12 months:

  • Nobel Prize-winning health economist Daniel McFadden, from UC Berkeley;
  • Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann, from the Santa Fe Institute, who is helping USC to break new ground in cancer research;
  • The acclaimed poet and essayist Dana Gioia, the past chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts;
  • The famous political economist and member of a national academy, Mathew McCubbins, from UCSD;
  • Professor Indy Gill from the Cleveland Clinic, the best urologist in the world;
  • Peggy Farnham, one of the greatest scientists in the areas of biochemistry and molecular biology, from UC Davis;
  • Lee Epstein, one of the foremost authorities on law and politics from Northwestern. She is another member of a national academy;
  • The brilliant architect Frank Gehry, a USC alumnus, who now holds the distinguished title of Judge Widney Professor of Architecture;
  • Lord John Eatwell, a famous economist from Cambridge University in England;
  • Stephen Gruber, a famous medical oncologist, cancer geneticist, and epidemiologist from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor;
  • And many other academic giants in areas ranging from the arts to ethics to engineering and medicine.

Internationally admired heavyweights such as these are elevating the USC brand, across the board. On our campuses, these giants will give USC the academic Gravitas to pull everything else into its orbit.

And by the way, for the second straight year, the widely followed U.S. News rankings of American universities ranked USC above our crosstown rival, UCLA! And the quality of our undergraduate students is far better than UC Berkeley.

But I prefer that we not take any rankings too seriously. At USC, we will not be pulled by the nose by other people’s metrics for excellence. We must define what is most important to USC’s mission.

USC’s academic community has been at the forefront of the rise of the Internet and digital media and entertainment. USC is now at the vanguard of restoration of sight to the blind, the treatment of cancer, the rise of quantum computing, and much more.

An interdisciplinary example involves our USC U.S.-China Institute, which stands as the first comprehensive effort by a major university to explore the unfolding U.S.-China relationship that will influence so much of world events in coming decades. Since its founding five years ago, the U.S.-China Institute has funded cutting-edge research by close to a hundred investigators in the areas of:

  • geopolitical strategy;
  • trade;
  • aging;
  • cinema and digital media;
  • and changes in religion and culture.

The institute has increasingly become a premier resource for leaders in industry, government, media, and education. Most American-based programs that study Chinese developments reflect what could be considered a specific, Washington-based perspective. But the USC institute is designed to mutually engage societies on both sides of the Pacific.

USC has a strong international representation on our Board of Trustees, and this has opened many doors for our students, faculty, and alumni. We have international offices—like USC embassies—in Mexico City, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Mumbai, and Bangalore, and we are planning a new one in Brazil.

Last spring, Chairman Roski and I led a delegation to India to build more ties in one of the world’s fastest growing economies. USC’s trustee Ratan Tata is perhaps the most influential businessman in India; he introduced me to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and it was a privilege to hear from his excellency about his hopes for improving US-India relationships.

I am also pleased to announce the election of the newest member of USC’s board of trustees: the distinguished Chairman Fu Chengyu of Sinopec. Sinopec is the largest oil company in China—the 7th largest in the world—with two million employees. We look forward to the leadership that Chairman Fu will offer in his new role, helping to guide the oldest and largest private research university in the American West.

You may be aware that, sometime next spring, the Opus Hong Kong will open as one of the most prestigious residential properties in the world. The Opus has been designed by USC’s own Frank Gehry, our alumnus and new faculty member. His genius has left a lasting imprint on North America and Europe, and now Asia. It is one more sign of the influence of the Trojan Family on our world.

USC has demonstrated its commitment to developing the vast potential of the Pacific Rim in numerous ways. Human health is a chief concern for Pacific Rim societies in coming years, and USC is building what we believe can be the finest academic medical centers of the Pacific Rim. USC already looks after the health of a million people. And in the near future, we foresee people from across the Pacific Rim coming to USC for the most advanced medical treatment.

Yet no matter how productive we are academically, we will not be able to secure our academic gains for the long run unless we build USC’s overall endowment to rank in the top tier of private institutions.

As a result, we announced in September the largest fundraising campaign in the history of American higher education with a goal to raise $6 billion. USC recently became the first American university ever to raise over one billion dollars in 12 months—$1.2 billion, to be specific. This was due, in no small part, to the visionary generosity of USC’s trustees:

  • David and Dana Dornsife gave $200 million to name the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, which is the very beating heart of USC;
  • Julie and John Mork gave $110 million in scholarship endowment, to open USC’s doors to hundreds of quality young people;
  • Ming Hsieh gave $50 million to enable medicine and engineering to collaborate in battling cancer;
  • Wallis Annenberg gave $50 million to allow USC to redefine journalism in our digital age;
  • And the Keck Foundation offered $150 million in support of cutting-edge medicine.

So now USC has chosen to build on the momentum they provided, and raise an unprecedented total of six billion dollars. It is a lofty goal. Some would call it audacious. But the spirit of the Trojans is a spirit that turns the difficult into the achievable, by working together, passionately.

I want to emphasize that every gift counts, no matter how small. You are Trojans, and we love you. But, if you stretch yourself and give us a little more than you thought you could give, we will love you even more! Every gift does make a statement.

Allow me to offer a closing thought:

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 spirit of the Trojans, with the unconquerable 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 one of the most influential regions for the Age of the Pacific, all intellectual roads can lead to USC, which serves as the cultural and artistic wellspring and scientific and economic engine for this great region.

Do you know what alma mater means? It’s a Latin expression. It means “the mother who feeds us all.” And USC has the chance, my fellow Trojans, to be the alma mater for this Age of the Pacific.

When USC was founded 131 years ago, Los Angeles was a small, dusty village in the American West. The center of economic gravity was the Atlantic, which benefited universities in the northeastern United States.

But today, USC is strategically positioned to serve as the intellectual crucible of the United States and the Pacific Rim. Our university is poised to become the foremost laboratory of experimentation of “East-West” ideas in the arts and humanities, and the sciences and social sciences, and engineering and medicine and the professions.

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 commonwealth nations.

Think for a moment what a distinct privilege we have today that none of the previous Trojan generations of this university did! Our university is poised to achieve full maturity as not just a “good” university, not even a “great” university, but as a university that stands within the pantheon of world class universities.

Destiny has dealt a favorable hand to all of us, and the Destined Reign of Troy is now within sight, ahead of us. But to succeed, we must run this new marathon at a sprinter’s pace.

I ask you to join us in this great adventure of a lifetime. Let us move forward with purpose and determination and passion. Work with us and let us write together the most glorious chapter in USC’s history!

Thank you, and Fight On, Always!