Some Good News About Southern California
Remarks to the Rotary Club of Los Angeles
by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
February 2, 1996
You have heard a great deal of speculation about the future of Southern California – countless messages of doubt and uncertainty, and countless messages of impending doom. But I should like to talk to you today about how we at the University of Southern California see the future of the region. After all, it has been USC’s business since 1880 to serve Southern California and to tie its own future to the future of this region. We have therefore taken a realistic and sober inventory of this region’s assets and have found reason for great confidence.
In 1991, USC’s Board of Trustees convinced my wife and me to come to Southern California to be a part of something great and historic – the development of the principal global center for trade and communications for the 21st century. Since then we have seen riots, earthquakes, floods, fires, and a major recession, but we haven’t seen anything to change our conviction that this is the place to be in the years ahead.
A year and a half ago, USC’s Board of Trustees adopted a bold strategic plan to carry USC to the next level of excellence. It is a very unusual academic plan; whereas most such plans contain scores of priorities, this one only has four. Two of these four priorities have to do with somewhat traditional academic concerns: undergraduate education and interdisciplinary research. But the other two priorities are geographical – linked to USC’s identity as an anchor institution in Southern California.
One of these priorities calls on us to increase our use of Southern California as a dynamic urban laboratory uniquely suited for research and teaching about the world’s urban concerns. The other calls on us to expand our global partnerships by capitalizing on Southern California’s position as the American gateway to the Pacific Rim.
So USC has examined its own future, and found that its location here in Southern California is a tremendous asset as we approach the next century. We don’t see our location as a negative, but as a real plus – and we’re willing to stake our future on it.
Two defining characteristics have allowed Southern California to explode onto the international scene – an incredible abundance of natural and social resources, and an absolute determination to find solutions wherever resources are lacking.
Let’s take an honest inventory of Southern California’s assets today. First, we have here an unsurpassed amount of intellectual capital – perhaps our most precious asset in the new information age. We have 175 accredited colleges and universities in our region. Combined, they generate roughly $30 billion annually in regional economic activity and directly support more than 120,000 full-time jobs. That makes higher education in Southern California an important “hidden industry” – one that is about the same size as aerospace or tourism.
Southern California boasts five members of the Association of American Universities – the 60 leading North American research and teaching institutions. Those five are USC, Caltech, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego. Combined, they bring in about a billion dollars annually in research and development funds to the Southland.
Southern California has one of the largest concentrations of college graduates in the world: one-quarter of the adult population has a college degree; and half have finished at least one year of college. These figures are much higher than the national average. Our college-educated population more than doubled during the 1980s and is still growing rapidly. All of this bodes very well for our region.
Our second major asset is transportation infrastructure. Our port, comprising both Los Angeles and Long Beach, is by far the busiest port in the United States, and the third busiest in the world. The L.A. and Long Beach ports combined move about twice as much goods as New York City. This is testimony to the great importance of our role as the nation’s link to the emerging markets of Asia and Latin America. We also have been undertaking a public works effort of mammoth proportions to provide us with better roads, railways, ports and airports. In short, Southern California is building the transportation infrastructure it needs to thrive in the new global economy.
Third, Southern California is the communications capital of the world – not simply the entertainment capital of the world, but the communications capital. A few years ago, in a meeting with a major donor, I asked him where he thought the communications capital of the world was located. He said, “New York City.” I told him, “I think it’s Los Angeles.” When he asked me why, I told him: “Because the average person in Tanzania couldn’t care less what the New York Times has to say about anything. But everyone in Tanzania watches American movies and American television. Indeed, American motion pictures and American television represent the most powerful and ubiquitous form of communication in history, and these two industries are headquartered in L.A., not New York.” The combination of Hollywood and great technological expertise gives Southern California a clear advantage in the field of communications. We, alone among the cities of the world, can combine creative content with hardware on a global scale.
Fourth, Southern California is the most ethnically and culturally diverse region in history. True, that causes all of us some major headaches! But we have substantial numbers of people here from every culture and every nation on earth. And this gives us a leg up in the new global economy – at USC, we call it the “global advantage.”
These are just some of the tangible assets Southern California can boast about. And I didn’t even have to mention sunshine, beaches or Disneyland!
But let’s also take stock of some of the intangibles that give this region strength. First among these is a can-do spirit – a sense of possibility that is sometimes absent in the East or Midwest. Second is resilience – the ability to bounce back from adversity; we have seen this time and time again in the past few years. Third is ingenuity – the ability to find a solution where no one else would have looked. And fourth is flexibility – we don’t suffer the social gridlock so common in the East and in Europe.
Consider Southern California in the early part of this century. Due to limited water resources, L.A. seemingly could never grow larger than a small city. But local leaders sensed the unique possibilities here. The can-do spirit, resilience and ingenuity of leaders such as William Mulholland enabled Southern California to do the unexpected – to pull its water from the Owens River, more than 200 miles away. It was a defining moment for Los Angeles – a bold, brazen and brilliant move that made it possible for this region to begin to realize its full potential.
Now jump to today. Take Southern California’s rich resources, combine them with some bold thinking, and the results are still explosive. Look at our universities. Is it a coincidence they have come so far so fast? Is it a coincidence that, over the past 50 years, USC has improved more rapidly than any other private American university and that UCLA has improved more rapidly than any other public American university? Is it a coincidence that UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego have so quickly established themselves as major universities on the national scene? No. These institutions’ past and future growth is attributable to the region that has nurtured them – a region that nurtures success at the highest level, despite formidable obstacles. Let me dwell for a moment on how Southern California’s role as the communications capital of the world gives both the region and USC a new direction for dramatic growth. The Annenberg Center for Communication was established at USC in 1993 – through a world-record cash gift of $120 million from Ambassador Walter Annenberg. This was Annenberg’s own investment in what he recognized as USC’s and Southern California’s potential to be the pacesetter in communications in the 21st century.
This past December, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates gave a major address at an event sponsored by the Annenberg Center at USC. When a television reporter asked Gates later why USC was one of only two universities in the world selected as sites for his worldwide book publicity tour, Gates said it was because “this is where the revolution in communications is happening – here at USC and here in Southern California.”
Indeed, the Annenberg Center’s mission is to strengthen Southern California’s role as the world leader in communication-related research, education and economic development. The center is run by the dean of our School of Cinema-Television, Elizabeth Daley, who recognizes that communications and multimedia will be to the next century what heavy industry has been to this one.
The USC Annenberg Center is bringing together some of our best academic units – the world’s best school of cinema-television, world-class engineering and journalism programs, and other units as well – to break new ground in a wide range of communications areas. But the Center is also building close partnerships between the university and local and state industry. A new high-tech business incubator is now in place on our campus to spur the local multimedia industry – and to attract to L.A. and USC the best and the brightest entrepreneurs in this field from around the world.
As this year’s chairman of the California Business-Higher Education Forum, I’ve seen first-hand how our greatest gains come when our businesses, universities and other organizations work together as a team toward a common goal. And Southern California is as well-suited to this kind of teamwork as any region in the world.
To sum up, this region has what it takes to dominate the world stage for years to come.
Don’t let people tell you Southern California’s future is bleak. Don’t listen to the negative voices without questioning their pessimism. In our homes and places of work, we should plan for the future with neither pessimism nor unfounded optimism, but rather with real confidence.
This region may lose some luster from time to time – but it has an abundance of underlying strengths that will serve it well for years to come, including an unsurpassed wealth of intellectual capital and social energy, great resilience and ingenuity, and a will to find new solutions to whatever challenges arise. That’s why, after five wild and woolly years here, I still believe that this is the place to be.
A few days after the Northridge Earthquake, after much of the world had pronounced Southern California dead, the British weekly The Economist looked across the ocean and very prophetically announced that there was still much life in this region. In an editorial it declared that, “Rather than lamenting what it has lost, Southern California has everything to look forward to… Los Angeles fails only when it forgets what it is; when it loses heart and looks backward. At its best – looking forward – there is no more inspiring city in America.”
When the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened in 1913, the project’s chief engineer, William Mulholland, recognized the unlimited new possibilities it brought. As the water first began to flow, Mulholland announced to tens of thousands of spectators: “There it is, take it!” In other words, take hold not just of the water, but of the great destiny that is yours. Today Mulholland’s words bear repeating. Unlimited possibilities still belong to Southern California; the future still belongs to us – “There it is, take it!”