University of Southern California

About USC

Address to the Newcomen Society of the United States

The University of Southern California at 125: Inventing the Future Since 1880

by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
April 7, 2005

It is my distinct privilege to be here this evening at this moment in the life of the University of Southern California, and in the life of this city, the dynamic City of Angels. I am keenly aware that I am following in the footsteps of two of my most distinguished predecessors, President Norman Topping and President James Zumberge. The Newcomen Society graciously offered to each of us in his turn a distinguished forum in which to reflect on USC’s history and purpose.

I am pleased to be able to talk to you about the University of Southern California during an important milestone in the history of our great university – the 125th anniversary of our founding. The story of USC and the story of Los Angeles are inextricably intertwined, and our university’s birth, its purpose, and its very character are as unprecedented as are those of the frontier village in which USC was born.

USC is an integral part of one of the most diverse and exciting cities in the history of mankind. Indeed, as a cultural and economic crossroads, Los Angeles is the de facto capital of the Pacific Rim, while USC – a latecomer when compared with many Eastern universities – now ranks among a peer group that includes Princeton and Yale. I might add that Princeton and Yale were both past the 125th-anniversary mark when upstart USC opened the front door of its only building to 53 students back in 1880.

I’d like to talk to you about how USC got to be what it is today, and what I believe our university will be in the future. I’m reminded of what Winston Churchill once said: “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” The past is indeed prologue. USC would not be what it is today were it not for the genius of those who came before – those founders, trustees, administrators, professors, alumni, and supporters who built a small college into a premier research university.

Two of my predecessors, President Norman Topping and President James Zumberge, each from his own perspective in time, painted a portrait of a dynamic university – a university whose mission grew and grew up in concert with the eponymous region of which it is a part. This evening I should like to depict a University of Southern California that foreshadows its future while honoring 125 years of its past. I should like this portrait to be a triptych – a painting in three parts. Each panel of the triptych, as it were, will depict the saga of USC through a corresponding myth from USC’s creation story. These three myths reveal three essential components of USC’s identity and uniqueness: First, our history of diversity; second, our rootedness in Los Angeles; and third, our relentless quest for academic excellence.

Myths and History
Allow me to explain what I mean when I use the term myth. Every society has its myths of origins – those stories that are told to define and deepen our self-understanding. In this context the word myth does not mean “something that isn’t true.” On the contrary, many myths are absolutely true. But whether fact or fiction, myths help us understand who we are, what we believe in, and what we want for the future.

The University of Southern California cherishes certain myths that serve as creation stories. These “In-the-beginning” stories not only explain USC’s uniqueness, but influence its destiny.

Our 125th anniversary celebration has a theme: “Inventing the Future, Honoring the Past.” This evening, in our tangible present, I hope to unite these two temporal designations – the past and the future – and to illustrate how USC’s creation stories help illuminate our identity and destiny.

First, allow me to offer a brief history of USC.

When USC was founded on September 4, 1880, Los Angeles was a dusty little village of 10,000 souls with a pretentious name: El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, the Town of the Queen of the Angels.

In 1877, as the founders of USC were contemplating the need for a university that would help attract more settlers, the great California naturalist John Muir rode south into Los Angeles to have a look. He didn’t stay long, but he recalled his visit with these words: “An hour’s ride over stretches of bare, brown plain, and through corn-fields and orange groves, brought me to the handsome, conceited little town of Los Angeles, where one finds Spanish adobes and Yankee shingles meeting and overlapping in very curious antagonism.”

This apt image of Los Angeles as a cultural crossroads in many ways characterizes the history of this region – an intersection of cultures that has been at times marked by the cacophonous sounds of collision, but, to my mind, also an intersection of cultures that is infused amazingly, vibrantly, and uniquely with a kind of concordant madrigal of intricate harmony.

It was in this rough-and-tumble town of Spaniards, Mexicans, Indians, Europeans, Easterners, and Midwesterners – this pueblo of aspiration and of experiment – that USC got its start with 53 students taught by 10 faculty. They gathered in a two-story building perched on a donated parcel of land that the Los Angeles Daily Herald unenthusiastically described as “covered with a rank growth of mustard.” In those early days the school had no electricity, and students tended wood-burning stoves to earn part of their tuition. Transportation to the university was provided by horse-drawn rigs, including a horse-drawn streetcar that operated on a line established by USC’s principal founder, Robert Maclay Widney. Students had to follow specific rules of conduct that forbade them from leaving town without the permission of the university president, wearing firearms in their classes, and shooting jackrabbits from the platform of the streetcar.

Initially operated by the Southern California Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, USC eventually (and amicably) severed its church ties, and by the late 1920s was a fully secular university. From 1880 to the 1950s we served primarily a local clientele and played a quasi-land-grant role. Of course we were not a land-grant university, but we were serving public needs in the way that traditional land-grant universities do – by training the doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, dentists, engineers, nurses, teachers, and other professionals the region desperately needed. Why? Because there wasn’t anyone else in Southern California to do it. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the University of California Los Angeles established its first professional schools.

By the late 1950s, however, USC’s role was changing dramatically. The university’s new president at the time, Dr. Norman Topping, saw that our quasi-land-grant role was being taken over, and properly so, by strong public universities. Dr. Topping understood that USC needed a new role, and that this new role would necessarily involve USC’s becoming a national university, an endowed university, and a research university.

This new role has been aggressively pursued, with spectacular success, for some 40 years during the presidencies of Norman Topping, John Hubbard, James Zumberge, and myself. Having started with the pretentious name “The University of Southern California” and one small building in a mustard field, this university has grown into a premier national research university with a substantial endowment.

There endeth the brief history lesson.

Now let me turn to our defining myths – the stories of our creation that have helped inform our identity and destiny as an institution thus far, and that will serve to guide us in the years ahead.

Myth One. Shaped by Diversity
John Muir saw Spanish adobes residing side-by-side with New England shingles in 1877. If he’d looked more closely he would have seen an even broader array of residents. At that time about one-fourth of the city was foreign-born, and the populace reflected a wide variety of ethnicities, religions, and social classes.

Founded as a Methodist University, USC was in fact created through the efforts of three businessmen from disparate backgrounds – comprising a Jew, a Catholic, and an Episcopalian. This ecumenism is a true story, but it has become a defining myth that has taken on a deeper meaning.

As a university that welcomed qualified people of all types from its beginning, USC now has a long tradition of educating students no matter what their gender, race, religion, or background might be. USC’s medical school, when it opened in 1885, also explicitly placed no restrictions based on age, race, religion, or sex.

Little did the city’s and the university’s founders realize the extent to which Los Angeles would become a world city – a true heteropolis. And USC has played, and will continue to play, a major role in shaping this city into the capital of the Pacific Rim.

USC University Professor and historian Kevin Starr has written that “the very DNA code of Los Angeles” is internationalist, and that the City of the Angels is among those great cities known for their plenum mundi, or the “fullness of the world.” International students have been attending USC for more than a century. By 1930, students from more than 30 countries made up 10 percent of USC’s growing student population.

We must remember that most of the nation’s prestigious institutions of higher education, at the time of USC’s founding, principally enrolled white males, and make no mistake, principally white males of privilege who were almost exclusively Protestant. Most colleges and universities were also segregated by gender: All of the Ivies, for example, admitted only men. By contrast, at USC women were enrolled in our first freshman class, and the university’s first valedictorian in 1884 was a woman.

Today, looking around our campus we see the result of this steadfast commitment to open access for all students of merit. As one of the nation’s most highly selective universities, we draw a student body that not only exhibits outstanding academic, artistic, and athletic accomplishments, but a student body that reflects this country’s renowned pluralism, a student body of which 12 percent are the first in their families to attend college; a student body, both graduate and undergraduate, composed of 17 percent international students.

USC’s dedication to establishing a global presence hasn’t wavered, even with the vicissitudes of recent world events. USC President Rufus von KleinSmid was an avowed internationalist during a period of American isolationism after World War I, and a strong proponent of student exchanges. The nation’s first school of diplomacy was created at USC in the 1920s to train students for the foreign service. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., this university continued its strong emphasis on international recruitment, and today enrolls more international students than any other university in the nation. We have alumni clubs around the world, and USC maintains offices in a number of Pacific Rim countries, including our newest one in Mexico City. Faculty research and student exchanges at USC take place every day on every continent.

USC’s foundational pluralism is reflected in our long-term ethos of mutual respect, tolerance of difference, and collective commitment to civil discourse. Our trustees recently adopted a Code of Ethics that emphasizes the importance that USC places on treating others fairly, honestly, and with respect. Our Code of Ethics states that as Trojans we “treat every person with respect and dignity, even when the values, beliefs, behavior, or background of a person or group is repugnant to us.” But tolerance does not mean that we as Trojans are mute in the face of bigotry and hatred. Indeed our Code of Ethics goes on to say that “because we are responsible not only for ourselves but also for others, we speak out against hatred and bigotry whenever and wherever we find them.”

Our Code of Ethics is an outgrowth of our self-perception as a university founded on diversity, mutual respect, and academic freedom. As a community of scholars whose oldest chartered student organization is our debate club, we welcome lively, respectful discussion and debate – including sharply divided opinions and occasional anger – as integral to the intellectual vigor of a university.

Of course what is truly remarkable about our community is what we have in common: We are all members of the Trojan Family. Over the years the Trojan Family has grown to include not only faculty, staff, and students, but also parents, friends, supporters, neighbors, and alumni – lifelong and worldwide.

Myth Two. A City and a University Intertwined
The second component of our creation story has its locus in Los Angeles. A few moments ago I mentioned our close connections to the city, but I want to say more about the enduring and vibrant relationship that USC has with the City of Angels.

The lore surrounding USC’s beginnings includes the fact that an enthusiastic crowd flocked to see the laying of the cornerstone for USC’s first building in 1880. One thousand residents of Los Angeles, nearly a 10th of the population, braved the summer heat and thick dust – arriving on foot, on horseback, and by horse-drawn trolley or carriage – to witness the birth of the University of Southern California. The nascent USC was a banner-headline, page-one story in this nascent city.

Thus began a rich symbiotic relationship. Los Angeles and USC have literally grown up together. As L.A.’s first and preeminent private university, USC has been inextricably linked to the fortunes of this city, evolving with it, identifying with it, proud of our luster as one of L.A.’s crown jewels, and mindful of how our mutually supportive relationship has helped us navigate the waves of difficulty and prosperity alike.

In the 50 years since USC’s founding in 1880, Los Angeles grew from a community of 10,000 to over a million people in 1930. Likewise by that year, USC enrolled some 7,000 students, with a burgeoning population of students in our professional schools. Today L.A. is a megacity of 10 million. No other city in history has grown from 10,000 to 10 million in under 100 years. Our student body likewise has exploded in size and complexity, from 53 students in 1880 to more than 30,000 today. Our net worth has gone from a mere $15,000 to more than $3 billion.

Lest we appear vain and triumphalist, however, we must remember that it has not been a century and a quarter of steady ascent into the golden future. For both L.A. and USC there have been times of self-doubt, fits of confusion, and episodes of slack-jawed bewilderment about how to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

When Kathryn and I arrived at USC in 1991 I expected to witness, and participate in, something great and historic – the development of this region as the principal global center for trade and communication for the 21st century. Instead I found myself witnessing riots, earthquakes, floods, fires, a major recession, and, above all, repeated somber pronouncements by experts around the world that “the Southern California dream is now dead.”

In the early 1990s, Southern California experienced the greatest downturn in its economy since the Great Depression. The toll was felt keenly at USC where, soon after I arrived, we were forced to eliminate 800 positions, 500 of which were filled with flesh-and-blood human beings.

Amidst all this, the clamor became louder for USC to leave the city in which it was born; to flee L.A for the greener pastures of the San Fernando Valley or Orange County.

This wasn’t the first time a president of USC was enjoined to exchange the rapid pulse of the urban core for the repose of the suburbs or the countryside. As the population of L.A. burgeoned in the early part of the 20th century, many people urged USC President George Finley Bovard to move the university. Here is what President Bovard had to say to this suggestion: “There are two kinds of institutions, both of which have their place. One is the small college, placed by itself and sufficient to itself, with country surroundings and its campus remote from the city. The other is the city institution – the university which tries to solve the problems of the city.” Bovard insisted, and the Board of Trustees agreed, that USC should remain a city university in both location and in spirit.

USC is profoundly, to our very marrow, committed to the City of Angels. In the past few years we have even redoubled our commitment, dedicating considerable resources to the neighborhoods surrounding our two campuses; joining our neighbors in respectful partnerships to create safe streets, good schools, and economic vitality; and opening wide the campus for use by neighborhood schoolchildren, churches, and other community groups. USC has developed a culture of public service – students, faculty, and staff voluntarily and generously giving of their time and means to our community, a strength that was key to USC’s being named College of the Year 2000 by Time magazine and the Princeton Review.

Despite the disasters that hobbled our stride at the start of the 1990s, L.A. – resilient, plucky L.A. – recovered. In 1994 we surpassed New York as the nation’s busiest trade center. Today our ports of the San Pedro Bay rank third, behind Hong Kong and Singapore, among the world’s top container ports.

Likewise, USC has grown stronger. USC is the city’s largest private employer, and since its beginning it has provided Los Angeles with the professionals and intellectual capital that have helped Los Angeles prosper. In recent years USC has overhauled its undergraduate curriculum, surpassed both UCLA and Berkeley in average SAT scores for the freshman class, and held the most successful fundraising campaign in the history of American higher education. Let me put it in numbers: We now receive 11 applications for each opening in the freshman class, we’ve quintupled our endowment in the last 14 years, and we’re in the midst of the largest construction program in our university’s history. Along with various public and private partners, we are building the equivalent of an additional campus by constructing 28 new buildings. This 8.1 million square feet of new space includes additional classrooms, residential halls, research laboratories, and patient care facilities.

L.A. and USC have come far in just over a century. Each possesses in abundance those qualities that ensure dynamism – restlessness, resilience, and ingenuity. These three qualities are the ingredients that constitute our third defining myth.

Myth Three. Audacity and Ambition
This part of our creation story has to do with our ability to create something out of nothing, and to then proceed full-throttle to the next opportunity.

USC’s founders had the audacity to call a two-story frame building a “university.” And not just a university for the village of Los Angeles. This building in a mustard field on the edge of Los Angeles was a university for all of Southern California.

Was it vision? Was it optimism? Was it prescience? Was it plain old chutzpah on the part of three shrewd real estate speculators and self-styled boosters?

Whatever the motivation, USC grew into its name, far surpassing, I venture to say, what even the most extravagantly farsighted among our founders had imagined.

And we didn’t stop.

USC is characterized by a keen desire to do even more tomorrow no matter how much we may have accomplished today. This ambition and distaste for smug self-satisfaction are to me among the most compelling and defining characteristics of the Trojan Family. USC’s unappeased nature, its “we-can-do-more” spirit even in the face of naysayers, recurs throughout our history, and it’s one of the key factors behind USC’s success. Quite simply we never lost that frontier spirit of solving problems ourselves, taking care of each other, and venturing down untrodden paths.

In response to a bee plague in Southern California in the 1910s, for instance, USC offered a course in bee culture. In 1912, when it became clear that motorcars were becoming popular, USC offered a course through the Department of Engineering in the automobile, which was taken, incidentally, by both male and female students. This course made a big impression. Both the L.A. Times and the New York Times announced that USC was the first university in the world to recognize the importance of the automobile by establishing a course on the subject.

As we welcome the 21st century, Southern California is now the world center of both the communications industry, which includes entertainment, and the biomedical industry. Biomedical technology is poised to become the world’s leading industry in the decades ahead, and USC is determined to make even greater contributions to these two industries than it has in the past, and thereby to the economic future of Los Angeles and the health and well-being of mankind.

USC’s tradition of meeting societal needs and solving societal problems has been incorporated into our new strategic plan, which was adopted by the Board of Trustees in October 2004. The challenges facing the world community include debilitating diseases, ethnic hatred, environmental degradation, and a population that is quickly overwhelming existing social and technological infrastructures. Simply put, the overarching goal of the strategic plan is to shape USC into an institution that will serve as the touchstone for research universities throughout the world.

From a cornerstone in 1880 to a touchstone for universities in the 21st century, USC is dedicated to strengthening our position as a global research university that is at the forefront of advancing human civilization and of providing an education for our students that is second to none.

How will we accomplish this noble but daunting goal? Boldly. Creatively. By linking basic and applied research, by spanning disciplinary boundaries, by building additional networks and partnerships with industry and other universities, by being more responsive to lifelong learners, by maintaining our core values, and by taking advantage of our location in Los Angeles.

One hundred twenty years ago, seeking to entice students to the newly established USC medical school, President Joseph Widney wrote in the school’s first catalog that “because of the cosmopolitan character of the population of Los Angeles, and the constant travel by sea and by land from all parts of the world, disease in all its forms and in almost every race and nationality” was present here for students to study. Today our doctors and medical researchers benefit from the knowledge gained by working in a living laboratory of 10 million people; a living laboratory that, I might add, is expected to have a population of over 14 million by the year 2015.

Now I have offered a modest Trojan cosmogony – three components of USC’s creation story, three myths that inform our identity and destiny. As we mark the 125th anniversary of our founding, we honor the past and we carry forward a rich legacy articulated in our creation story: our embrace of pluralism; our active role on the global stage, which is guided by an ethos of respect for others; our eagerness to help solve societal problems; our love of Los Angeles; and our unique nature as audacious entrepreneurs.

We as a university and as a community are in the midst of a great social, cultural, and economic experiment. Los Angeles – a microcosm of the world – serves as the paradigm for urban regions of the 21st century. Likewise USC is dedicated to becoming the worldwide paradigm for the research university of the 21st century.

In our board room on campus, just above my office, hang portraits of the nine USC presidents who came before me. Sometimes as I sit in that room and look at their faces, I feel a keen desire to have a conversation with them, these men with their solemn, intelligent countenances and their passion for higher education. I want to take them on a tour of the campus, to find out whether, in their most optimistic moments, they could have envisioned the USC of today.

I imagine them marveling at USC’s journey from a small, local college, to the training ground for tens of thousands of professionals keeping company with the great universities of the world. My predecessors would be pleased to see that USC has remained true to its core values of diversity, free inquiry, ethical behavior, and kinship with Los Angeles. They would be inspired to see that these values have found remained paramount in the face of stunning changes and myriad challenges. I believe they would wholeheartedly endorse our Code of Ethics, and as well our Role and Mission statement, adopted in 1994, which defines USC’s central mission as the “development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.”

Yes, I think my predecessors would be inspired and pleased with today’s USC, but in true Trojan spirit, they would not be entirely satisfied. They would applaud our successes, and then remind me that our task is a never-ending one, and that satisfaction is always over the next hill.

As we work to invent the research university of the 21st century, the worst thing we can do is to be satisfied with the status quo. We cannot afford to slacken our pace or moderate our ambitions. Rather, we must continue to press upward toward increasingly lofty goals. We must fire up the furnaces of ambition to a white heat, and take advantage of the extraordinary and exciting opportunities before us.

If those who came before us could transform one little wood-frame building into a premier research university, we owe it to future generations to shape USC into one of the most productive and influential universities in the world.