University of Southern California

About USC

1998 Annual Address to the Faculty

by Steven B. Sample

President, University of Southern California
January 13, 1998

My thanks to all of you stalwarts who actually made it to this event on this inclement morning. After all, it doesn’t take much rain here in Los Angeles to bring the city to a standstill.

As I was fighting through traffic on my way in, I was reminded of a story about Winston Churchill. One evening, as Churchill was scheduled to address the entire United Kingdom in an hour, he hailed a cab in London’s West End and told the cabbie to drive as fast as he could to the BBC. The cabbie said, “I’m sorry, sir, you’re going to have to find another cab.” “Why’s that?” asked Churchill. “Well,” the cabbie said, “normally it wouldn’t be a problem, but Mr. Churchill is going to address the whole nation in an hour and I want to be home in time to hear him.” Churchill was moved almost to tears. He took out a five-pound note, pressed it into the man’s hand, and said, “God bless you.” The cabbie looked at the money, looked at Churchill, and said, “Hop in, sir – to hell with Mr. Churchill!”

Let me begin by reviewing a bit of history. My wife and I came to USC nearly seven years ago in March of 1991. The Role and Mission Statement, which was the product of a great deal of effort by many people, was adopted by the Board of Trustees five years ago in February of 1993. Three and a half years ago, in June of 1994, the Trustees adopted the Strategic Plan for USC, which had and continues to have the virtue of being the shortest and most concise academic plan in the history of the universe. And two and a half years ago, in September of 1995, we publicly announced our Building on Excellence fundraising campaign.

During this period we collectively developed a dream – an over-arching goal, if you will – for the University of Southern California. That goal is to seize new opportunities in order to move USC to a level of academic excellence that will define it clearly as one of the leading private research universities in America.

That’s a very bold dream and a very aggressive goal. It’s important that we constantly remind ourselves of that goal, especially when we are considering facts and figures. Quantitative measures of our progress – dollars, enrollments, rankings, SAT scores and the like – are all very important, but they’re important only in the context of our over-arching goal.

In addition to formulating a goal, we came to a clear understanding that we couldn’t simply copy our way to excellence. If you happen to be far down the pecking order, you can in fact move up a considerable distance simply by copying the behavior of those above you. But as you near the top, copying just won’t cut it. The Role and Mission Statement and the Strategic Plan certainly point out the similarities between USC and other great research universities. But these two documents also carefully delineate the differences between USC and every other research university in America. So all of us understand that we must build on our own special strengths, and take advantage of our own unique opportunities, if we are move into the top ranks of America’s private research universities.

Undergraduate Education
Here’s a famous story (possibly apocryphal) about an opinion survey in which members of the general public were asked to name the leading law schools in the United States. One result of that survey was that the law school at Princeton University came out comfortably in the top ten. The problem is that Princeton doesn’t have a law school. But Princeton does have a superb undergraduate program which is widely recognized for its excellence.

Indeed, the reputations of many great research universities in the United States, especially in the private sector, are driven by the quality of their undergraduate programs. So a strong undergraduate program is important to all of us, whether or not our immediate responsibilities have anything to do with undergraduate education.

To be candid, undergraduate education was widely perceived as a relative weakness of the University of Southern California when I came here in 1991. It wasn’t that it was perceived as being weak in absolute terms, but rather as being weak relative to the strengths of our programs of graduate and professional education and research. The good news is that we have made dramatic improvements in undergraduate education in recent years.

Let’s begin with selectivity in admissions. This last year we received 21,000 applications for 2,800 freshman positions. For the first time in the history of USC we accepted fewer than half of the students who applied as new freshmen, and thus, for the first time in history, we became a “highly selective institution” in the eyes of myriad collegiate rating services.

Average SAT scores for the freshman class that matriculated this last fall were 1229. Not so many years ago, average SAT scores at USC were in the 900s. Thus we have experienced a huge increase in SAT scores in a relatively short period of time. Now part of that increase is phony, due to the recent “recentering” of all SAT scores by the College Board. But the bulk of the gain in SAT scores at USC is both genuine and extraordinary. Few if any universities in America have experienced a gain of that magnitude in under 10 years.

The average high school GPA of our entering freshmen is now 3.7. When I came here the majority of our freshmen were drawn from the upper 40 percent of their high school graduating class; today, most of our freshmen come from the top 10 percent. We had 120 National Merit Scholars matriculating in the freshman class this fall, which places us among the top dozen or so of all academic institutions in the country.

We now have a strong recruiting position in the best high schools and prep schools, not only throughout California, but throughout the American West. I can remember when, just a few years ago, we hardly ever recruited a student from a top prep school to USC. There has been a tremendous increase as well in the quality of our incoming transfer students. All of this has been brought about through extensive participation by faculty and alumni in the recruitment process.

Another major achievement in the area of undergraduate education is our new core curriculum. The leadership for developing this new curriculum came from the faculty of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, with strong participation by faculty from professional schools across the university. In this new curriculum, every undergraduate takes six core courses in six basic categories. These core courses are taught exclusively by tenured and tenure-track faculty. Many of these core courses have fewer than 30 students in a class, and there is a strong emphasis on writing throughout the core curriculum.

But in my judgment the most exciting change in undergraduate education at USC has been the creation of our program of minors. We have today perhaps the finest array of academic and professional minors available to undergraduates at any university in the United States. We now offer an extensive choice of minors in the professions for students who are majoring in the arts and sciences. A student can come here and major in French literature, for example, and take a minor in business or cinema-television or public administration or architecture or engineering. That kind of opportunity simply isn’t available at Harvard or Stanford. Here we see one of those special distinctions I was referring to earlier. A student majoring in liberal arts can’t take a minor in a professional school at most of the private universities with which we compete, but she certainly can do so here at USC.

Similarly, we now offer a full range of minors in the arts and sciences for students who are majoring in one of the undergraduate professional schools. We also offer a wide array of interdisciplinary minors; indeed, 25 percent of our faculty are engaged in interdisciplinary teaching. I don’t have comparable data for other universities, but I suspect we would be way at the top of the scale by that measure.

believe we have an extraordinary opportunity to develop a unique undergraduate education at USC by exploiting the availability of this wide array of minors. More and more of our students are completing a minor which is widely separated across the intellectual landscape from their major, thereby achieving genuine breadth with depth. I think this approach to undergraduate education – encouraging students to take a minor that is far removed from their major – provides one of the best possible preparations for young people entering the 21st century, especially at an elite university like USC where most of the undergraduates will inevitably go on to some form of highly-specialized postgraduate work.

I’ve been working hard with the provost and others to devise a program of special recognition for those of our students who are willing to stretch themselves intellectually by earning a minor that is far removed from their major. Lawford Anderson, president of the Academic Senate, recently asked me to write an article for the next issue of the Academic Senate Newsletter in which I discuss this particular topic in some depth.

In addition to all the good news, we still have a special problem in the area of undergraduate education. I’m talking here about retention and graduation rates. We’ve moved our graduation rate up in recent years to roughly 70%. But we are still far from being competitive in this area with the best private universities in America. We simply must get our graduation rate up into the mid-80s; if we don’t, I doubt that we will be able to sustain our attractiveness to the very best undergraduates in America in the decade ahead.

Great strides have been taken in recent years to insure that every undergraduate who enters USC leaves here with an excellent education and a baccalaureate degree. Beyond the instructional improvements cited above, we have improved the quality of student life on campus, rehabilitated many of our dormitories, established several residential colleges and strengthened academic advising. But much remains to be done in the area of retention. It is a responsibility which all of us, faculty and staff alike, must willingly accept and diligently discharge.

The Arts
The second major achievement of this past year has to do with what is now called the Arts Initiative at USC.

If we had to quantify our over-arching goal as a university, we would say that we want to move into the ranks of the top ten of all private research universities in America. But of course, one cannot suddenly move a whole university into the top ten of its competitive peer group. Rather, one achieves that goal program by program and department by department.

There are already over a dozen programs and departments at USC which, by anybody’s measure, rank among the top ten in their respective competitive peer groups. And using that criterion – i.e., rankings within peer groups – the creative arts at USC may be our single strongest academic area. Indeed, taken as a whole, and led by cinema-television and music, the University of Southern California may have the strongest program in the creative arts of any university in the country.

The provost recently announced our new Arts Initiative. It is led by the deans of cinema-television, music, theatre, fine arts and architecture, and it includes KUSC, the Fisher Gallery and USC Spectrum. The goals of this initiative are two-fold: first, to boost USC’s presence in the Southern California arts and cultural communities; and second, to strengthen student recruitment and fundraising in the arts at USC.

The School of Medicine
he third major achievement which I’d like to discuss is the dramatic, almost miraculous turnaround of the School of Medicine. Each of you received a letter from me in September in which I detailed my assessment of where the medical school had been, where it is today, and where it is going. I won’t repeat all of that letter here, but I would like to recapitulate some of the high points.

Our relationships with our healthcare partners have been greatly strengthened over the last year. Our principal partner now is Tenet Healthcare, the company that built, owns and operates the USC University Hospital on our Health Sciences Campus. That hospital is now literally bursting at the seams. It wasn’t clear that University Hospital was going to make it as recently as four years ago. But today, it is one of the most successful hospitals in the entire Tenet Healthcare system and one of the most successful hospitals in all of Southern California.

We’ve almost doubled the size of the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, and we’ve retained Tenet Healthcare to manage the cancer hospital on our behalf. The Doheny Eye Institute has greatly expanded its facilities on our campus. We have a renewed and much stronger relationship with Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

But the big news has been the turnaround in our relationships with the County of Los Angeles in the area of healthcare programs. A few years ago that relationship was very clouded; indeed, a high official in County government openly advocated closing the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center and distributing to other sites the FEMA funds that had come to the County as a result of damage sustained by LAC+USC Medical Center during the Northridge earthquake.

Today, County government is fully committed to building a new 600-bed state-of-the-art hospital on land contiguous to our campus. This new facility will be the principal hub of the entire County healthcare system. Thus USC’s traditional role in the delivery of healthcare to the medically indigent of Los Angeles County has been preserved and, in some ways, expanded.

Beyond our relationship with our healthcare partners, our medical faculty have greatly increased their competitive position with respect to funding for sponsored research; in fact, we’ve had more than a 50 percent increase in this area over the past six years. Faculty practice income is up by more than 100 percent during that same time period. We now have numerous national centers of research and clinical excellence in the medical school, including the newly opened Institute for Genetic Medicine. And four of our teaching hospitals are ranked among the very best in the country.

There has also been a big increase in faculty honors and recognition at the medical school. Over the past decade the school has received 17 new endowed chairs, and three members of the faculty have been elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

I believe there is an encouraging trend, both regionally and nationally, in healthcare. We’ve gone through a period of what I call commodity healthcare, in which the only thing that counted was price. It didn’t matter what hospital your daughter was in when she was being operated on, and it didn’t matter what doctor was performing the operation. Under the rubrics of commodity healthcare, any hospital or surgeon was as good as any other.

Do you remember those “no brand” shelves we used to see in supermarkets on which were stocked generic paper towels, generic corn flakes, and generic everything else? Well, I think we’ve experienced a similar phenomenon in the practice of medicine and in the provision of healthcare. The good news is that consumers in this country, and especially in Southern California, now seem to be moving away from generic healthcare in the same way they abandoned generic products in the stores. There is a newly emerging emphasis on quality in medical care. More and more people now believe it does matter what hospital their daughter is in, and it does matter who is operating on her. I believe this new trend – this return to quality in healthcare – bodes very well for USC and for other academic medical centers as well.

The Community
The fourth area of achievement I’d like to touch on has to do with our surrounding neighborhoods. Six years ago we adopted a radical new strategy when it came to community outreach. We decided to pull in our horns and stop trying to save all of Southern California or all of Los Angeles, and to concentrate instead on the neighborhoods immediately surrounding our two campuses.

An important part of that effort has been the Good Neighbors Campaign. This year the Good Neighbors Campaign raised more than $450,000 in voluntary contributions from faculty and staff, which is more than three times what we used to achieve under our traditional United Way Campaign. Faculty participation in the campaign is up very significantly this year. We now have over 200 people who have joined the One Percent Club; these are staff and faculty members who have pledged one percent or more of their annual income to the Campaign.

All of the dollars raised in the Good Neighbors Campaign are used to fund joint-venture projects involving groups at USC and community-based organizations in an effort to improve our neighborhoods. The flagship program in this whole effort is what’s known as the USC Family of Five Schools.

Let me highlight just one of those schools – the Foshay Learning Center. We had a big reception in Town & Gown yesterday afternoon for Howard Lappin, the new California Principal of the Year and the man who has led a miraculous transformation of the Foshay Learning Center. When Lappin took over nine years ago, Foshay had just been designated as one of the 31 worst schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. (There are 800 schools in LAUSD, so you have to work very hard to get into the bottom 31.) Today Foshay is a California Distinguished School, which means it is in the upper 10 percent of all schools in the State of California – not just urban schools, but all schools in the state. Foshay is probably the walk-away best school in LAUSD. As a measure of its excellence, last year 95 percent of the high school graduates at Foshay went on to enroll in colleges and universities.

Governor Wilson now talks about USC as a statewide model of excellence for what a major institution can do to revitalize and reinvigorate its surrounding neighborhoods. Along the way we’ve learned an important lesson for ourselves and for others: if a large employer wants to improve its surrounding neighborhood, the most important thing it can do is make extraordinary investments of time, energy and money in a few local public schools. Nothing changes a neighborhood as quickly as good public schools. Crime abatement, graffiti abatement, property values, neighborhood businesses – everything gets better when the local public schools are truly excellent. In USC’s case, many of our own faculty and staff are now enrolling their children in our Family of Five Schools because of the academic excellence that several of these schools have consistently demonstrated.

The fifth area I’d like to touch on has to do with our international efforts. You will remember that internationalization, with a special emphasis on Asia and the Pacific Rim, is one of the four priorities of our Strategic Plan.

We now have four voting members of our Board of Trustees from overseas – one from Indonesia, one from Hong Kong, one from Japan and one from Korea. As far as I know, we’re the only major university in America to elect a cadre of foreign citizens to its governing board.

USC now attracts more students from Asia than any other American college or university. We have the largest number of alumni in Asia and the Pacific Rim of any American university, and we now have two regional offices in that area of the world – one in Jakarta and one in Taipei.

The Marshall School of Business recently instituted a program called PRIME – Pacific Rim Education. In the PRIME program, all of our regular MBA students complete an internship at a Pacific Rim company outside the United States, thereby exposing them directly to the opportunities and challenges of international business. My guess is that an increasing number of business schools throughout the country will begin to imitate the PRIME program.

I also want to say something about APRU – the Association of Pacific Rim Universities. This past June USC hosted the inaugural meeting of APRU, which comprises a highly selective group of 30 premier universities around the Pacific Rim. This new organization was put together by USC in cooperation with Caltech, UCLA, and Berkeley.

APRU is similar to the Association of American Universities here in North America, in that it is not a broadly-based organization with hundreds of members. Instead, universities must be invited to become a part of APRU, and only the presidents can represent their respective institutions at APRU meetings.

What I find exciting about APRU is that it is already playing an important role in helping to build a sense of community around the Pacific Rim. APRU is working closely with APEC, the Asian Pacific Economic Coordination group, which brings together the finance ministers and heads of government of the major economies around the Pacific Rim. APEC now recognizes APRU as an important adviser in the field of research and graduate and professional education.

To be sure, the current economic crisis in the Asian Pacific region could be of special concern to USC because of our extensive relationships in Asia. But I believe the economic interests of the United States will continue to shift from the Atlantic sphere to the Pacific, and that this continuing shift bodes well for USC in the long term.

The Campaign
he final area of achievement I’d like to touch on is our Building on Excellence fundraising campaign. As you know, we are in the midst of a seven-year effort to raise $1 billion in new gifts and pledges. The clock started in July of 1993 and it runs to July of the year 2000.

As of December 31, 1997, we had raised more than $850 million toward our $1 billion goal, which means we’ve achieved 85% of our monetary goal in 64% of the allotted time. There’s an outside chance we’ll reach our billion-dollar goal before the end of this fiscal year; if we do, USC will be one of a tiny handful of universities that have raised more than a billion dollars in less than five years.

There are some special aspects of this campaign that I think should be emphasized. First, this campaign is focused primarily on endowment. The good news is that in the last seven years our endowment has nearly tripled. Much of that growth has been due to market appreciation, but a substantial part of it has been due to an influx of new money which has been contributed as endowment by various donors.

A second special aspect of this campaign is that it is based less on sentiment and more on what I call “compelling excellence.” Of course, sentiment still plays an important part in our fundraising. There are many people who just love USC, and who make generous gifts to this university because of their affection for the institution. But more and more of our donors invest in USC because they are interested in academic excellence and have become convinced that a particular program at USC is worthy of their support.

There is very strong leadership in this campaign from the deans; in fact, the deans carry the primary burden of fundraising at this university and deserve the lion’s share of the credit for our fundraising success. There has also been greater faculty participation in this campaign, which is not surprising because donors almost always equate compelling excellence with particular members of the faculty.

We’ve seen vigorous lay leadership in this campaign, especially from the trustees. We’ve received naming endowments for two of our professional schools – the Leventhal School of Accounting and the Marshall School of Business – and we are in discussions with donors for three more such naming endowments.

But I think the most exciting thing about this campaign is that it has brought our university community closer together. Faculty, staff, deans, vice presidents, trustees, alumni and donors are really working together on behalf of this institution, and on behalf of that over-arching goal of academic excellence to which I referred in the beginning of this address. And I must say, personally, that this campaign has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

In Closing
Let me say a few words in praise of my predecessor twice removed, Norman Topping. As all of you know, Dr. Topping died last November at the age of 89.

In my judgment Norman Topping was the father of the modern USC. Prior to his arrival in 1958, USC had operated for nearly 80 years as Southern California’s de facto land-grant university. Now of course USC was not, in any legal or literal sense, a land-grant university, and it never received any land-grant subventions from the state or federal governments. But in many ways it played the traditional role of a land-grant university for this burgeoning area.

The University of Southern California was founded in 1880 as a little Methodist college with a very pretentious name. But suddenly Los Angeles began to explode, and USC exploded with it, doing many of the things that are traditionally done by a state’s land-grant institution. We trained the doctors, lawyers, engineers, dentists, social workers, school superintendents, accountants, business leaders, architects, and other professionals who were needed to build and sustain one of the great urban areas of the world.

When Dr. Topping came here in 1958, he saw that this historic land-grant role for USC was coming to an end. He understood that this role was being usurped, and rightfully so, by newly-emerging public institutions. The little extension center known as the University of California at Los Angeles was well on its way to becoming a great public research university, as were the fledgling University of California campuses in San Diego and Santa Barbara. And all those little state teachers’ colleges were quickly becoming masters-level state universities.

In light of these changes, Topping saw that USC had to transform itself from an unendowed regional institution into an endowed national research university. In 1958, when Norman arrived on the scene, our total endowment was less than $8 million. Almost all of our students were local. There was no sponsored research to speak of at USC, and no faculty members belonged to the national academies.

Forty years later, our endowment and similar investments exceed $1.5 billion. Indeed, USC has experienced the fastest rate of growth in endowment of any university in the United States. In 1958, we had roughly $8 million in endowment and Stanford had an endowment of over $120 million – a 15-to-1 ratio. Today, we’re at about $1.5 billion and Stanford is at about $4 billion, which is less than a 3-to-1 ratio. So a very big part of USC’s endowment shortfall has been closed in a very short period of time.

In 1958 USC had essentially no sponsored programs, while today USC ranks among the top ten of all private institutions in America in terms of sponsored program support. Thanks to the efforts of our faculty, this university received more than $250 million in sponsored program funding last year – more than either Berkeley or Caltech. Thirty-six members of our faculty are now members of the major national academies, and our student body is heavily national and international in scope.

It was Norman Topping who had the ability to see that USC needed to become a very different kind of institution if it was going to continue to thrive and flourish. And it was Norman Topping who was able to turn this mighty ship in a new direction, who was able to mobilize faculty, alumni, townspeople, trustees and donors to work toward a new goal – a goal which in 1958 must have seemed daunting if not downright unattainable.

In a very real sense, we are the inheritors of Dr. Topping’s dream. His is a powerful vision, as compelling today as it was 40 years ago. It behooves all of us to strive to be worthy of Norman’s great and noble legacy.