State of the University Address

February 2018
C. L. Max Nikias
President

Today, more than ever, higher education is the key to instilling the values that create an open and free society.  This is a role of lasting merit, part of the enduring concept of education as enlightenment, of education that advances civilizations.

There is no question that a university education can pave the way to a rewarding career, and better economic security.  Academically elite universities create a powerful workforce that keeps America moving forward on a global scale.  Yet, these days, critics hold universities in contempt, and see higher education as inaccessible, unaffordable, and irrelevant.

My fellow Trojans, at this University of Southern California, we see it differently.  To expand access, we reached out to the neighborhood and across the country.  We wanted to change the paradigm.  We wanted to make college possible for thousands and thousands of economically disadvantaged students.

USC is opening minds, and opening doors to higher education because every child holds promise.  Among our successes: our Neighborhood Academic Initiative with its 1,100 enrolled students, Rossier’s charter schools, community college transfer students, our newly established Bovard College, and our ROTC and veterans programs.

To increase affordability, we announced seven years ago a fundraising campaign with a record-breaking goal of $6 billion—a goal we reached 18 months ahead of schedule.  With the campaign’s continuing success, we are leading the way in making a USC education a reality for so many under-served families.  Two-thirds of our students receive substantial financial aid, which has increased almost 80 percent thanks to our fundraising.  We now have the biggest financial aid pool in America: $325 million.

To increase relevance, we introduced a series of initiatives across our campuses, showing how a private university with a public mission can be a force for real change.  Our success is a shared success because we are investing in something too important to ignore.  We are investing in humanity.

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Education, at its best, is intertwined with core values we all hold dear: freedom of expression, a relentless search for truth, diversity, gender equality, and entrepreneurialism, but also compassion and hope.  And it begins with teachers and mentors.

As a member of the USC faculty for more than a quarter-century now, I’ve learned one indisputable truth: teaching is the greatest act of optimism.  It is this optimism that ignites the fires of learning in young minds, fires that burn brightest with resilience, independence, self-confidence and, most of all, imagination.

Great teachers and mentors inspire courage, invite risk-taking, and remind students that knowledge is passion, driven by those fires of learning.  Great mentors help us to become better than we were.

We are a university of great scholars.  Our faculty is our bedrock, our staff is the glue that holds us together, research is our mission, creative work is our calling, patient care is our duty, and education is our lifeblood.  And, our driving force is intellectual freedom.  All of this embodies the spirit of the Trojan Family.

We need only to look at our university’s DNA.  At a time when most colleges were men only, USC stood out in one particular area right from the start—an area that is even more relevant today.  In the Second Article of Incorporation of the University of Southern California, dated August 5, 1880, is this sentence: “Said University shall be open in every respect for the equal education of both sexes.”

In 1884, at USC’s first commencement, the class valedictorian was a woman: Minnie Miltimore.  There is also a photo from 1889 of USC’s 11-member faculty; three of them were women.  Such inclusiveness is part of our proud heritage.  We do take that responsibility seriously.

When we look at hiring over the last eight years in every discipline, a telling number emerges: 42 percent of our tenure-track faculty today are women.  At the Viterbi School of Engineering, female engineering students account for nearly 40 percent of the undergraduate class, double the national average.  At the graduate level, 1,700 engineering students are women, more than any other engineering school in the nation.

Strong numbers can also be seen at our Keck School of Medicine, where the entering class every year for the past eight years has been 52 percent women.  But much more needs to be done.  We are not satisfied!

As a first step, the provost has established a Diversity and Inclusion Council, which works in unison with diversity liaisons in each of our schools to promote equity, opportunity, and access.

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My colleagues, over the last several months, sexual harassment and abuse of power have become part of the national discourse.  Bringing unacceptable behavior out of the shadows and into the light is the first step in eradicating it.  Change is imperative, and we stand united on this front.

Last summer, a series of revelations surrounding the former dean of our Keck School of Medicine shocked us all.  Seldom have we seen such a world-renowned doctor dive so deeply into the darker side of human nature.  However, I do not desire to make excuses:  this has been a great disappointment for our university community.  Although, I believe, this case was handled in good faith, based on the evidence that existed at any given moment, it was no simple matter given our existing employment policies and California privacy laws.  I shared your frustration.

We must learn from this experience and make all the necessary changes.  We must strengthen our core values, and recommit ourselves to those values.  And we must instill a renewed sense of trust and integrity within our community.

I want to thank the president of the faculty Paul Rosenbloom, and the president of the Staff Assembly, Jeffrey de Caen, for agreeing to co-chair the Task Force on Workplace Standards and Employee Wellness.  I would also like to thank the Academic Senate for working on rewriting USC’s Code of Ethics statement.  Policies that guide a modern, private research university need to change as life’s complexities change.  Transparency must be part of that.

Our Board of Trustees now has an external and very thorough review underway that examines carefully what happened and will suggest how we can best move forward, stronger than before.  Based on the recommendations of the external review and those of the joint task force, and at the request of our Board of Trustees, we will be preparing a comprehensive action plan to implement a major restructuring of a number of operations at the university, as well as to change a number of existing employment policies.

We will seek input from the executive boards of the academic senate and staff assembly to refine the action plan.  When the plan is ready, it will be made public.  Then it will be finalized, working together with the joint task force.

But we must remember that our environment is only as strong as our values, and we must adhere to those values.  We all have a role to play in moving forward, and we can start by reinforcing USC’s commitment to medical sciences, education, and patient care.

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Our academic medical center has been the success story in American higher education in terms of growth in numbers and academic quality.

Our Keck Hospital maintains an A-grade in patient safety from the Leapfrog Group, and continues to have the highest acuity rate in the nation, a value that underscores the volume of extraordinarily complex surgeries.  Clinical revenue rose from $390 million in 2009 to $1.8 billion today.  Patient volume rose exponentially in this same period, to more than 500,000.

We also continue to set new standards of care.  Our collaboration with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles has been strengthened even more, and it has never been better, for the benefit of all children with medical challenges.  USC doctors performed the first robotic surgery to remove kidney cancer extending into the heart.  And three specialized teams collaborated to stabilize a transfer patient with severe head trauma, while a fourth team addressed the patient’s pneumonia and a fifth team worked with the patient’s family to ensure they had everything they needed.

On the medical research front, we are achieving unprecedented success.  Over the last five years, research funding increased by 50 percent to $294 million, and junior faculty awards jumped from five to 22.  Professor Paul Aisen’s newly awarded NIH grant of $70 million will establish a national infrastructure to support Alzheimer’s research and clinical trials.  At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Professor Alan Wayne is treating childhood leukemia using CAR-T therapy.

In the most recent rankings, seven departments of the Keck School of Medicine ranked in the top 10 in the nation: physiology and neurosciences, microbiology, ophthalmology, neurology, orthopedics, otolaryngology, and preventive medicine.  These examples speak to the excellence of our medical school faculty.

In December, we had an excellent accreditation visit, and last Monday we received notification that our Keck School has been fully accredited for the next eight years.  I want to commend Dean Laura Mosqueda, Associate Dean Donna Elliott, and Professor Henri Ford for their exceptional efforts.

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We all know change is not easy, especially when the goal seems impossible to reach.  But our university has always reflected a blend of brashness, ambition, and entrepreneurialism.

The cornerstone of our efforts begins with our faith in the quality of our faculty; is made stronger by our faith in the quality of our students; is made more resilient by our faith in our staff members, alumni and parents; and is made lustrous by our faith in building academic excellence.

We knew that rewarding and retaining our existing faculty members, and hiring the very best new faculty, year in and year out, would drive USC to unprecedented heights.  We have Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, Pritzker Prize laureates, national medal recipients, national academy members, and fellows of various esteemed societies.

Last year, eight USC faculty members were named Fulbright scholars and three other faculty members received Guggenheim Fellowships.  USC was one of only 11 universities to claim at least three.

One of the three is Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, who in 18 months completed an astonishing trifecta.  It began with his debut novel, The Sympathizer, winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.  Twelve months later, he won the Guggenheim honor.  And last October, he was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow.

He is but one example of our faculty’s academic quality, collaborative spirit, and relentless imagination.  Thanks to our faculty’s research quality productivity, total annual research expenditures of the university jumped 14 percent to $764 million.  This is an all-time high.  Our faculty are winning research grants even as it grows more competitive, particularly among federal government agencies.

Our exceptional faculty, of course, helps us attract the very best students.  All year long, our USC admissions counselors do an extraordinary job, recruiting top students from every walk of life.  This year’s freshmen class represents all 50 states, and 129 different nations.

The quality of our students can be seen in this year’s metrics, each of which set a new record.  We had 63,000 freshmen applications, and our acceptance rate will be 13 percent, the lowest in our history.

In recent years, 17 percent of the freshman class are the first in their families to attend college, and about a quarter of the class are under-represented minorities.  In fact, among peer private universities nationwide, based on undergraduate numbers, USC remains first in Pell grant recipients, second in Latino students, and third in African-American students.

We must also never lose sight of the middle-class families, because they are the backbone of our society.  As a further step in that direction, our admissions office will allocate special efforts in recruiting and supporting more students from rural areas of our nation.  We want to show the world that here, at USC, exclusivity and inclusivity work as one.

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In the rankings from The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education, USC again ranked fifteenth on their national list of 1,054 public and private universities.  Only two other universities west of Chicago appear among the top 20:  Caltech and Stanford.

We’ve achieved this excellence by establishing our own identity, and that includes six renowned schools in the arts.  We also take great pride in being home to nearly 1,400 ROTC members and students studying under veterans’ benefits.

Academically, our students are excelling.  This year, 22 won Fulbright awards, the most at any university west of the Mississippi.  Eight were awarded NSF Research Fellowships, and two of our students became Rhodes scholars.  Our students also graduate at an incredible rate: 92 percent.

So, when we hear people express doubt, or frustration, about a university education, we must all rise to the challenge, to explain the value of a university education, and the difference we make in society.

At the same time, however, it is very important for us as a community to always look for efficiencies and best business practices in our operations without compromising quality of service.  That is why a year ago, we initiated “Project Renewal” across both campuses.

This is the fourth time we have undertaken such an effort in the past decade.  It is the responsible thing to do, especially in anticipation of tightening federal research funding and Medicare payments, tax reform impact, and our intention to increase tuition at a much lower rate.  In fact, I’m very pleased to announce that the tuition increase for next year will be only 3.5 percent, the lowest rate since 1969.

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Our student-athletes know better than anyone what it takes to stay competitive, even in the classroom.  For the fourth consecutive year, the graduation success rate of Trojan student-athletes is at an all-time high of 86 percent.  USC had a perfect 100 percent graduation rate in five sports:  defending NCAA champion women’s soccer, men’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis, and women’s rowing.

There were remarkable athletic achievements, too, not the least of which was winning the Rose Bowl last year and the Pac-12 football championship this season.  It was fitting that the Pac-12 title game featured the two universities that were highest-ranked academically, and the only two privates in the conference.

But the sports moment we will always remember is one that forever reshaped what it means to be a Trojan.  That moment was when Jake Olson turned a football field into a field of dreams.  Cancer robbed him of his sight when he was 12, but Jake never gave up his dream of being a Trojan football player.  By delivering perfect snaps for extra points, we watched Jake make the impossible possible.  He is an inspiration for our entire Trojan Family.

Our magnificent home field was not only Jake’s field of dreams, but it also was the scene of a recent celebration of United Airlines’ naming gift for the Coliseum.  Already, upgrades and renovations are well underway.  The entire $270 million project will be completed in less than 18 months, and all the money was raised through philanthropic giving, foundations, and corporate sponsorships.

Our two campuses are growing, too.  Our newest and largest building is the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, where collaboration is the creed.  We also broke ground for a new home for the Iovine Young Academy.

At our Health Sciences campus, we opened the Norris Healthcare Center to accommodate our high patient volume.  A new hospital expansion is already in a serious planning stage.  Phase two of new student housing and the Hyatt hotel construction projects are moving ahead.  We’re almost done with the beautification project across the HSC campus.  And, we decided to move forward expeditiously by developing a Biotech Park on our own land.

But the largest project in our history, and in the history of south Los Angeles, is the USC Village.  This wasn’t just another cluster of school buildings.  We built a village that makes our university fully residential.  And commanding the center of the piazza is the majestic Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, celebrating the diversity of our women of Troy.  Indeed, the USC Village is already becoming the envy of American Higher Education.

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All the academic accomplishments, all the growth we have accomplished together has been made possible by the Campaign for USC:  Fas Regna Trojae.  Already, it is one of the most successful in the history of higher education.

In assessing where we are today in fundraising, USC, Stanford, and Harvard are the only three universities in America that have consistently ranked in the top five for the last six consecutive years.

Today, we are $600 million ahead of schedule of where we hoped to be at this point in 2018.  The Campaign total stands at just over $6.6 billion, of which $4.9 billion is cash.  We raised $3.4 billion for our current academic priorities, $2 billion for endowment, and $1.2 billion for new construction projects and renovations.  More than 100 new endowed faculty chairs were established, and 20 new centers were funded.

USC trustees led the way, contributing over $1.7 billion.  Of the total money raised to date, 37 percent came from alumni, which means the other 63 percent came from alumni of other universities.  Our annual undergraduate alumni participation rate is at 42 percent.  That’s the highest of any major research institution of our size and the highest in the Pac-12: Stanford’s rate last year was 30 percent; UCLA’s was only 8 percent.

More than 367,000 donors have given to the Campaign.  For medicine alone, we have raised a record of $1.3 billion.  From July 1, 2017 to date, there were 8,474 donations to medicine, which constitutes the 9 percent of total donations to USC.  A year ago, for the same period of time, donations to medicine constituted 11 percent of the total.

We are truly humbled by this remarkable outpouring of support.  The investments we make today have the potential to elevate even more the academic quality of this university, and to create an even greater impact.

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My fellow Trojans, our way forward is clear.  Our core values must be a means of improving and sustaining an environment of trust and fairness.  We must move, quickly and decisively, to establish an improved culture, one that is based on equity, professionalism, and ethics.  We must develop coherent and centralized systems for receiving and handling in a timely manner complaints of any nature, and we must ensure absolute confidentiality for anyone who does complain.  Transparency and accountability will help define our actions.

But we must never forget our university’s mission, for that will not change.  Why are we all here?  We are here to educate and serve our students, to create new knowledge through research and creative work, and to take good care of our patients.

I am pleased to announce that our Board of Trustees has approved our new strategic plan that meets all our ambitious goals with speed, and purpose.  I want to take this opportunity and thank our Provost Michael Quick, one of the most talented academic leaders I have ever known, for his excellent leadership working closely with the faculty and the larger university community to see it through.

In this plan, we reimagine our university’s future, and redefine leadership.  We will lead with people, because our intellectual capital, when it works together, can transform the world.  We will lead with values, and honor those values.  We will lead with impact, because impact forces change.  And, we will lead by transforming what a university education can do, one in which the arts and humanities empower science and technology.

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In closing, I would like to point out one concern at stake, one rooted in values: it is the legal peril faing DACA beneficiaries today.  I can only remind you that we all have a vested interest to graduate all of our students with a USC degree.

Allow me to share a story that speaks to this concern.  At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, Euripides staged a poignant play, a tragedy, for his Athenian audience entitled Children of Heracles.  In the play, Athens must decide whether to make a practical choice or a humane one.

Heracles, the great hero, is dead.  But his old rival, King Eurystheus, will not rest until he tracks down and kills Heracles’ children.  The children, in their desperate flight to seek asylum, from one city to another, are repeatedly denied.  After much wandering, they have one last hope—democratic Athens.

But Athens is warned: if you grant the children refuge, you will be attacked.  The pragmatic choice would be to hand over the children.  The opponents of Athens even suggest that a democratic society lacks the courage to make tough, humane choices.

Yet the Athenian assembly in the end chooses to side with Heracles’ children.  Their response: the disgrace is all ours if we let you drag these children off.

It is a reminder, my fellow Trojans, that democracies, from the beginning, have agonized over the moral issues at the heart of the DACA program.  America is no different.

But this University of Southern California will never shrink from its vision to be inclusive, to be committed to a rich exchange of ideas, and to be a global beacon of possibility, creativity, and compassion.  This has long defined the American character.

In this moment, I am reminded of Martin Luther King and his “I Have a Dream” speech.  His dream starts with justice.  “We will not be satisfied,” he said, “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

And his dream ends with love, where all people are one family, one community, and one humanity.  This is a legacy of hope, and it continues to be alive at this university!

Thank you, and Fight On, Always!