October 25, 2013
By C. L. Max Nikias

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to Trojan Family Weekend!

It’s a wonderful privilege to be part of this special occasion. Today and over the next few days, we reunite families, reaffirm goals, and reinforce commitments to those most precious to us.

I want to begin by thanking you all for supporting the Teaching and Mentoring Awards. I know this recognition is incredibly meaningful to my faculty colleagues. I offer my heartfelt congratulations to this year’s winners: Mark Redekopp, Najmedin Meshkati, and Paula Woodley. Their dedication to our students is truly inspiring, matched only by your appreciation of their commitment to your sons and daughters.

As the antiquity writer Plutarch observed, “The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but something that needs igniting.” And today’s award-winners have earned the gratitude of all of us, who have watched with delight as your children’s intellectual interests began to burn brightly at USC.

While I’m here today as USC’s president, I also stand before you as a parent of two recent USC graduates. My wife, Niki, and I still glow with pride in our daughters’ tremendous growth and accomplishments here. But if you think that your anxieties disappear after your children graduate, you are wrong. You will still worry about them!

Having served as a professor, dean, provost, and now as president of USC, I have been guided first and foremost by my perspective as a parent. In the past, it was quite helpful to see and experience USC through the eyes and hearts of my daughters and their friends. From time to time, I would have lunch with them on campus in pursuit of what was on the minds of students here.

Today, I still have an opportunity to share a meal with your children. Every year since I became president, my wife Niki and I host Thanksgiving for over 300 students at our house. I only wish the President’s House could host 3,000 students for a traditional turkey dinner!

These are both domestic and international students who don’t go home for Thanksgiving. Niki and I, along with our daughters, spend the evening with them, and we love it.

Throughout the year, I also host regularly a private afternoon tea with students.

These teas are a true highlight for me. Nobody else is in the room — just me and students in a relaxed setting. There, they can express their aspirations and concerns. And it is also a time when I can express my hopes and dreams for them.

I ask them to tell me one good thing about USC, and one thing that needs improvement. I call it “sustain and improve.” You should be amazed what I learn from our students. I bring many of the issues they discuss to my regular cabinet meetings.

One thing that we have improved is the university’s residential college program. All freshmen living on campus have access to distinguished professors and administrators living in the residence halls. Twenty-two faculty members live in the residence halls and coordinate a variety of cultural and academic programming.

Recently, for instance, a group of students, RAs, and a residential faculty member went on an excursion to Chinatown. There, they enjoyed an opportunity to eat Chinese food, participate in a historical walk led by a USC alumna who wrote a book and made a documentary about Chinatown’s history.

Beyond the sights and sounds of such programming, residential faculty members also serve as an important resource for students in their busy academic lives.

Faculty serve as the foundation of all academic excellence for students. And that foundation has been fortified dramatically in the past few years. Our goal is simple: To serve notice that USC is the place where the best minds in the world can come to do their best work and teach the best students.

In the past three years, 32 of our faculty were strategic, transformative hires, including superstars like the stem-cell pioneer Andrew McMahon from Harvard, who also teaches an undergraduate biology class to freshmen each year — something he insisted on when signing his faculty contract.

But USC is also a place where gifted researchers and teachers are grown and cultivated. Recently, USC Professor Arieh Warshel, who has been at USC for nearly four decades, was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Like Professor McMahon, Professor Warshel is so committed to students — every year he teaches a freshman chemistry class.

At USC, we have many amazing scholars, and researchers, and artists. But they are also teachers! And yes, I also enjoy teaching a micro-seminar to incoming freshmen every fall.

If the faculty is the foundation of all excellence at a university, the students are the pillars that rise up from that strong foundation. But do you know why your children are here at USC today?

It’s because they are very special!

What’s so special about them? They are coming to USC along with the sons and daughters of legacies from the Ivy Leagues and other top universities. And they are special because getting into USC this year was extremely competitive.

To find your sons and daughters, our admissions staff visited 2,200 high schools last year, more than anyone else. USC had more than 48,000 applicants for its freshman class — more than any other private American research university!

USC now brings in three times as many Caltech-quality freshmen every fall as Caltech does. In fact, our freshman class includes nearly 600 students who arrived with perfect high school records — straight A’s all through high school. And our SAT scores for our entering freshman class stand at the 95th percentile.

But getting into USC isn’t just about amazing test scores and transcripts. We recognize that great students who will make great contributions to the world cannot (and should not) always be measured by conventional metrics.
We also realize that there is strength in diversity of circumstances and backgrounds, as long as it is backed by a brilliant intellect and curiosity.

I am filled with incredible pride that more than one in eight USC freshmen are the first in their families to attend college. This number is quite remarkable, as first-generation college students are one of the most under-represented groups at elite research universities. But not at USC!

We have opened up college access to an incredibly high number of disadvantaged students. The New York Times reported recently that 22 percent of our students are Pell-Grant eligible, which is higher than at any private university of our kind. And 22 percent of our students are under-represented minorities, further adding to the real-world diversity of our university.

So, if you feel a special sense of pride that your children are part of the Trojan Family, you should! And that’s because they are very special.

Our university provides a unique educational experience. We are not a liberal arts college, or a scientific institute, or an arts conservatory. While we provide our students with all of the opportunities that can be found at those other institutions, we offer so much more.

USC is a university where the best minds from many different disciplines interact with each other on a daily basis. This is a place that welcomes students interested in science and technology as well as those who are passionate about the arts, the social sciences and humanities.

The greatest innovations and discoveries occur when a single problem is examined from many diverse points of view. That’s why we have fashioned a culture of collaboration where students from every field of study work together and learn from each other, both inside and outside the classroom. And USC provides its students the funding to conduct groundbreaking research, which goes on throughout the year.

Many students who receive such support go on to win prominent national awards. This year, USC students and baccalaureate alumni won 12 Fulbright Scholarships and 7 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships. One National Science Foundation winner was Nishita Deka. Last year, her undergraduate research on semiconductor lasers also earned her a 2012 Astronaut Scholarship, one of only 28 in the nation.

We also have several programs that recognize the accomplishments of your children. The Discovery Scholars program salutes the extraordinary original research undergraduate students conduct in the humanities, the sciences, engineering and the other professions. Our Renaissance Scholars program acknowledges students at graduation who have exceled in at least two widely separated fields of study during their time at USC. And befitting an institution that is emerging as a truly global university, we have a Global Scholars program for those who undertake significant study and projects overseas.

Today, USC’s student body itself has become a microcosm of the entire world. Woven into the university’s rich global tapestry are students from all 50 states and more than 115 nations. USC has more international students than any other university in America. And we also have more than 90 student religious groups, which is the most in the nation.

According to the latest data, more than 2,300 of our students studied abroad in the past year. That places USC sixth in the nation among all colleges and universities. This exposure to broad perspectives helps our students become citizens of the world and enables them to feel at home in a global society. It opens them up to different viewpoints and different perspectives. And, yes, even different accents — including that of their president!

This, after all, is the world our students find themselves in today.

We also hope our students will feel at home in the arts. Science and technology are a means to an end, but real art is our end as complete human beings. USC currently has 6,000 students majoring or minoring in the arts.

We also encourage our students to engage in our arts and humanities initiative called “Visions and Voices.” This program showcases acclaimed artists and distinguished speakers from the worlds of music, dance, literature, art, and cinema.

This fall, our student community had the chance to spend an afternoon with preeminent playwright Tony Kushner and an evening with legendary performer Elton John. In the coming months, they can also attend a modern retelling of Homer’s Iliad and watch the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Each year, some 25,000 students from every discipline attend events on campus and across the city. We want our students, regardless of discipline, to have an appreciation for the arts by the time they graduate.

Indeed, one of USC’s secret weapons, which is becoming the envy of other research universities, is our strength in the arts.

Last year, the philanthropist Glorya Kaufman made an exceptionally generous gift to create and endow the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. This is the first new school added to USC since 1975, and Ms. Kaufman’s gift to USC is arguably the largest ever made in the history of American dance. This establishes the sixth independent school for the creative and performing arts at USC.

This past spring, music industry icons Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre gave $70 million to USC to create a unique undergraduate experience: The USC Iovine Young Academy for Art, Technology and Business of Innovation. Sitting at the intersection of art, music, engineering and entrepreneurship, this academy will be a wellspring of future innovators and novel breakthroughs. By the way, Dr. Dre’s share of the gift — $35 million — is the largest amount given by an African-American to American higher education, even more than Bill Cosby or Oprah Winfrey.

A world-class faculty and a world-class student body require world-class facilities. As you walk around campus this weekend, you may see a lot of works in progress, but that is because we have a lot of progress in the works!

One project we have completed is the new Engemann Student Health Center, which opened early this year. Standing five-stories tall and featuring the highest quality of care offered by the very best physicians and healthcare providers of USC, I hope your children will never need it! But it is there if they do.

New dynamic centers of learning are rising as we speak, and we are also taking large strides in making the campus even more beautiful. These budding buildings and vital laboratories will serve as the capstone in our commitment to our students and faculty, and they will further accelerate the pace into becoming a residential university.

And we continue to pursue projects that make our campus an oasis of green beauty. On our University Park Campus alone, we will plant 1,000 trees in the next few years.

As the president of USC, I am very proud of how far this university has come over the past few years. But I am often reminded that the spirit of this university draws its largest breath from USC’s athletic spirit.

This year we are celebrating the 125th anniversary of the founding of USC’s athletic program. Today, your children can cheer on their fellow students in 21 men’s and women’s NCAA sports or participate on 60 intramural teams.

As a testament to the Trojan ideal of perfecting mind and body, USC has produced more Olympians than any other school. If USC was a nation, it would rank 15th in the world in terms of gold medals earned. We will always expect to reach the highest level of excellence in every arena in which we compete.

Each fall, I always remind my cabinet members that we are a year older, but our freshmen are always 18 years old. For many of our incoming students, this is their first time away from home for an extended period of time.

As a parent, I know how much your children mean to you and how much you have sacrificed to bring them here. I assure you that we are not only focused on their education, but also on their safety and wellbeing.

Every year, the very first briefing I request from our chief of DPS, before the beginning of the fall semester, is a complete report on the safety and security of our campus. My wife, Niki, joins me for this briefing—she provides me the mother’s perspective — where we also visit the surrounding neighborhoods.

We have been pleased and reassured to see firsthand how USC has implemented or enhanced security measures to ensure a safe environment for our university community.

USC boasts an expansive network of both human and technological elements to maintain security on and off campus, in the so called “bubble area.” Our yellow jackets ambassador program boasts nearly 60 locations of trained officers who oversee the campus and the blocks of surrounding neighborhoods from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. A network of 175 cameras also monitors the campus and nearby community 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These cameras scan the license plate of any car that enters the “bubble area” and checks it against law enforcement databases.

In addition, last year we implemented biometric fingerprint scanning to further secure access to all on-campus residence halls. As a result, the number of computer thefts has dropped to zero!

Part of the education your sons and daughters receive at USC is how to be safe and protect their property in an urban setting. With so many demands and distractions, it is easy for students to forget to lock doors or pay attention to those around them, so we diligently foster a culture of vigilance — of paying attention to personal safety and security.

The skills they acquire here will enable them to live safely in any urban setting in the world, from LA to Chicago to New York, and Shanghai to Mumbai to London. Just as USC brings so much of the real world to your children, we want them to be ready when your children bring themselves to the real world.

I know one of your other concerns as a parent is what happens when your children graduate from USC.

As this difficult economic climate has made clear, the treasures of the material world can vanish overnight. But the treasures of the mind are enduring and resilient. However, this ideal must also be balanced with the practical.

The USC Career Center is committed to setting the stage for your children’s future success. From offering extensive internships to providing vast resources both here and across our Trojan alumni network, we work to ensure that students start early in their career search and finish strongly.

The university’s dedication to promoting lives of professional leadership and excellence is evident in the disproportionate number of corporate leaders who have graduated from USC. USC currently ranks in the top half of one percent of U.S. schools in generating Fortune Global 500 CEOs. While I cannot guarantee your children will one day ascend to the top of a multinational corporation, I can promise they will have the tools to do so!

USC is advancing in virtually every area — from the quality of the students we attract, to the faculty we retain and recruit, to the many projects that are reshaping the university’s physical landscape.

Though such vision and audacious goals for the future come at a price, we are grateful for the many benefactors of our university who recognize that bold steps beget bold support. A few years ago, we announced the most ambitious fundraising campaign in the history of American Higher education — to raise $6 billion.

This money will go toward supporting faculty and research, endowing student scholarships, enriching academic programs, and constructing new facilities. It wasn’t in our wildest dreams that three years into the campaign that we would be reaching $3 billion raised. No other university has achieved that goal. But what has touched me even more is that USC parents have donated $730 million, more than a quarter of the total contributions our campaign has raised so far!

Outside of sending your children here, perhaps nothing attests more to how much parents believe in USC than how much they contribute to USC. So if you would like to make a gift to USC, I want you to know, I will love you even more!

This historic campaign will not only transform USC, but more importantly, it will transform our students.

I’d like to conclude with one final thought about the values of our Trojan Family. One of the most moving scenes in Virgil’s Aeneid is a story about the end of the Trojan War.

Dusk has fallen — and so, too, the City of Troy has fallen. The great Trojan warrior Aeneas watches in sorrow. Then the shadow of Aeneas’ mother—the spirit of his mother — appears to him, and assures Aeneas of a great destiny. The spirit of his mother urges him to leave and to set sail on a long journey toward that destiny.

Aeneas listens to his mother, but he is facing a challenge: His dying father wants to stay behind, in the fallen city. At last, the great warrior stoops down, picks up his crippled father, and carries him over his shoulder, toward an awaiting ship.

The most majestic passage of Virgil’s epic is not the final triumph of the Trojans (which led to the founding of Rome and the mighty Roman Empire) but rather those warm family moments during that final evening in the Old City.

There, a mother urges her child on to a greater destiny, despite the obstacles that appear everywhere around him. There, a hero draws hope and inspiration from his mother’s words. And there, the hero resolves to carry his ailing father with him, to a better place.

The story is a beautiful metaphor for the core values of a great family. They are no different from the values of our Trojan Family.

And that is what makes Niki and me so proud to be First Lady and President of this great university. Indeed, you and your children are our family!

Thank you, and Fight On!