State of the University Address
by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
February 27, 2001
What a magnificent gathering of the Trojan Family this is! When Kathryn and I were being recruited to USC back in 1990, everyone kept telling us about something called “the Trojan Family.” We thought at first it was just a bit of inconsequential mythology. But early on we discovered that the Trojan Family is something very real and very special. Indeed, for those within its compass the Trojan Family is a genuinely supportive community – lifelong and worldwide.
We’re here today to celebrate a decade of achievement by the University of Southern California. I want to make one point very clear – these are not my achievements; rather, these are your achievements. In fact, the achievements of the last ten years are the result of efforts by the entire Trojan Family.
Let’s keep in mind that this decade began very inauspiciously. California was mired in a severe recession. USC was forced to make major layoffs late in 1991 – the first in our history. Then came the devastating riots of 1992, followed by the Northridge earthquake. But since then many wonderful things have happened to USC and Southern California. Overall I’d have to say that during the past decade, USC has been truly blessed.
I want to tell you about six triumphs that have occurred during the past ten years which should make all of us proud. All six of these triumphs were driven to a greater or lesser extent by our strategic plan, which may well prove to be one of the most prescient and successful academic plans in the history of higher education.
First and foremost of our six triumphs is the strengthening of undergraduate education at USC. That was clearly our highest priority at the beginning of the decade, and we have made phenomenal progress in this regard – progress beyond our wildest dreams. USC is now in the top one percent of all colleges and universities in America in terms of selectivity. Our average SAT scores – now 1308 for last fall’s freshman class – reflect an increase of 240 points in ten years time, which is unmatched by any other university in the country. In addition, the average GPA of incoming freshmen last fall was 3.9, and most of our freshmen now come from the upper five to ten percent of their high school graduating class. We now rank in the top ten of all institutions in America in terms of the number of National Merit Scholars who matriculate as freshmen, and we attract nine applications for every opening in our freshman class.
It’s important to note that USC does not simply consider the numbers when evaluating applicants for admission. Instead, we look at the whole person. In addition to the numerical dimensions of SAT scores, GPA and rank in class, we consider such factors as letters of recommendation, the essay each applicant writes, which high school or prep school she attended, which courses she took in high school, what activities she participated in, and whether she demonstrated leadership skills or other special talents. We ask ourselves whether USC is her first choice, and whether she is a SCion – that is, a child or grandchild of a Trojan. And of course, we consider her interview; we can be proud of the fact that USC conducts some 8,000 interviews every year in the process of recruiting our freshman class.
I noticed that the president of the University of California system recently suggested that the UC should no longer consider SAT scores when evaluating applicants for admission. By contrast, USC will continue to consider the SAT scores of our applicants, but we’ll also continue to look at the other 12 dimensions I listed earlier.
An extra benefit we derive from the complex process we use to recruit and evaluate freshman applicants is that we now have one of the most academically talented and diverse student bodies in the United States – far more diverse, I might say, than that of many public universities. In addition, over 75 percent of our entering freshmen list USC as their first choice.
Certainly student recruitment is important, but substantive improvements in our undergraduate program have been just as important. The students we’re recruiting today have choices – they can go anywhere. When they choose to come to USC, it is because we have programmatic offerings that are superior to those of our competitors. Let me mention a few of those points of superiority.
First is our new core curriculum, taught by many of our best senior faculty to small classes of freshmen and sophomores. In addition, USC offers 101 different minors – a broader array than is available at any other university in the nation. Then there is the Renaissance Scholars program, extensive opportunities for undergraduate research, the B.A./M.D. program, residential colleges and service learning.
USC has received extensive national recognition for the excellence of our undergraduate programs. Time magazine named us College of the Year 2000 for our community outreach efforts. Last fall we were identified as one of America’s “hottest” schools by the Newsweek/Kaplan college guide. Most recently, USC was designated as one of only 16 national Leadership Institutions by the Association of American Colleges and Universities for the excellence of our undergraduate offerings.
We now compete very comfortably with the entire UC system in attracting the best students (in spite of the UC’s six-to-one price advantage in tuition), and we are beginning to take outstanding students away from Stanford and Harvard as well. Best of all, retention and graduation rates have improved dramatically. We’ve moved from a 53 percent graduation rate ten years ago to a 73 percent graduation rate this past year. More recently, our year-on-year retention figures have been 95 percent or better, which promises to yield graduation rates above 80 percent in the near future.
The second major triumph of the past decade has been a substantial strengthening of USC’s research mission. Sponsored research, which is almost entirely faculty-driven, has nearly doubled over ten years to $325 million a year. USC now ranks among the top ten of all private universities in terms of the dollar volume of federal research support.
Another measure of academic strength of any university is the number of faculty who have been elected to membership in the three National Academies that are recognized by the Association of American Universities – the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Science, and the Institute of Medicine. At USC that number has nearly doubled over the past ten years, to a total of 39.
Our researchers are also getting more media attention, not only in science and medicine, but also in law and the social sciences. And we’ve seen a significant increase in media coverage of our poets, novelists, musicians, artists, and architects.
And finally, we must all celebrate once more George Olah’s undivided Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1994. It’s important to note that this prize was awarded to Professor Olah for work that he did here at USC.
The third major triumph of the past ten years has been the development of new disciplinary strengths at this university. Of course many of our schools, departments and programs were already strong in 1990, and are still strong today. But several others have achieved real national prominence during the last decade.
First among these is the Keck School of Medicine of USC. The school has made phenomenal progress in the last ten years. We can see this progress in the extraordinary success of our hospital partners, the dramatic increase in the faculty’s clinical practice, and the huge growth in sponsored research in medicine. These achievements were recognized in 1999 when the W. M. Keck Foundation awarded a $110 million naming gift to our medical school. There is every sign that the Keck School is continuing to build on its strong upward momentum.
The entire field of communications at USC has also advanced dramatically in the past ten years, especially through the coming together of a number of putatively disparate parts – namely, the Annenberg School for Communication, the School of Cinema-Television, the School of Journalism and many programs in the School of Engineering, including the Information Sciences Institute, the Integrated Media Systems Center, and the Institute for Creative Technologies. The pivotal event that triggered this coming together was Walter and Lee Annenberg’s magnificent $120 million cash gift in 1993 to establish the Annenberg Center for Communication. Thanks to the Annenbergs, USC’s programs in communication, taken as a whole, are the strongest of any American university.
The arts have also emerged as a great strength of this university. USC has five professional schools in the arts – Cinema-Television, the Thornton School of Music, Theatre, Architecture, and Fine Arts. Several of these were already strong ten years ago. But today, taken together, these five schools and their joint programs constitute the strongest offering in the arts of any university in the United States.
Several other units at USC have achieved national stature over the past ten years, including the Marshall School of Business, physical therapy, computer science, computational genomics, environmental marine biology, and creative writing.
My point is this: We’ve maintained our lead in fields in which we were already strong, while moving up considerably in a number of other disciplines. This is one of the keys to building a great university in the long term.
The fourth major triumph I would point to has been fund-raising. Our Building on Excellence Campaign began with a goal of raising $1 billion in new gifts and pledges in seven years – from 1993 to 2000. We surpassed that billion-dollar goal by 1998; then raised the goal to $1.5 billion; surpassed that new goal in 2000; and finally raised the goal to $2 billion and extended the duration of the campaign through 2002.
Our campaign total to date is $1.8 billion. When we’re finished next year, this campaign will stand as the third most successful in the history of American higher education, just behind the most recent campaigns of Columbia and Harvard.
During this campaign we have nearly quintupled our endowment, from $440 million in 1990 to just under $2.2 billion in 2000. A good part of that growth has been due to shrewd investing in an unprecedented bull market, but much of it can be attributed to new donations. In the past seven years we have received three gifts of more than $100 million each from the Annenbergs, Alfred Mann, and the Keck Foundation, which in and of itself has set a new record in American higher education.
We’ve been fortunate to receive naming gifts as a part of this campaign for five of our professional schools – the Leventhal School of Accounting, the Marshall School of Business, the Rossier School of Education, the Thornton School of Music and the Keck School of Medicine. Endowed chairs and professorships have grown from 152 at the beginning of the campaign to 253 today – an increase of almost 67 percent. Annual alumni giving has gone from an 11 percent participation rate to 27 percent, and in all probability we’ll reach our goal of a 30 percent annual participation rate by 2002.
A broad spectrum of the people associated with this university have participated in the Building on Excellence Campaign – including trustees, faculty, staff, students and alumni. We can be proud of the fact that we have built a well established, widespread and very effective fund-raising culture at USC.
The fifth major triumph I want to mention is the important role USC has played in making visible and sustained improvements in the neighborhoods surrounding both the University Park campus and the Health Sciences campus. We began this process with three principles in mind. First, we wanted to narrow the focus of our public service programs and concentrate on our immediate neighborhoods, in order to make a visible difference in those neighborhoods. Second, we wanted to form respectful partnerships and real collaborations with our neighbors. And third, we were determined not to engage in “urban removal” – that is, no bulldozing people out of their homes.
What kinds of programs have evolved through this effort? One particularly noteworthy example is our Good Neighbors Campaign. In 1990 we were raising about $100,000 a year from faculty and staff contributions to United Way. Today, through the Good Neighbors Campaign, we are raising nearly $650,000 a year through voluntary contributions from faculty and staff, which is a six-fold increase.
We now have very close ties to our Family of Five Schools around the University Park campus, and we’ve adopted Bravo High School and Murchison Elementary School near the Health Sciences campus. We’ve instituted a very successful program of community-based policing, which includes KidWatch, a program that involves 700 of our neighbors who volunteer to watch out for the children in our neighborhood as they go to and from school.
We offer a bonus of $25,000 to any employee who wishes to own and occupy housing close to one of our two campuses. Our Business Expansion Network is one of the most successful in the state; as a result, scores of small businesses have been started and are thriving in our neighborhoods.
We’ve dramatically increased student, faculty, and staff participation in joint venture programs with neighborhood organizations. At the undergraduate level alone, nearly 10,000 students engage in substantial community service every year; we believe that’s the best record of any college or university in the country. Our community service efforts have attracted a great deal of private investment in our neighborhoods. Along the way we’ve received wide national recognition for these efforts, including especially being named Time magazine’s College of the Year 2000.
A Stronger Trojan Family
The sixth and final triumph I’d like to celebrate is the strengthening of the Trojan Family. But first let’s ask ourselves: Who is a part of the Trojan Family? Who is actually under the Trojan tent?
Well, it’s a very, very big tent. It includes alumni, students, parents of students, faculty, staff and emeriti. It includes members of our Board of Trustees and of our boards of councilors, along with donors, athletic fans and neighborhood partners. All of these people are heavily invested in USC, both emotionally and economically.
What have we been doing to strengthen this very special family? Let me touch on a few points.
Let’s start with our fraternities and sororities. We confronted the Greek system with a program of tough love ten years ago. Some people thought the strict measures of reform we implemented would spell the demise of our fraternities and sororities, but exactly the opposite has happened. The fraternity grade point average is now above the all-men’s average at USC, and the sorority grade point average is well above the all-women’s average. Moreover, there has been a significant increase in rushees for Greek houses.
In athletics, we must acknowledge recent disappointments in football. But there have been many accomplishments in athletics over the past decade of which we can all be justifiably proud. We’ve won 19 conference championships in that period and seven national championships. During the last ten years more than 100 Trojan athletes have participated in three Summer Olympics; collectively they won 18 gold medals, keeping alive the gold-medal streak that has been a Trojan tradition since 1912. There has been a significant improvement in the graduation rates of our student athletes, several new athletic facilities have been built or are now under construction, and a number of women’s sports have been added to our intercollegiate athletics program.
We’ve also strengthened the Trojan Family through non-athletic events on campus. Hundreds of speakers, concerts, plays, convocations, festivals, exhibitions and conferences have been held here over the past ten years. There has been a dramatic increase each year in the number of these events, and in the numbers of attendees which they attract. These events now bring tens of thousands of students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the general public together each year, thereby enhancing the academic and cultural ambiance of USC.
And finally, our Alumni Association has worked tirelessly to strengthen the Trojan Family. The association has an important new strategic plan aimed at increasing alumni participation in the life of this university. They have a new slogan: “The Trojan Family ? lifelong and worldwide,” which I believe captures both the spirit and the reality of USC.
The Historical Context
Let me take a minute to put this past decade in historical context. USC had its beginnings in a little white frame building that still stands at the new entrance to our University Park campus. That was all there was to the University of Southern California when it was founded in 1880 – one little building, 50 students, and 12 teachers. And keep in mind that at that time, Los Angeles was a dusty little village of 10,000 people.
But shortly thereafter, L.A. began to explode. It went from a village of 10,000 to a mega-city of 10 million in just over a century, which represents a thousand-fold increase in population. No other city in history has grown from 10,000 to 10 million in 100 years.
USC also exploded during that period in both size and complexity. A student body of 50 became a student body of 28,000 today, more than a 500-fold increase. The net worth of USC in 1880 was $15,000; today our net worth exceeds $3 billion.
Now here is an interesting point. Several other colleges were established in this region in the 1880s, including Occidental, Pomona, and Whittier, and some of these had better financial underpinnings than USC. But they didn’t become international research universities; rather they chose to remain small colleges.
What was it about USC that made us so different? Was it our name? Think of the chutzpah it took to put such a pretentious name -“The University of Southern California” – over the door of a little white frame building in 1880. Who was kidding whom?
But if it wasn’t just the name, then what was it? Dreams? Leadership? Serendipity? These questions are important for all of us to ponder, because they have implications for our future.
Not only has USC grown dramatically over the last 120 years, but our role and mission have evolved as well. From 1880 to the 1950s, we were serving primarily a local clientele, and playing a quasi-land-grant role. Of course we weren’t a land grant university, but we were serving public needs in the way that traditional land grant universities do. Why? Because there wasn’t anyone else in Southern California to do it, since public higher education in this state was largely locked up in Northern California.
But by the late 1950s all that had changed. USC’s new president at the time, Norman Topping, saw that our quasi-land-grant role was being taken over, and properly so, by strong public universities. Topping understood that USC needed a new role, and that that 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 for 40 years during the presidencies of Topping, Jack Hubbard, Jim Zumberge, and myself with spectacular success. USC today is clearly a major national research university with a substantial endowment.
Opportunities for the Future
What does this brief history lesson tell us about the future? I think it tells us that we must rediscover and renew our roots in Los Angeles and Southern California – not in a parochial way, but with an eye on the world. Los Angeles and Southern California are evolving, just as USC is evolving. L.A. is now a world city; it is a world center of business, of arts and culture, and of science and technology.
Consider the following indicators. Los Angeles is now the principal seaport of the United States and the third busiest port in the world. This region has 150,000 practicing artists of every stripe, more than any other U.S. city. Los Angeles is clearly the capital city of the Pacific Rim, which in turn may be on its way to becoming the economically dominant region of the new century. And Southern California has become the principal urban paradigm for the developing world. (By the way, when I say Southern California, I don’t mean just Los Angeles and Orange counties. Rather I mean all of Southern California, from San Diego to Santa Barbara.)
Southern California is now the world center of two major industries. One is the communications industry, which includes entertainment. This region is more adept than any other place in the world at combining technology with creative content. The second major industry that is now centered in Southern California is biomedical technology, which could become the leading industry in the world over the next 20 years.
In short, I believe USC must exploit its location in Los Angeles and Southern California even more aggressively than in the past. We must build on the extraordinary strengths of USC’s eponymous region.
Let me mention just four other areas of opportunity which I foresee for this university. All of these fields are exciting, all are in flux, and all are forcing us to consider the question: Where should we place our bets in the years ahead?
Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching
The first opportunity I see is interdisciplinary research and teaching, which is a great strength at USC in spite of the natural barriers inherent in our system of decentralized fiscal management. All four critical pathways set forth in the 1998 update of our strategic plan – communications, the life sciences, Southern California, and the arts – are interdisciplinary in character.
Viewing ourselves from a more interdisciplinary perspective should have a very salutary effect on our National Research Council rankings, which are the leading rankings of graduate programs in the arts and sciences and engineering. The NRC conducts a comprehensive survey of doctoral education approximately once every decade. The results indicate how we are perceived by our peers, which in turn can have important implications for our overall institutional reputation, our ability to recruit top faculty and graduate students, and our ability to attract outside funding.
The last NRC survey was published in 1995 and was based on data collected in 1993. At that time USC reported its data to the NRC on a very narrow basis, which proved to be a serious mistake. But our increased attention to interdisciplinary research has helped us discover our true strengths in a number of fields. Today we think not just of departments, but of programs that are broadly construed across departments, schools, and campuses. This fact alone, coupled with the outstanding new faculty appointments we’ve made in recent years, should improve our rankings considerably when the next NRC survey is published.
In sum, I think there are going to be enormous opportunities in the years ahead for exciting work and substantial funding in interdisciplinary research and teaching. We are already far ahead of most of our competitors in this regard, and we should pursue this advantage even more assiduously in the future.
A second important opportunity I see on the horizon has to do with libraries. Let’s start with a question: What does the word “library” mean in the context of a modern research university? Certainly it encompasses the storage and retrieval of knowledge, information, texts, data, and manuscripts. In that sense libraries are at the core of the academic enterprise, just as they have been for over a century in this country.
In the most recent library rankings, USC stood 12th overall among private universities (tied with New York University and Northwestern) and fifth among the privates in terms of our manuscript and archival holdings. While no definitive rankings exist of the electronic offerings of research libraries, we’re fairly certain we’re among the best in this regard.
The challenge for all research libraries today is to strike the right balance between paper holdings and electronic offerings. Electronically-published journals are on the rise, and more and more texts are becoming accessible on-line. However, paper holdings are still essential to many disciplines. Fortunately we have here in Los Angeles one of the best paper library collections in the world, owned by the people of California.
Charting the right course for USC in the field of libraries in the long term will require very careful thought and planning. In the short run we can all rejoice that the Doheny Library will reopen in May after extensive seismic retrofitting, and with 10,000 square feet of additional public space for the humanities and social sciences.
A third exciting opportunity is the fast-moving field of distance learning. I should note that Provost Lloyd Armstrong’s excellent white paper on this topic is receiving widespread national attention.
USC is already very much involved in DL. Our Leonard Davis School of Gerontology now offers an accredited master’s degree on-line. The School of Engineering has expanded its DL programs offered via closed-circuit television, thereby continuing a strong 30-year tradition. The Marshall School of Business offers some courses and a certificate through distance learning.
We must keep in mind that DL is very capital intensive. Moreover, there are many competitors in this field, an increasing number of which are for-profit institutions. Just yesterday our provost appointed a full-time consultant to help us develop a concrete plan for distance learning here at USC. I don’t know precisely what that plan will entail, but I do know this: it will be entrepreneurial; it will not be one-size-fits-all; and it will focus on quality, quality, quality.
A fourth exciting opportunity I want to touch on briefly is capital construction. We’ve focused for the last ten years with great success on building USC’s endowment. Now we must focus on expanding our physical plant.
We can expect to spend $400 million or more over the next five to seven years in capital construction. We have two principal priorities in this regard. The first is to build several new facilities that will improve the quality of student life at this university. Four projects are being planned or are under construction in this category – the internationally themed residential college, more student activity space, a campus events center, and a performing arts center.
Our second major priority with respect to capital construction is to build a great deal of new research space on both campuses, especially for the biological and life-related disciplines. Biomedical engineering and the life sciences will be linked in a new science and technology complex on the University Park campus, and a large biomedical research park is being planned near our Health Sciences campus. We are also in the process of building a new neurogenetics research facility at HSC, and plans are being made for a large addition of research space at the USC/Norris Cancer Center.
I should note that during the last decade we have significantly increased our annual investment in the rehabilitation of existing physical plant; as a consequence we have a rather low level of deferred maintenance relative to most other private research universities. This fact should prove to be a significant competitive advantage for USC in the years ahead.
Ten wonderful years. What can they tell us about the future?
For one thing, I foresee enormous competitive pressures on and within higher education. I predict we’ll see more and more worldwide players and for-profit players in areas of postsecondary education that have traditionally been reserved for stand-alone not-for-profit colleges and universities.
The next ten years will see significant reinvention taking place in higher education. I think USC should be a leader in this process, and most especially in helping to reinvent the American research university. We bring three special strengths to this process: our location here in Los Angeles and Southern California, our success in fostering interdisciplinary research and teaching, and our entrepreneurial history. Remember, there were several small private colleges established in Southern California in the late 19th century, but only one has become a great international research university. USC didn’t shy away from having audacious dreams in 1880, and we shouldn’t shy away from having such dreams today.
An important question for all of us is, Whose interests should we try to serve in the years ahead? The answer to that question is shaped in part by the fact that universities are very durable institutions. Clark Kerr, president emeritus of the University of California, once observed that, since the year 1520, only 80 institutions have been continuously in existence. They include several Swiss cantons, the Roman Catholic Church, and the parliaments of the Isle of Man, Iceland, and Great Britain. But the vast majority of the institutions that have survived continuously for the past half millennium, some 70 of the 80, are universities. So when any well-established university considers its future, it must think in terms of centuries.
Each year I hold an orientation session for new trustees, during which I point out that the trustees own USC in trust. They don’t own it by shares, nor do they own it for their own benefit. Rather, they own it in trust for others. But for whom specifically? Certainly for our current student body, our faculty and staff, our alumni, and our neighbors. But the biggest constituency for whom our trustees hold USC in trust are scores of generations of students yet unborn.
Viewed in this light, all of us are stewards of this university; all of us have a fiduciary responsibility to the millions of students who will attend this institution in the centuries to come. This responsibility shouldn’t be seen as a burden; rather, we should accept it as a joy and a privilege. Let us give thanks that our forebears have placed in our hands this wonderful and noble institution. And let us recommit ourselves to bequeathing to our successors a university that is even better than that which was bequeathed to us.