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Annual Address to the Faculty 2005

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

In these early years of the 21st century, the University of Southern California is passing a milestone in its history - the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1880. As we mark this anniversary, we are aware that it is also an open doorway, linking the past to the future. Just as Janus, the Roman god of doorways, had two faces - one to look toward the future and the other to look back at the past - we at USC must be simultaneously mindful of our rich heritage and our almost unlimited opportunities, and most especially must we be mindful of the enduring impact that our present actions and decisions will have on the future of our great university.

From our vantage point in the doorway of USC's 125th year, we have two views: one is the sepia-toned image of 53 students studying in a small, two-story frame building, situated in a mustard field and bearing the pretentious name "The University of Southern California" over its front door. The other is a sweeping view of the comprehensive research university which is USC today - comprising two campuses on 305 acres, a liberal arts college and 17 professional schools, some 32,000 students, a $2.5 billion endowment, over 3,000 full-time faculty and an international reputation for excellence. We have truly grown into the pretentious name with which we were christened 125 years ago.

Who and what were responsible for this dramatic evolution? It was the vision, hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of our forebears - those founders, faculty, staff, students, trustees, alumni and supporters on whose shoulders we now stand - which brought us to this threshold. It is now incumbent on us to implement a vision for the future that continues to move USC ever higher in the ranks of the world's preeminent universities. How will we do it? By inventing the future, just as our forebears did 125 years ago.

Our 125th anniversary theme is "Inventing the future, honoring the past." I want to discuss with you today the key ways in which we must work together to take USC to the next level of excellence - to shape USC into a truly global university which is deeply rooted in Los Angeles and Southern California, which is passionately committed to advancing human civilization, and which provides for our students an education that is second to none.

USC's Plan for Increasing Academic Excellence
Our new strategic plan - USC's Plan for Increasing Academic Excellence - is not a blueprint with fixed boundaries and step-by-step instructions for achieving our lofty aspiration of becoming one of the most influential and productive research universities in the world. Rather our strategic plan encourages creativity and flexibility, in keeping with our entrepreneurial heritage, and reinforces the core values upon which USC has been built.

One of the best parts of our new strategic plan is what it does not say. The plan does not mention anything about taking a break while we consolidate our spectacular gains. Rather, the new plan encourages us to keep striving and achieving at an even faster rate than in the past, so that we may reach new heights of excellence and help define the standards for the research university of the 21st century.

Given our extraordinary progress as a university, especially in the past decade or so, there is a strong temptation for us to become arrogant, self-satisfied and lazy. It's just human nature to want to slow down and take a break after an arduous but highly successful effort.

Nearly two centuries ago Karl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian military historian, wrote about this pitfall in his book On War. Clausewitz noted that when two armies meet on a field of battle and it becomes clear that one of the two will prevail, the other begins to make an orderly retreat. It is at this point that the victorious general usually makes a strategic error: He decides his men have fought so valiantly that they deserve a couple of days of rest, during which they can clean up a bit, eat some hot food, and tend to their wounds. However, it is precisely at this point that the victorious general should impose even greater demands upon his exhausted troops and ruthlessly pursue the retreating enemy in order to convert the enemy's orderly retreat into a rout. Instead, by failing to press his advantage, the victor gives the enemy time to regroup and build strong defenses, which make it extremely difficult, and perhaps even impossible, for the victorious general to annihilate his enemy.

Admittedly it's a bit of a reach, and perhaps somewhat off-putting, to apply the strategies of warfare to the building of a great university. But the basic lesson is the same: When you're winning, that's the time to try harder. Clausewitz maintains that the very moment at which one is inclined to slacken the pace is precisely the moment he should pursue his advantage aggressively. I think this is exactly the case with USC. We enjoy greater upward momentum than most (and perhaps all) universities, and thus it would be foolish for us to ease up. No, now is the time for USC to press even harder toward ever-greater goals.

Supporting Pillars, Strategic Capabilities, and Core Values
Our new strategic plan is supported by three key pillars which provide a foundation on which USC will focus its efforts over the next five to 10 years. These three pillars are:

  • Meeting societal needs;
  • Expanding USC's global presence; and
  • Promoting learner-centered education.
Let us look at each of these pillars briefly in turn.

First is the mandate to concentrate on research that addresses societal needs. Perhaps the best example of this kind of research is that being conducted in this country's great academic medical centers, including USC. Here the emphasis on translational (or bench-to-bedside) research clearly links the research being conducted in the better academic medical centers with societal needs - namely, preventing and curing diseases.

In the years ahead we must expand the number of schools and programs at USC that focus on research which addresses societal needs. These needs include finding better ways to educate our young, promoting cross-cultural understanding, improving urban and technological infrastructures, and implementing our fundamental mission of developing human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.

Our second supporting pillar is the expansion of USC's global presence. We already have a firm foundation upon which to build in this regard. USC attracts more international students, and we have more international alumni, than any other American university. One of the reasons we've had such success in recruiting international students and faculty is our location in Los Angeles, a culturally diverse crossroads that serves as the de facto capital of the Pacific Rim. Los Angeles is becoming increasingly influential in advancing the vitality and health of our national economy, and our location in the City of Angels gives us a substantial competitive edge as we work to expand USC's global presence.

Third, we must promote learner-centered education. Many of you might think we are already promoting learner-centered education. But there is a tendency in all academic institutions, and most especially in research universities, for the faculty to structure the learning experiences of students so that they serve the needs of the faculty. By contrast, learner-centered education focuses at all levels on discerning and meeting the real needs of students.

A good example of learner-centered education which is unique to USC is our focus on "breadth-with-depth" in our undergraduate program. Under this rubric, all of our undergraduates are encouraged to stretch themselves intellectually and professionally by taking at least one minor that is as far removed as possible across the academic landscape from their major. For example, a student might achieve breadth-with-depth by majoring in English and minoring in physics.

This approach is exactly contrary to the advice students received throughout the 20th century - to wit: take minors that are as closely aligned with your major as possible. Thus, if your major were English literature, your minor would likely be British history or comparative literature. Fifty years ago the baccalaureate degree was the terminal degree for most students, even those at the most selective universities. But today almost all of the undergraduates at elite, highly selective universities such as USC will ultimately pursue professional or graduate education. Thus the baccalaureate degree for undergraduates at the better universities has evolved into simply a foundation for graduate and professional study. Under these circumstances, breadth-with-depth enhances the education of our students because it better prepares them for a rapidly changing world in which they may well have four or five different careers.

USC's emphasis on breadth-with-depth is already requiring our faculty to become more adept at crossing disciplinary boundaries. In fact, interdisciplinarity is one of our plan's four strategic capabilities, all four of which can be applied to a wide variety of programs. These four strategic capabilities are:

  • Expanding interdisciplinary research and teaching;
  • Linking fundamental research with applied research;
  • Continuing to build networks and partnerships, especially with local hospitals and foreign universities, and
  • Increasing our responsiveness to the needs of learners.

We have already taken many steps to hone our strategic capabilities, and I have been delighted to see the ways in which various schools and departments at USC have used the plan's three pillars and four strategic capabilities as a base upon which to build their own strategic plans.

Let me give you a few examples of what we're doing in interdisciplinary research, partnership building, global outreach and learner-centered education. We have established our new Center for Learning by combining our Center for Excellence in Teaching, parts of our Center for Distance Learning and parts of our Center for Scholarly Technology. This reorganized and strengthened Center for Learning will provide a broad array of pedagogical services for our faculty and graduate students.

We have maintained for several years four regional offices in Asia, and we recently opened an office in Mexico City to explore academic and research partnerships with institutions there. This is our first office in Latin America.

We have established a federal relations office in Washington, D.C., in order to raise USC's academic visibility and increase our success rate for securing federal funds for faculty research. And we've entered into a multitude of partnerships that not only benefit our students, but that contribute as well to the encouragement of scholarly research which fulfills societal needs.

One example of this effort is the recent creation of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. As a unique partnership between the Huntington Library and USC, the institute offers team-taught history courses, sponsors scholarly research and learning, and provides educational outreach that will benefit K-12 teachers and students throughout Los Angeles County.

The strategic plan also emphasizes the need to maintain and strengthen USC's four sets of core values:

  • Ensuring freedom of academic inquiry;
  • Upholding the standards of the Trojan Family, whose bonds are lifelong and worldwide;
  • Pursuing an entrepreneurial approach to challenges, and
  • Committing ourselves to ethical conduct as set forth in our Code of Ethics.

These core values are the bonding agents that hold our university together and define our destiny. They are our strength and our heritage, and if we are to achieve the strategic plan's overarching goal of setting the standard for research universities in the 21st century, these values must be even more tightly woven into the fabric of USC. How can we hope to succeed in the coming years if we fail to uphold academic freedom, if we loosen the bonds of the Trojan Family, if we neglect to nurture our entrepreneurial spirit, or if we abandon the values of honesty, fairness, and mutual respect which are the cornerstones of our code of ethics? Indeed, staying true to these four sets of core values will help us invent USC's future, just as they have helped shape USC into the premier university it is today.

Building on Our Many Successes
Over the last decade USC has emerged as one of America's top 10 private research universities, and we continue to enjoy tremendous upward momentum. From a financial standpoint, our endowment has increased by a factor of five over the last 12 years, we have a very low ratio of debt to net assets, and our sponsored research funding continues to rise. USC and its partners are constructing 28 new buildings on our two campuses, totaling some eight million square feet, which we believe is the largest building program of any university in the nation.

USC has also experienced a dramatic increase in academic selectivity at the undergraduate level. We now receive 11 applications for every opening in the freshman class. Last fall the average GPA of entering freshmen was 4.00 and the average SAT score was 1350, an increase of nearly 350 points from just a few years ago. No other university has ever increased its SAT scores as quickly or as dramatically as we have.

USC is also attracting more students from the top local prep schools. A few years ago schools such as Harvard Westlake or Polytechnic School in Pasadena were sending no students to USC. Today all of the elite prep schools in this area send more students to USC than to any other university.

One person who has played a major role in increasing the upward momentum of this university and in dramatically improving the academic credentials of our incoming freshman class is our provost Lloyd Armstrong. As you probably know, Lloyd will retire in June as provost and return to the faculty. When he does so, he will have served as USC's provost for 12 years - a remarkable tenure in light of the fact that most provosts these days serve only four years in their posts. The provost's job is difficult because it has no natural constituency. A university president has natural constituents (e.g., the Board of Trustees, the vice presidents, the alumni), and a dean has his or her faculty, students, and alumni. But a provost has no one who, by nature of their role, loves him. So to survive 12 years in that environment, while leading the deans with grace, dignity, and a relentless emphasis on improving quality, is truly an extraordinary achievement.

During Lloyd's tenure as USC's chief academic officer, he has played an instrumental role in enhancing our academic programs, strengthening our interdisciplinary research and teaching, and leading the planning efforts that resulted in two strategic plans and an update to the first one. He has had a tremendous impact on the vision and direction of this entire university, and all of us owe him a profound debt of gratitude.

Fundraising
One topic that is not covered in our new strategic plan is fundraising. Currently we're establishing separate fundraising initiatives at the various schools and within USC College. However, we don't know ultimately where those initiatives will lead. The Keck School of Medicine of USC is involved in an initiative to raise $2 billion over the next 10 years. The USC Viterbi School of Engineering is pursuing an initiative to raise $300 million over the next decade. And USC College will soon announce an initiative of its own.

The question is: What should we do with these separate initiatives? Should we let them run on their own? If not, why not? They're doing well, so why "fix" them? Perhaps we should roll them up into one comprehensive fundraising plan with one comprehensive goal, which is what we've done in the past. If we combine them, we'll have a fundraising goal of about $6 billion. This may seem like a daunting figure, but let me remind you that when we started our Building on Excellence campaign, many people were skeptical that we could raise even $1 billion. You'll recall that we finished that campaign with just under $3 billion. Thus we shouldn't be discouraged by the thought of a university-wide fundraising campaign with a goal of $6 billion.

Challenges for the Future
A lot of good things are happening at USC. But there are also a couple of challenges that keep me awake at night. First, I'm concerned about the Keck School of Medicine of USC and our hospitals. Let me make it clear that this is in no way a criticism of our medical school. I'm very enthusiastic about the school and optimistic about its prospects. However, because huge amounts of money are involved in any medical school, a hiccup at the Keck School could cause serious indigestion throughout the rest of the university.

The good news is that there are opportunities to increase revenues at the medical school which simply aren't present in other areas of the university. If we should stumble, however, or if our hospitals should stumble, we could quickly hemorrhage copious amounts of money. Think of what happened when Stanford and the University of California at San Francisco decided to merge their hospital systems. Three hundred million dollars were bled into the streets of San Francisco before the participants were able to stem the flow and scuttle the plan. And a prestigious Eastern university hemorrhaged over $1 billion before the president was able to regain control of her medical school.

On the positive side of our medical school and its hospitals is the fact that we have strong and effective leadership in Dean Brian Henderson. We also have exceptional leadership in many of the school's department chairs, and the school has an absolutely outstanding board of overseers. Then too, we have an excellent and close partnership with Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, which has led people at both institutions to refer to CHLA as USC's "third campus," even though CHLA is completely legally independent of USC. These kinds of extraordinary leadership and partnerships are the reasons the Keck School continues to develop as a great asset for the entire university.

The second challenge that keeps me up at night is my concern that we will fall into complacency, or worse, that we will become arrogant. If we indulge in either of these - complacency or arrogance - we will lose our momentum, and we will lose the wonderful relationships that we now enjoy with our students. Most universities are fairly well satisfied with who they are, where they are, and what they are. But at USC one of our greatest virtues is that we are not satisfied. We don't feel that we have come as far as we can. We don't feel that we have reached our full potential. I hope we never lose that unrelenting drive to do more and to do it better. We need that kind of determination in order to achieve our goal of becoming one of the most productive and influential universities in the world.

Conclusion
How can we as faculty ensure that the new strategic plan will be successful? By putting our personal imprint on it. We each must play a role in devising ways in which our respective schools or departments will span disciplinary boundaries, link fundamental research to applied research, build networks and partnerships that advance knowledge, and fulfill the educational needs of our students in an increasingly global and technological society. The core values that will sustain and guide our work will be our entrepreneurial heritage, our Trojan Family network, and our dedication to academic freedom and the highest ethical standards.

Many people around the country tell me that USC has come farther faster than any other research university in history. That may very well be true. But the ever-present danger is that we will want to take a break, want to throttle down a little bit, want to trim back our ambitious goals and standards, all of which would be, in my opinion, an unmitigated disaster. Now is the time to press on with all our strength and might toward the lofty and challenging goals we've set for ourselves. By achieving our goals as a 21st-century research university, we will honor our forebears and richly benefit the hundreds of thousands of students who, in the centuries ahead, will come to USC seeking truth, beauty, wisdom, insight, skill, and understanding.