University of Southern California

About USC

Annual Address to the Faculty

by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
January 1999

Let me begin by recognizing some major faculty achievements that have occurred during the past year. As you might imagine, the ones I will mention comprise only a small sample of all the exciting things that have been happening at USC of late.

Our new general education program has been successfully implemented and is being very well received by undergraduates and their parents. Literally hundreds of people have told me how pleased they are with this program — not only students and parents, but faculty as well.

We should recognize the extraordinary contributions of the faculty of our College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in the development of this new core curriculum. Faculty from all of our schools and departments have been, and continue to be, involved in planning and teaching general education courses, but it has been the faculty of the College who have provided the principal leadership.

The main reason for the program’s success is, I believe, the fact that general education courses are now taught by our best senior faculty. Nothing attracts and retains students better than having outstanding senior faculty in their classrooms during their freshman and sophomore years.

I want to recognize the exceptional progress made by our School of Dentistry during Howard Landesman’s tenure as dean. We are all going to miss Howard and Lynne. Howard has provided excellent leadership for the school over the past seven years. Dentistry now has nine endowed chairs and a total endowment of nearly $30 million, one of the largest dental school endowments in the United States. Our dental school is ranked first in research funding among all private dental schools in America. The faculty and students in dentistry are involved in extensive public service projects. And the USC dental school now boasts one of the strongest applicant pools of any dental school in the country.

Occupational Therapy was ranked number one in the nation by U.S. News and World Report this year! A number–one ranking in any discipline is a very special distinction that speaks well of the entire university. Our occupational therapy program was established 50 years ago as the first such program in the American west, and we are proud that it has been properly recognized as the finest in the country.

The USC Marshall School of Business made Business Week’s top 25 list for the first time in its history, and was ranked 21st by U.S. News and World Report. The Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies in the Marshall School is ranked in the top 10 by almost every survey, and is ranked number one by some. The Leventhal School of Accounting also consistently ranks in the top 10, and in the top three according to some surveys.

Before we become too euphoric about rankings, we must ask ourselves what they really mean. Some rankings are truly objective in that they are based on a single objective measure — e.g., research dollars, number of applicants, average SAT scores, etc. I’m not sure how meaningful such single–dimensional rankings are, but at least everyone can agree on what is being measured.

There are other rankings, however, which are based on subjective opinion, or which combine several objective measures through a complex and highly–subjective mathematical formula in order to come out with an overall figure of merit. Of course, as your university president, when a subjective survey ranks USC as number one in some field, I go out on the hustings and trumpet our success. When we are not as high in a subjective ranking as I think we ought to be, I criticize the process or the formula on which the ranking is based. So there is a great deal of room here for hypocrisy.

The ranking that gets the most notoriety is the one conducted by U.S. News and World Report, which purports to rank almost all of the four–year colleges and universities in America within several different categories of institutions. What makes the U.S. News ranking so suspect is the fact that each year the editors change the formula by which the several dimensions of the underlying survey are combined. Why do they do that? Because that way the annual rankings come out looking like a horse race — one year Harvard is on top, the next year it’s Stanford, the following year Stanford falls nine places and Yale moves up three — all of which helps sell magazines.

Of course, those of us in academe know full well that the relative strengths of universities do not change that much from month to month, or even from year to year. Nevertheless, in spite of this kind of silly games–playing by the people doing the rankings, we at USC will continue to celebrate the fact that many of our programs are very highly ranked.

Another school on the rise is the USC School of Engineering, which now ranks sixth nationally in terms of active faculty who are members of the National Academy of Engineering — ahead of Caltech and Columbia and UCLA.

Genetics has been one of the great success stories at USC over the last few years. The Institute for Genetic Medicine was recently opened on the Health Sciences Campus; we have made a number of outstanding appointments to the Center for Computational and Experimental Genomics within the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; and funds are being raised for a new Institute for Neurogenetics in the School of Medicine.

Another indication of the continuing rise of the medical school is the extraordinary success of the USC University Hospital, which in turn is due to the phenomenal growth of our faculty practices over the past several years. The medical school has also made significant gains in sponsored research. USC was named one of eight new federal research facilities focusing on children’s health — an honor that comes with almost $7 million in federal funding over the next five years. The National Eye Institute, a division of NIH, awarded $6 million to USC ophthalmologists to conduct a landmark survey of eye health among Latinos in L.A. County — the largest National Eye Institute grant in history. And the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awarded a grant of almost $8 million to our medical school to create a center for Alcoholic Liver and Pancreas Injury.

The USC School of Pharmacy earned additional distinction when the NIH recently gave a prestigious Merit Award worth over $5 million to support the neuroscience research of Professor Jean Chen Shih. By the way, this was Professor Shih’s second Merit Award.

The School of Music celebrated a triumph this year when the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz Performance announced it was moving to USC from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Dean Livingston and his faculty colleagues worked hard to attract the Monk Institute to Southern California. They were aided by the fact that Los Angeles is emerging as a world center of jazz in a way that New England and Boston are not. Moreover, Los Angeles is now the national center of the recorded music industry, in addition to being the national center for the television and motion picture industries. All of these factors combine to make our region increasingly attractive to professional musicians.

The new program of academic minors at USC is a great achievement. We now offer our undergraduates 94 minors, up from 67 just four years ago. Thirty–eight of those minors are interdisciplinary, involving two or more academic units. With our new general education program in place, almost every undergraduate student, including those enrolled in professional schools, has room in his or her program to pursue at least one minor.

As might be expected, the largest number of minors is offered by the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, but every professional school at USC is now involved in at least one minor. This fact gives us a tremendous competitive edge in recruiting students. A person can come to USC and major in French literature and minor in business, or she can major in history and minor in cinema, or major in social work and minor in chemistry. A student simply cannot obtain this kind of breadth at Harvard or Stanford, since there is very little intercourse between the professional schools and the undergraduate college at those universities.

I believe we have truly distinguished ourselves among our competitors through our program of minors. Here we see a potential hallmark of an undergraduate education at USC, which I like to call “breadth with depth.” Our students have an opportunity that most undergraduates don’t have — to take a minor that is widely separated across the academic landscape from their major. The provost is developing a new Renaissance Scholars program which will give special recognition to those students who complete, with distinction, a major and a minor that are in widely disparate fields of study.

We should certainly celebrate our ability to attract good students. Last year we had over 21,000 applicants for 2,800 freshman positions, compared to only 12,000 applicants in 1990 — an increase of 86 percent. The average SAT score for this year’s entering freshman class is 1243 compared with 1083 in 1990. Part of that gain is illusory because there was a “re–centering” of SAT scores in 1997. But even taking recentering into account, ours is one of the largest gains in SAT scores of any major university in the United States.

The average GPA for our entering freshman class this year is 3.7, compared with 3.4 in 1990. Most of our freshmen now come from the upper 10 percent of their high school class, while in 1990 most of them came from the upper half of their high school class.

Our yield rate is up, which is most surprising of all. “Yield rate” is the percentage of those students to whom we offer admission who actually accept our offer and send in a deposit. As a university moves upscale in terms of the academic quality of the students for which it is competing, one would expect the yield rate to go down, because stronger students have a lot more offers to choose from than weaker students. But at USC this last year, even though we were competing for much stronger students than in years past, our yield rate actually went up.

We have 136 National Merit Scholars in this fall’s freshman class. For the first time in our history we are among the top 10 colleges and universities in the country in terms of enrollment of National Merit Scholars, and among the top three in California (along with Berkeley and Stanford). In 1990 we enrolled 30 National Merit Scholars in our freshman class, which means we have experienced an increase in this dimension of 350 percent in just eight years.

Because of all these gains in enrollment quality, USC is now ranked as a highly selective university by practically every college guide in the country. Certainly these numerical indicators of success are very impressive and important. But those of us who teach undergraduates here can also feel a difference in our classrooms. Students now view enrollment at USC as a privilege, not as a right or a consolation prize. More and more of the students who apply to USC today put us as their first choice.

Recruiting more of the very ablest students in the country is important for the rest of our undergraduates, because the top students in a class set the standard for their classmates. As faculty, we would like to think that we are the primary setters of standards, but the reality is our very best students have as much influence as we do on establishing benchmarks of performance for the student body as a whole.

I have taught introductory electromagnetic theory here and at several other AAU universities; it’s a standard junior–level required course in the electrical engineering curriculum. At USC I’ve taught electromagnetic theory with no National Merit Scholars in the class, with two National Merit Scholars in the class, and with six National Merit Scholars in the class. The other students in these three classes were roughly comparable to each other, the textbook was the same, and of course the professor was the same. But the difference in overall achievement among these three classes was enormous. Indeed, salting a class with only two National Merit Scholars significantly improves the performance of the rest of the students, and salting it with six National Merit Scholars improves performance even more.

Every faculty member can sense this improvement. We appreciate the difference in the attitude of our students, and as a consequence we work harder in response to increased effort on their part. This puts us on a wonderful upward spiral.

Retention at the undergraduate level has been and continues to be USC’s biggest single challenge. But the good news is that we enrolled many more returning students this fall — a much higher percentage than at any other time in our history. The best news of all is that of those students who were freshmen last year, 95 percent returned as sophomores this fall. When I first arrived at USC, only about 85 percent of freshmen were returning as sophomores.

Is this extraordinary improvement in retention only a flash in the pan? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. There are many new experimental programs being implemented throughout the university to improve retention. All of us as faculty must work assiduously to maintain our new-found momentum in this area. If we do, we can easily achieve an overall graduation rate in the high 80 percent range in a few years. Remember that in 1990 our graduation rate was in the low 50 percent range, so we have an opportunity to make some really enormous gains in this area.

I’d like to say a word about our Building on Excellence Campaign. You will recall that our goal was to raise a billion dollars in new gifts and pledges over a seven year period from 1993 to the year 2000. The good news is that we exceeded our goal last February with more than two years left to go in the campaign. What allowed us to exceed that goal was Al Mann’s generous commitment of $100 million for biomedical research here at USC. Of course, when we went over the top, I thought we should break out the champagne and declare victory. Instead, the trustees decided to raise the goal to $1.5 billion. So we are now committed to continuing the campaign through the year 2000 in an effort to surpass our original goal by 50 percent.

USC is the only university in history to have received two $100 million gifts in a single fundraising campaign. Those two were Walter Annenberg’s gift of $120 million which kicked off the campaign in 1993, and Al Mann’s gift of $100 million which I mentioned earlier. There have also been some other recent major gifts. Barbara and Roger Rossier pledged $20 million as a naming gift to the School of Education; theirs is the largest gift in history to any school of education anywhere. The Wrigley family increased their commitment to the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies to $15 million. Katherine Loker recently donated another $17 million dollars to USC, of which $15 million is earmarked for endowment for the Loker Hydrocarbon Institute and $2 million for the Loker Track Stadium at Cromwell Field.

Faculty have played, and continue to play, a key role in this campaign. The focus of this campaign is on academic excellence and the campaign is driven by our academic plan. Practically all of the money that has been pledged or contributed so far has been targeted for specific academic programs, which means the money is in fact given to support specific faculty members who are engaged in some academic activity which especially appeals to a particular donor. I am proud to say that 58 new faculty chairs and professorships have so far been endowed as a part of this campaign.

You’ll recall that our Strategic Plan was adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1994. Last year the trustees asked us to carefully review the Plan to see what parts were really working and what parts needed to be scrapped or revised. Under the leadership of Provost Lloyd Armstrong we have completed the process of reviewing and updating the Plan. Dr. Armstrong worked with a group of 60 faculty members with whom he consulted regularly as a part of the review process. He also worked directly with trustees, deans, and vice presidents. He put a draft of the Review Document on the Web last fall, and held open faculty meetings to discuss it. Finally, the Review Document was unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees this past October.

One of the things the trustees had asked us to do was review our achievements with respect to the goals established in the 1994 Strategic Plan. A part of that review was carried out by a general accreditation team which visited the campus last winter and spring under the leadership of Dr. Arnold Weber, the former president of Northwestern University. The accreditation team were amazed at the degree of buy–in on the part of faculty with respect to the 1994 Strategic Plan. They couldn’t believe how many faculty members had actually read the Plan, and how many had actually incorporated parts of the Plan into their own thinking and planning.

The 1994 Plan contained four strategic priorities: first, developing a distinctive USC undergraduate education; second, emphasizing interdisciplinary research and teaching; third, using Southern California as a laboratory; and fourth, internationalization. The Review Document recently adopted by the trustees notes specific achievements with respect to each of those four strategic priorities.

In the area of undergraduate education the Review Document highlights the new general education curriculum and the development of a broad array of minors. With respect to interdisciplinary research and teaching it identifies the Annenberg Center for Communication, the Southern California Studies Center, the Integrated Media Systems Center, the Alfred Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering, the Institute for Genetic Medicine, and the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. Under the rubric of using Southern California as a laboratory, the Review Document again notes the Southern California Studies Center, the Wrigley Institute, the USC Family of Five Schools in our neighborhood, and the focus of our American Studies Program on California and the west. Finally, with respect to internationalization, the Review Document talks about the PRIME program in the Marshall School of Business, the election of four Asian nationals to our Board of Trustees, our three regional offices in Asia, and the fact that, since the adoption of the 1994 Plan, we have developed numerous joint research programs between USC and institutions in Asia.

Of course there are many more specific achievements noted in the Review Document. The point I want to make is that almost all of these achievements are faculty–driven, just as almost all of the money that has come in as part of this fundraising campaign has been faculty–driven.

The Review Document also identifies four new critical pathways which are interwoven with the four strategic priorities of the original Plan. All of these critical pathways are areas of great importance for Southern California, the United States and the world, and all of them build on existing strengths here at USC.

The first critical pathway is communications. The document notes that this university can and should become the international leader in the study of the technological, social, political, legal, content, and multimedia aspects of communications. One of USC’s major assets in this field is our location, because Southern California is the world leader in the field of communications. By the way, when I use the term “Southern California,” I don’t mean simply Los Angeles; I mean all of Southern California, from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

The second critical pathway is the life sciences, including basic biological sciences, clinical life sciences, and engineering aspects of the life sciences. Southern California has emerged as the world capital of the biotechnology and biomedical engineering industries, and our Alfred Mann Institute, our health sciences schools, and our College of Letters, Arts and Sciences can and should play important roles in these industries’ ongoing development.

The third critical pathway involves the arts, and specifically the need to move USC to the center of the cultural stage in Southern California. The fine arts are developing great strength in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. We at USC have an opportunity to be right at the center of this development because of the extraordinary strength we have in our five professional schools in the arts, KUSC Radio, and the Fisher Gallery.

The fourth critical pathway is what the Review Document refers to as the urban paradigm — the study of how complex urban environments work and how they can be made to work better. The reality is that the urban paradigm for developing countries around the world is not New York or London or Tokyo — it is Southern California. The developing world looks to this region for its models of urbanization. So if any university is going to focus on the urban paradigm in the 21st century, it should be USC.

The review document also identifies four “challenges” — i.e., potential stumbling blocks or barriers — which could impede our future development unless we address them promptly. The first of these challenges is the need for more funds to attract and retain the very best doctoral and postdoctoral students at USC. We have a wonderful financial aid program for undergraduates, but the financial aid we provide for doctoral and postdoctoral students is very uneven and spotty.

Second, information and learning technology will be a big challenge for this and every research university in America over the next 10 years. What does the emergence of the digital library mean for USC, and how important is it for us to maintain our current leadership position in this area? How must we modify existing classrooms to accommodate the fact that more and more of our faculty are moving to multimedia–based teaching? Should we invest more heavily in distance learning, or is this something best left to other kinds of institutions? The issues surrounding distance learning in particular are so important and immediate that the provost and I have appointed a special Presidential Commission of faculty to take a hard and comprehensive look at this topic.

The third challenge is the need to improve our use of, and planning for, our physical plant as we look toward the next century. Land is at a great premium on both our campuses, and yet we have tended to build mostly smaller single–purpose structures over the past few years. Perhaps it is time for us to consider constructing larger multi–purpose buildings in the future, in order to better use our limited land and to facilitate the sharing of expensive technological infrastructure among several academic units. And we must continue our efforts on the University Park Campus to ensure that our classrooms and teaching laboratories are fully utilized from 8:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m. five days a week.

The fourth and final challenge is what we should do, if anything, to modify our current system of revenue center management. RCM has been an important part of USC’s culture since the early 1980s. People come from all over the country to study RCM at USC and to learn how and why it has been so successful here. However, there have been questions raised about RCM by some of our faculty, deans, and trustees, and most pointedly by Dr. Weber in the report of the general accreditation team. Many of these people are asking whether RCM tends to stifle interdisciplinary and cross–disciplinary programs, and whether it makes it difficult for USC to achieve university–wide goals. We are certainly not going to discard RCM, but we do need to re–evaluate it and modify it as necessary in order to best serve our needs in the decades ahead.

I should like to end this address on a philosophical note. Last spring we asked Dr. Frank Rhodes to take a long, hard, and candid look at the University of Southern California. Dr. Rhodes is the immediate past president of Cornell University; at the time he retired he was unquestionably the most respected university president in the nation.

After meeting with numerous faculty members, administrators, trustees and students here at USC, Dr. Rhodes wrote a report from which I’d like to quote a brief excerpt:

“USC is unique. One can see this in its history, as it evolved from a small Methodist school with a large goal and an inclusive spirit. It is unique in the financial rectitude it has shown. It is unique in its location. It is unique in its recent progress. I cannot think of any university that has made the strides that USC has made within the last 40 years. This university has outdistanced its competition in ways that one can only admire. It is remarkable, too, in its audacity and vision. USC’s Strategic Plan is audacious — arrogantly so, some would say — and that’s just as it should be. The Strategic Plan is the best I have seen, and I have seen many of them. It is international in outlook, with the Trojan Family and the Trojan Spirit being something more than academic good feeling, and with the governance and leadership standard that should be the envy of others.

“The goal that USC has set for itself is unquestionably an ambitious one: to achieve in the next decade ‘a position of academic excellence that will define USC as clearly one of the leading private research universities in America.’ But is that goal big enough for USC? Is it ambitious enough?

“In the last 40 years, universities have succeeded by what I like to think of as the Harvardization of the campus. Campuses everywhere — former state teachers’ colleges and four–year liberal arts colleges alike — have seen themselves as young Harvards, growing to look like something on the banks of the Charles. In the next 40 years, I believe the successful universities will be ones that succeed in de–Harvardizing themselves, in breaking away from that traditional northeastern model and from Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League, and establishing their own distinctive educational niche. It won’t do simply to move up the rankings and have a ‘me–too’ program. USC’s niche must be distinct, not to be another Harvard, not to be simply the best of the leading research universities but to be distinctively different, because it is USC.

“What will the new American university, the new research university of the 21st century, look like? We don’t know, and that is why we will have to invent it. What is significant is that USC can play a major role in that invention.”

Frank Rhodes is putting forth a very formidable challenge. He is saying that USC shouldn’t merely aspire to be become better academically — we’re already doing that; that USC shouldn’t merely aspire to be unique — we already are; that USC shouldn’t merely aspire to be a national and world leader in a number of disciplines — we already are. He is saying rather that USC should aspire to lead the nation in the re–invention of the American university.


Wow — that’s heady stuff! Is this truly a serious opportunity, or simply overly–generous rhetoric?

What are the historical examples of authentic revolutionary change in the American university? One of the most important occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is commonly referred to by historians today as the Academic Revolution. It witnessed the introduction of research as an end in itself into the American university, and the emergence of the Ph.D. degree as the required terminal credential for university faculty. This revolution was led (at least initially) not by Harvard or other Ivy League universities, but by two new institutions — the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago.

Is a revolution of similar magnitude truly in the offing as we enter the 21st century, or will the next 50 years simply involve tinkering around the edges of the American research university? And if a revolution really is in the making, what does USC have going for it that would put us in a position to lead that revolution?

First, as a real estate broker would say, USC enjoys “location, location, and location.” As I noted earlier, Southern California is the world leader in two of the next century’s most important industries — communications/multimedia and biotechnology/biomedical engineering. More–over, many experts believe that the next century will be dominated by the Pacific Rim, both economically and culturally. The capital city of the Pacific Rim is not Tokyo or Hong Kong or Singapore or San Francisco or Seattle. Rather the capital city — the “Rome of the Rim” — is Los Angeles, and USC is located right in the heart of this new capital.

Another factor that could help us lead a revolution is the fact that USC is more interdisciplinary than most universities, especially in the interaction among and between our professional schools and our College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Finally, USC is much more entrepreneurial than most academic institutions, especially in comparison with practically every public university in America and even in comparison with most of the privates.

We don’t need to formulate a definitive response to Frank Rhodes’ challenge just yet, but we should all give it careful thought over the next year. We may accept all or part of his challenge, or we may reject it out of hand. Perhaps some of us will accept his challenge and others will not. But the opportunity to lead the reinvention of the American university certainly deserves our most careful consideration as we stand at the brink of the new century.

One thing is clear: the University of Southern California is on the move. Through shrewd planning, hard work and good luck, we have been able to develop a tremendous amount of forward momentum. Let me thank each one of you for your many contributions to the building up of this momentum. I count myself as fortunate indeed to have the privilege of serving you as your president at this auspicious time in our university’s history.