Trojan Family Weekend

Delivered on October 13, 2017

Good morning!  And welcome to Trojan Family Weekend.

I am so delighted all of you are here.  It’s a great privilege to be able to share some time with you.

More than 3,600 parents and family members are visiting from 47 states and 21 countries.  Your presence here means so much to your children, but also to USC.

It seems like only yesterday that your sons and daughters were arriving at USC for the fall semester.  But it was more than two months ago!

I know you’ve been making the most of your reunions, because that is what Trojan Family Weekend is all about.

Bonds are reaffirmed, dreams are embraced, new memories are made.

For your children, this isn’t just about the next few years.  This is about a lifelong commitment to something greater than themselves.

Yet I want to tell you something surprising: the Trojan Family is not a democracy.  Think of a pyramid.  The way I see it, at the very top of that pyramid?  USC parents!

You see and experience this university through your children, whose intellectual and emotional growth will go beyond your expectations.

And then you, our USC parents, become our greatest ambassadors!

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My wife, Niki and I went through what you are going through, feeling that sense of pride.  Both of our daughters graduated from USC, and both continued their educations here.

Our oldest daughter, Georgiana, earned her law degree from Gould, and Maria earned her MBA from Marshall.

And being a dad, I know it’s only natural for parents to want to stay in touch with their children, especially when they go to college for the first time.

Well, even as president, I’m no different.

When I was a professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering, and later its dean, and then provost of this university, I interacted with students every day, listening to whatever was on their minds.

So, I created new opportunities to stay connected.

One is what we call “The President’s Tea,” a monthly get-together with small groups of students in the President’s dining room.  It’s an intimate setting, where I offer them sandwiches, cakes, and, yes, tea!

While our conversations are lively and unfettered, I always ask them for two things:

One good thing about USC, and one thing that needs improvement.  I call this “Sustain and Improve.”

And I take extensive notes, believe me.  One suggestion was to increase the number of study spaces that were being planned for USC Village, and we agreed and did just that.

Another opportunity to interact with students comes at Thanksgiving, when Niki and I open our home to any student who isn’t able to go home for the holiday.

With the global diversity of our student body, it’s probably no surprise that last year we welcomed nearly 400.

And we don’t turn any student away, even if that student has already celebrated with his family in L.A., as happened last year with one young man from Pasadena.  We welcome them all!

But my most important interaction is in the classroom.

Every spring, I co-teach a class called “The Culture of the Athenian Democracy.”

Athens, the birthplace of Western Civilization, continues to deliver timeless wisdom, with lessons of leadership, democracy, courage, and personal freedom.

As you may have heard, I place as much weight on humanities at USC as on science and technology.  That’s because the humanities teach us to read and to think and to self-teach, which are the most important things.

We are an elite research university, yes, but this kind of diversity in our curriculum encourages our students to grow intellectually, while reaffirming core values.

How much greater our understanding of the world is …

…When the human condition becomes as important as engineering, technology, or business.

…When the poetry of Dornsife’s Dana Gioia, or the music of Thornton’s Morten Lauridsen inspire us in profound new ways.

…When we know our hearts, as well as we know our research.

This is why USC encourages interdisciplinary study.  We want our students to think beyond boundaries, to go beyond their comfort zone.

We want our graduates to be able to find creative solutions to complex problems.

And this is why we look for the very best students.

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The quality of our students can be seen in this fall’s numbers:

  • We received 56,700 freshmen applications. This is a record.
  • Our acceptance rate was 16 percent. This is a record.
  • We received 8,800 applications from transfer students. This is a record.
  • Our acceptance rate for transfers was 24.3 percent. And this is a record, too!

Here’s another way to think about how selective we are.

We turned away 4,000 freshman applicants with straight-A’s in high school.  We also turned away 5,200 applicants with standardized test scores in the 99th percentile.

Yet we still saw extraordinary academic depth in the freshmen we admitted:  The middle 50 percent had SAT scores between 1350 and 1500… or ACT scores between 31 and 34.  On average, they were in the 98th percentile.

And the average enrolled student had test scores in the 96th percentile.  That is another record for USC.

Our admissions office does an extraordinary job, attracting the best students from every region of the world and every walk of life.

It’s why we can say that this year’s freshman class for the second year in a row represents all 50 states, nearly 100 countries, and more than 90 different religious viewpoints.

And we don’t forget our Trojan Family legacy.  Of the admitted students this fall, one in six is a Trojan SCion, cementing the idea that family matters, generation to generation.

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Yet, exclusivity works side by side with inclusivity at USC.  We are opening the doors of opportunity to students from under-served neighborhoods, and from economically disadvantaged families.

This fall, 24 percent of our freshmen are under-represented minorities.  And, I’m proud to add, almost 17 percent are the first in their family to attend college.  That’s the most ever!

Our push to level the playing field can be seen in the number of Pell grants awarded to our incoming students: 17 percent of our freshmen, and 27 percent of our transfers.

We do this better than any of our private peers, in large part thanks to our Neighborhood Academic Initiative and our Family of Schools.

But it’s also because we are able to offer generous financial aid packages.

The extraordinary generosity of alumni, parents, and other USC supporters has allowed us to increase student aid 76 percent since 2007, and we now have one of the biggest financial aid pools in the country: about $320 million.

About two-thirds of our students receive some form of financial aid, including grants, USC merit scholarships, and federal student loans.

USC does everything possible to ease the financial burden where the need arises.

And we work hard to see our students graduate on time.

USC’s six-year graduation rate is 92 percent, the same as UC Berkeley and higher than UCLA.

But more importantly, our four-year graduation rate is 77 percent, and that is higher than Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UCLA.

In the new 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 three universities west of Chicago appear among the top 20:  USC, Caltech, and Stanford.

This ranking is noteworthy because it follows a particularly comprehensive formula that includes, among other things, financial support, graduations rates, and diversity.

*          *          *

But these rankings also look at something that happens to be one of USC’s greatest strengths:  Our faculty.

Our student-to-faculty ratio of nine to one is hard to beat.  Our 4,000 faculty members include five Nobel laureates and four MacArthur Fellows.

One of those Nobel laureates is economist Sir Angus Deaton, who teaches at Dornsife.  His voice is a powerful one in the push to reduce global poverty.

And one of those MacArthur fellows is Annenberg’s Josh Kun.  Professor Kun explores how the arts and popular culture fuel cross-cultural exchange.

Also, this past spring, three faculty members received Guggenheim Fellowships.  USC was one of only 11 universities to claim at least three!

  • Viterbi’s Daniel Lidar, who looks for ways to accelerate the speed and power of quantum computers;
  • Dornsife’s Cheryl Mattingly, whose research has explored large-scale social injustice.
  • And Dornsife’s Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose debut novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize last year for fiction.

Eight USC faculty members were named Fulbright scholars this year.  That places our university among the top five institutions, and the only major research university in California to make the list.

Many other faculty members consistently bring acclaim to USC, and in different ways:

  • Over at Viterbi, Mike Zyda received the prestigious Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He leads USC’s GamePipe Laboratory, which The Princeton Review again named best in the nation.
  • At Dornsife, physicist Peter Kuhn became part of Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot project. Professor Kuhn’s innovative, interdisciplinary CancerBase data program sheds light on how cancer spreads, and evolves.
  • And at Thornton, the great jazz pianist Alan Pasqua said yes when Bob Dylan called. Professor Pasqua wrote the background music for the live reading of Dylan’s acceptance speech at this year’s Nobel ceremony.

Their accomplishments speak to the scope of USC’s work!

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USC has risen to new heights by breaking the mold for what a research university should be.

Think about it this way:  Stanford enrolls about 1,700 freshmen every year of very good to excellent caliber.

We do too.

But we have something Stanford doesn’t.  Six renowned arts schools.

We don’t judge these freshmen by conventional metrics.  After all, they represent the best young creative talent in the worlds of architecture, art and design, cinema, dance, dramatic arts, and music.

At the same time, these six schools share their magic across the university through innovative minors, elective classes, and live performances.

Yet every school at USC shares something special: a chance for undergraduates to collaborate with our stellar faculty.

It might be working with famed choreographer William Forsythe at the Kaufman School of Dance … or taking the stage opposite actress Kate Burton at the School of Dramatic Arts … or reading their own poetry alongside Dornsife’s Robin Coste Lewis, L.A.’s poet laureate.

Challenging ourselves is essential to learning, and to life.

For Sara Ma, a senior at USC’s Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, the challenge came with Peter Kuhn’s CancerBase project.

In need of a visual artist with the mind of an engineer, Professor Kuhn reached out to the Academy.

Sara came on board to design the database, and she continues to work with Professor Kuhn and his team, as well as with cancer patients.

“When I saw the academy’s focus was to have people from different fields working together, I knew this is where I want to be. … This is the workforce of the future.”

At USC, students can reach beyond their dreams.

  • This past year, 13 students won Fulbright awards, placing USC in the top 25 among all universities.
  • Three students and five alumni were awarded 2017 National Science Foundation Research Fellowships.
  • And two alumni were selected Rhodes scholars.

*          *          *

Emboldened by such academic prowess, USC continues to transform its campuses.

In August, we officially opened the largest project in our history, and the largest in the history of south Los Angeles:  the USC Village!

It is a true game-changer for our neighborhood.

It took many years of planning, and then nearly three years of construction.

We weren’t just building another cluster of buildings.  We were building community.

But USC Village does something more:  It inspires special pride for our Trojan Family.

Just a generation ago, USC was viewed primarily as a commuter campus.  Not anymore.

With our eight residential colleges, we have revived an educational model that has existed since medieval times, when the essence of the university revolved around the relationship between students and faculty.

At USC Village, our university’s global character and global diversity encourages academic encounters that will shape the living and learning environment for our own “global village.”

And commanding the center of the Village’s piazza is the majestic bronze figure of Hecuba, the great Queen of Troy … celebrating our women of Troy!

At the base are six female figures representing six different ethnicities, underscoring the remarkable diversity that connects us across our academic community.

These figures also represent the diversity of our academic disciplines: the humanities and the sciences, medicine and technology, the arts and the social sciences.

This is the USC of the 21st century!

The Village is home to more than 2,500 USC students, who have access to a state-of-the-art fitness center and can share meals in a stately dining hall that features high ceilings, dramatic lighting, and beautiful stained-glass windows.

At the same time, USC Village serves as a retail hub for our entire neighborhood.  Now we have a Trader Joe’s, a Target, and a new Starbucks, among others.

The Village is, in fact, bringing people together.

And we couldn’t be more pleased.

Another building project got underway two days ago, when we broke ground for a 40,000-square-foot state of the art building to house the Iovine and Young Academy.  The opening is set for winter, 2019.

The new Iovine and Young Hall will be home to 3D printing and scanning; … media labs for photo, video, and audio; … and fabrication labs for metal, wood, plastics, and electronics.

Iovine and Young students are already making their mark, creating their own successful start-ups, and participating in life-changing research projects.

With this new building, the academy will be able to offer courses to students in other majors, sharing its innovative spirit with all USC students.

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And three weeks from now, we will celebrate the much-anticipated opening of the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience.

It is the largest building within the University Park Campus.

Michelson Hall, at the building’s center, was created with a $50-million gift from retired spinal surgeon Gary Michelson and his wife, Alya.

The complex is state of the art, designed with open, shared laboratories to encourage new collaboration, and new partnerships.  Natural light rings each floor, with 10-foot high cathedral windows.

The basement accommodates the Imaging Center, a Nanofabrication Cleanroom, and a low vibration laboratory.

The idea is to bring people from across USC to this axis where our best minds will tackle our most daunting health problems, including cancer and infectious diseases.

The faculty at Michelson already includes professors from Dornsife, Viterbi, the Keck School of Medicine, the School of Cinematic Arts, and the USC Information Sciences Institute.

This interdisciplinary approach, in a building without borders, will make USC the undisputed leader in this exciting new approach to life-changing research.

*          *          *

All of this has been made possible by the Campaign for USC, which already is one of the most successful in the history of higher education.

In assessing where USC is today, we are in good company.  USC, Stanford, and Harvard are now consistently the top three universities in America in raising private support.

During the last fiscal year, we raised more than $794 million in new gifts and pledges, bringing the Campaign total to $6.3 billion as of June 30.

Of that total, we raised close to $3.3 billion for our current academic priorities, $2 billion for endowment, and $1 billion for new construction projects and renovations.

Nearly 132,000 alumni, both graduate and undergraduate, have given to the Campaign, covering almost $2.3 billion, or 40 percent of what we’ve received so far.  Sixty percent came from alumni of other universities!

This kind of generosity creates a lasting impact by bolstering academic, research, and community programs at our University Park and Health Sciences campuses.

We have been able to build new schools and institutes, endow faculty chairs, increase student scholarships, and offer new programs for military veterans and their families.

And this year, we again had an undergraduate alumni participation rate of 42 percent.  That’s the highest of any major research institution!

Stanford’s rate was 35 percent; UCLA’s was only 8 percent. Harvard’s was 33 percent.

All of us at USC are humbled by this remarkable outpouring of support from the Trojan Family.

The Campaign will continue through 2021, and the investments we make today have the potential to generate research breakthroughs across all fields.

And all of you are now part of the Trojan Family, something you will always look back on with great pride.

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But with our campus growing in so many ways, I know there is another issue on the minds of every parent here today:  safety and security.

While USC offers an unmatched academic environment for its students, it can only be fully experienced if students feel safe at all times.

So, I want to reassure you that we are as focused on their well-being… as we are on their education.

Every August, the very first briefing I request—during move-in week—is a complete report on the safety and security measures and upgrades.

My wife, Niki, joins me for this briefing—I want to have a mother’s perspective, too.  We personally meet with Chief John Thomas of USC’s Department of Public Safety and tour the campus and surrounding neighborhoods.

USC boasts a network of both human and technological elements to maintain security on and off campus, as far north as the 10 freeway, and west to Normandie Avenue.

Our “yellow jacket” ambassador program now includes 80 trained officers who oversee the campus and surrounding community.  This is in addition to 320 DPS personnel.

At University Village alone, we have seven “yellow jacket” posts.  And housing access policies at the Village are the same as on campus, including a guard station in the lobby.  Access to the residential buildings is through a fingerprint reader.

Beyond that, more than 350 “actively monitored” cameras, staffed by our security people, watch over this campus and our nearby community 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

These cameras are among the more than 3,000 in our network, including ones that read the license plates of all vehicles driving through!

And, no one ever has to walk home alone at night.  They can call Campus Cruiser to request a free ride.

During peak hours, we outsource to Lyft, so no one has to wait more than 15 minutes.

Together, these services offer students a ride back to off-campus housing—from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week.  And during exam periods, service extends to 6 a.m.

And it’s all free to students!  USC pays for it.

Nonetheless, our students must make basic safety principles a part of their daily lives.

Safety education is mandatory at USC, but we remind students that safety is a shared responsibility.

Students learn basic principles of safety and security, and gain an understanding of sexual assault and misconduct.

We are confident the skills and awareness our students acquire here will stay with them … and enable them to live safely in any city in the world.

*          *          *

Of course, USC athletics is a big part of campus life.  And all year long, our Trojan athletes have had great success.

Our women’s soccer team won the NCAA championship, while women’s beach volleyball captured its third straight national championship … with a record 38 victories.

Sixteen of USC’s 21 teams finished in the national Top 25 of NCAA competition, eight of them in the Top 5.

Overall, USC had 47 All-American first teamers.

But who will forget how 2017 began?  Our rollicking last-second Rose Bowl victory over Penn State was one for the record books.

*          *          *

Of course, it wouldn’t be Trojan Family Weekend without a Saturday football game.  Tomorrow, our Trojans take on Pac-12 rival Utah.

We’re off to a strong start this season.

We cruised past Western Michigan, and Stanford.  Texas came to town, and it took us two overtimes to finally rope those Longhorns.  But we did it!

Yet, perhaps our greatest football success belongs to Jake Olson.

Cancer robbed him of his sight by age 12, but Jake was already a Trojan in his heart.

So, there he was, making his game debut in the fourth quarter of our home opener, walking onto the field guided by Trojan teammate Wyatt Schmidt, and delivering the snap for the final extra point.

Such an extraordinary moment not only showed Jake’s determination, but also his faith in his Trojan Family –– a faith that knows no bounds.

“I learned at an early age how to confront adversity and fight,” Jake said.  “Cancer wasn’t going to stop me.”

These are the words of a true Trojan warrior, one who will always have his Trojan Family.

*          *          *

Could there be a better example of USC’s core values?

I’m reminded of Aeneas, the great Trojan warrior, whose faith in family also knew no bounds.

Aeneas, magnificent on the battlefield, shows another side in Virgil’s Aeneid.

It is the end of the Trojan War, and Troy has fallen.  As the city burns, Aeneas is in deep sorrow.  His dying father lies before him, refusing to leave.

Aeneas’ mother, the goddess Venus, suddenly appears to him, and tells him of his great destiny.  She also tells him he must set sail that night to meet that destiny.

Aeneas does the only thing his heart can abide:  he picks up his father and carries him on his back as they flee toward the sea.

Aeneas’ destiny, of course, was to create a new Troy.  One we know today as Rome.

Yes, a family’s love can overcome the deepest pain, soothe the greatest fear, and inspire the mightiest victory.  That is the Trojan Family.  Your Trojan Family.

And this, my fellow parents, is what makes Niki and I so proud to be First Lady and President of this great university.  Welcome to our Family!  And Fight On!