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Annual Address to the Faculty 2006

by Steven B. Sample, President
University of Southern California
February 2006

Next month marks the 15th anniversary of my presidency. Serving as president of USC has been the most invigorating and satisfying professional experience of my life. This is an extraordinary university, and it’s a privilege for me to work alongside you, our faculty and administrators, in hastening USC’s ascent into the top tiers of research universities at this particular time in our history.

We’ve all seen many changes over the past decade and a half. Some of these changes have been technological, such as the Internet and the World Wide Web; some have been intellectual, such as the eclipse of Freudianism, or the development of a better understanding of the human genome; and some have been social and cultural in nature, such as the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or the emergence of women as leaders in fields from which they had been traditionally excluded.

And of course our university has changed dramatically in the past 15 years. Not the least of these internal changes has been the appointment of a new provost, C. L. Max Nikias, to fill the vacancy that occurred when Lloyd Armstrong retired from his provostal duties last year.

Changes on the University Park Campus
Today I want to focus on some of the changes taking place within USC, and initially on those taking place on our University Park campus. Many of the changes that have occurred at the University Park campus are obvious. For example, when Kathryn and I first came to USC in 1991, our football team went three and eight. I therefore take full credit for our more recent performance on the gridiron, which includes two back-to-back national championships and three of the past four Heisman trophy winners.

Another change is that USC is now highly selective. Indeed, USC is now among the most highly selective universities in the country. Fifteen years ago we were desperate for students; now we receive over 33,000 applications each year for admission to our freshman class – which works out to be 11 applicants for each opening in the class. Average SAT scores of our entering freshman class are now 1364 and rising. We outstripped UCLA five years ago, passed Berkeley two years ago, and are now nipping at the heels of Stanford. Today USC dominates over all competitors in our ability to attract the best students from the best prep schools in California.

All the old USC jokes have died out. We’re no longer the University of Spoiled Children or the University of Second Choice. Instead, USC is now the University of Superior Choice. And I know I speak for those of our faculty who teach undergraduates, including myself, when I say it’s a lot more fun teaching highly competitive young people who really want to succeed.

Another measure of the excellence of our undergraduate program is the fact that our projected six-year graduation rate exceeds 80 percent, which puts us in the same league as our elite competitors, and which is 20 percentage points higher than 15 years ago.

In the area of fundraising, our annual giving (cash only – not pledges) has averaged $350 million per year for the past three years. Our capital campaign raised $2.9 billion; and our endowment has increased sixfold over the last 15 years, from $443 million to $2.7 billion. At the close of the campaign we found that we had set a national record: we had completed the most successful fundraising campaign in the history of higher education. And we held that record for three years.

Now, however, UCLA recently concluded its capital campaign, and has trumpeted its record-setting $3.1 billion fundraising total. I suppose we could point out that the duration of UCLA’s campaign was a year longer than USC’s campaign. And I suppose we could point out that we conducted our campaign earlier than UCLA, so that inflation might have reduced their total in constant dollars. But let’s not quibble – rather, let’s give the Bruins their due. They deserve our plaudits and the attention they are receiving for this achievement. Why? Because it’s good for us when others break our record. As soon as another university tops our achievement – as has UCLA, and as will many other universities in the years ahead – we feel the pressure to do even better. All of us – faculty, trustees, and the president – will be motivated to step up the pace and achieve even greater success in the future, and that’s the best thing that can happen to our fundraising program.

Another remarkable change that we have witnessed over the last decade and a half has to do with the neighborhoods surrounding our two campuses. About a year after I took office as president of USC, I received a phone call from a famous financier. He said, “You know, Steve, last Sunday I took a little walking tour of the neighborhood around your University Park campus, and it’s just an unmitigated disaster.” He continued with some advice: “Let me tell you what you’re going to have to do. You’re going to have to get the city to condemn about 60 blocks. Go in and bulldoze all of those blocks, and then rebuild from the ground up.”

I listened carefully, then said to this gentleman, “Gee, that’s an interesting idea. What do you think it would cost?”

“Oh,” he conjectured, “I think you could do it for about five billion dollars.”

“OK,” I said, “here’s what we’ll do. You go out and get the five billion. In the meantime, we are going to do some simple, straightforward things to try to improve our neighborhoods.”

And USC did precisely that. In the process we made an important discovery – a discovery that is instructive for everyone in this nation: Only two things are needed in order to turn around a troubled neighborhood. You don’t have to bulldoze anybody; you don’t have to practice “urban removal.” You simply have to ensure two things: safe streets and good public schools. USC concentrated on those two objectives and joined with our neighbors in respectful partnerships to bring them to pass. Safe streets and good public schools solve almost every problem associated with a troubled neighborhood.

To reinforce this simple truth, when my financier friend recently took another walking tour of our surrounding neighborhoods, he was stunned at how much we had achieved with so little money. And it was these achievements that were the determining factor in our being named Time magazine’s College of the Year 2000.

A Metamorphosis
There is one very big change occurring on the University Park campus. USC is rapidly evolving from a commuter university to a residential university. Historically, most of our undergraduates have commuted to campus, but not necessarily from their parents’ home; more often than not they commuted from an apartment in or near one of the beach communities. But today we are experiencing an almost insatiable demand on the part of our undergraduate students for on-campus housing.

This change to a residential university will, in my opinion, strengthen and enhance USC’s academic programs. First, at highly selective universities such as USC, undergraduates learn as much or more from each other as they do from their professors, and the opportunities for peer-to-peer learning are much greater at a residential university. A residential campus provides a readymade audience for on-campus shows, concerts, lectures, and athletic events. A residential campus makes it easier to foster closer academic relationships between students and faculty. And this metamorphosis to a residential campus also supports USC’s efforts to give our students a small-college experience inside a large, urban research university.

A residential campus makes it easier to recruit not only the best students, but the best faculty as well. As a professor, and as an active member of the teaching faculty, I’m personally very excited by this change from a commuter campus to one in which almost all of our undergraduates will live on or near the grounds of the university.

But along with this metamorphosis come significant demands for new construction. Eventually we’ll need 8,000 additional on-campus or close-to-campus beds. We are building some of these facilities ourselves. You have likely seen what is happening on the southwest corner of campus. The International Residential College at Parkside was completed in 2002, and what we’re calling Parkside II – a second residential college – is being constructed nearby.

As we build new on-campus housing we are emphasizing the residential college concept. In a residential college, as opposed to a dormitory, at least one faculty member and his or her family live right on the premises and actively contribute to the life of that residential college. Programming for extracurricular activities in a residential college is done under faculty auspices. I would never wish to diminish the importance of the role that professional staff play in ensuring that our students have outstanding and enriching experiences, whether they live in traditional dormitories or residential colleges. But you can grasp, I’m sure, the difference in ambience that naturally occurs when the person in charge of the programming is a full-time faculty member who calls that facility home.

In addition to the two Parkside facilities, we have recently been promised a very large all-cash gift from a donor to build the finest residential college in the country.

Private capital will play an increasingly important role in providing new close-to-campus housing for our students. You may have seen the new Conquest Student Housing structure being built right off campus on Figueroa Boulevard, adjacent to the southeast corner of our campus. This structure, which is scheduled to open in August of this year, is being built on land that Conquest bought with Conquest’s capital. It will provide 450 new beds for our students.

Another student-housing project in the works is sponsored by University Gateway, which will add 1,600 new beds adjacent to campus on Figueroa northward toward downtown.

Having a residential campus requires us to pay close attention to the students’ recreational needs. To this end we are building the Galen Center and its attendant athletic pavilion, which will open this fall. The recent rehabilitation of Bovard Auditorium has enabled us to use that space for dozens of performances, speeches, and ceremonial events – including those sponsored by neighborhood schools and organizations – that have greatly enhanced our students’ lives outside the classroom. We are planning to build a new, long-overdue student center – what some might call a student union – and we have committed $100 million to this project to ensure that our students have one of the finest gathering places in the country.

Other student-oriented construction on the University Park campus includes a student health center, engineering’s recently completed Tutor Hall, and the recently completed Molecular and Computational Biology Building. This last building is not primarily for undergraduates, but keep in mind that almost half of USC’s student body is composed of graduate and professional students. In addition, we host over 350 postdoctoral fellows each year. All of these postgraduate students would love to have the opportunity to live in on-campus or near-campus housing.

We’re working hard to make our new research and teaching buildings “people friendly,” so as to encourage informal interaction among the students and faculty for whom that building is home. Last year, at the dedication of the Molecular and Computational Biology Building, one of our Ph.D. students spoke to those who had gathered to celebrate the opening of this building. She was very excited about the new building itself, and she told us how it would enhance her own research efforts and those of her peers in molecular biology. She told the audience, “We graduate students and postdocs almost literally live in the building where we’re doing our research. We’re there pretty much twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And you know,” she continued, “a lot of us play the piano. This building has almost everything for us, but we need a piano. So maybe someday someone would like to make that happen.”

Right then and there, I took that as a challenge. Knowing that many trustees and donors were present at the ceremony, I immediately went to the podium and asked if I could get some bids on the privilege of purchasing a good piano for these students in the Molecular and Computational Biology Building. Without a moment’s hesitation, several people shouted out bids, and finally the honor went to USC trustee and alumnus Pat Haden, who placed the highest bid – $10,000 – for the purchase of a piano in this research facility.

We’re paying a lot of attention to aesthetics on the University Park campus. Certainly ours is one of the four or five most beautiful campuses in the country. We are now adhering more closely to USC’s classical architectural vernacular, which is more-or-less Italian Romanesque. We are opening up more and more green space on campus (as opposed to less and less green space, which is what is occurring at most other urban universities). The new McCarthy Quad is one of the most attractive academic quads in America. And we now have many more fountains, trees, and gardens throughout the campus.

All of which brings me to the question of the “light rail.” First, as an engineer, let me assure you, it is not a light rail. It is a train. “Light rail” suggests a streetcar. It is not a streetcar. It’s a train barreling down Exposition Boulevard in both directions on two sets of tracks with electrical cables running overhead. The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s plans are for a rail line that extends from downtown’s Seventh Street Metro Center to Culver City, and eventually all the way to the beach.

If you look at an aerial photo of Los Angeles what you see is a vast expanse of gray, gray, gray. The city is paved from one end to the other. However, in the middle of that aerial map there is a big green space, comprising USC and Exposition Park. These 320 acres constitute one of the great urban green spaces in the nation, with billions of dollars’ worth of educational and expository institutions that have local, regional, and national significance. This area is home to the California Science Center, the California African American Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Coliseum, a historic rose garden that rivals any in the country, the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Mosque and its soon-to-be-built library and community youth center, Hebrew Union College, Mount St. Mary’s College, the refurbished Shrine Auditorium, and, of course, USC.

For years we have been striving to create cohesive, seamless links between USC and Exposition Park. But the MTA’s railroad would cut us in two if it is placed above ground. In one swift move, a renaissance of green space could be undone.

If we must have a railway running down Exposition Boulevard, we should build it below ground. It’s quite a bit more expensive to sink it underground, but I think it’s worth it. It would be a tragedy to bifurcate the only large piece of green space left in this part of the City of Los Angeles. If the railway were below ground, it would be much less intrusive and much less dangerous. Running the line below grade would help forestall three potential, perhaps inevitable, calamities: pedestrian deaths, the erection of unsightly fences on either side of the railway, and an artificial division that gives rise to a good side of the tracks and a bad side of the tracks, as we’ve seen occur in so many towns and cities in America.

In our efforts thus far to have the railway underground, we have won only a partial victory. The struggle is not over. Stay tuned.

As USC evolves into a residential university, downtown Los Angeles is also evolving. Downtown now has a residential core. Since 1999, 7,000 new residential units have been built in the downtown area. Another 20,000 units are either under construction or planned. And many of these new units will be purchased or rented by faculty, staff, graduate students, and, to a lesser degree, undergraduates.

Downtown is also developing an arts and entertainment corridor, which includes the hundreds of artistic and entertainment events produced each year by USC students and faculty. Our residential students in particular will benefit from USC’s new Arts and Humanities Initiative, announced last fall by Provost Nikias. The Arts and Humanities Initiative will provide multiple opportunities for engaging students outside the classroom. Already 75 faculty from across all disciplines have proposed projects related to the Arts and Humanities Initiative. This initiative adds a rich, new dimension to the concerts, plays, art exhibitions, and public lectures which USC already provides. I believe that, taken together, USC’s five professional schools in the arts – Architecture, Cinema-Television, Fine Arts, Music, and Theatre – constitute the strongest overall offering in the arts of any university in the nation. Showcasing our arts programs will make the University Park campus even more attractive to residential students.

Taking the Pulse of the Keck School of Medicine
It is very unusual, and perhaps even unprecedented, for me to concentrate a large part of my annual address on a single academic unit. But today I’m going to break with tradition and focus the balance of my speech on the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

There’s an old joke among university presidents: When your medical school gets the sniffles, the rest of your university can easily get pneumonia. This old joke is based on the fact that the dollars involved in operating a medical school are huge compared to the budgets of any other unit in the university. Nonetheless, I believe the Keck School of Medicine is, and will continue to be, a very important asset for the whole university.

There are three parts to the mission of the Keck School: teaching, research, and patient care. The Keck School’s teaching mission is in great shape. The applicant pool for our M.D. program is the largest and strongest in our history. We have 6,000 applications to date, ahead of where we were at this same time last year. The Keck School has expanded its M.D. class size by 13 percent, from 160 to 180 students per class. The Keck School’s new curriculum is now fully accredited, and received especially laudatory comments from the accrediting team. Indeed, this new curriculum is a model of excellence for learner-centered education, which is one of the primary pillars of our strategic plan.

The Keck School enjoys a strong medical residency program, which is, in and of itself, an important part of the school’s teaching mission. Eight hundred fifty of our residents and fellows are fully funded by the county. In addition, a growing number of fellows and residents are funded by Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, USC University Hospital, and the Keck School’s physician practice plans. The M.D./Ph.D. program with Caltech is going very well. The program is now completely integrated between the two universities, and involves about 45 students at any given point in time. Also, the Keck School has seen tremendous growth in graduate education at the master’s and Ph.D. levels.

The second major mission of the Keck School is research, and this area is also in great shape. We have recently invested hundreds of millions of dollars in constructing three state-of-the-art research facilities on the Health Sciences campus, which together comprise over 500,000 square feet of new research space. The recruiting of top-flight senior and junior scientists is going very well, with special emphasis being placed on stem cell research, neuroscience, cancer, and transplant biology.

Unlike its teaching and research programs, however, the health of the Keck School’s clinical programs is mixed. Some parts are going extremely well, and one part is very problematic.

First, the parts that are going well: Healthcare Consultation Center II is up and open for business; it is both a truly beautiful building and a model of clinical excellence. The new 600-bed county hospital, which will be staffed by USC medical faculty, will open in the fall of 2007. The new 280-bed CHLA replacement hospital will open in 2008. And the new University Hospital tower, which is being built by Tenet Healthcare Corporation, will open later this year.

So, with all this good news concerning the Keck School’s clinical programs, where is the problem? The problem is the USC University Hospital, which is owned and operated by Tenet. Relations between the Keck School and Tenet recently hit a new low, in large part because Tenet is once again embroiled in severe legal difficulties, which have led to yet another change in the executive management of Tenet. As a consequence, Tenet will waste hundreds of millions of dollars, and perhaps even a billion dollars or more, in fines, settlements, and judgments stemming from its morass of legal problems.

What is so heartbreaking here is that this squandering of assets could possibly have been avoided by the previous corporate management team, in which case the funds could have been spent on equipment and upgraded technologies throughout the Tenet hospital system.

So where do we go from here? First, we need to build a new and positive relationship with Tenet. We must stop blaming Tenet for simply complying with current government regulations. We need to work closely with Tenet to find appropriate ways in which University Hospital can provide mission support to the Keck School. Concomitantly, Tenet must meet its obligations to USC by bringing equipment and technology at University Hospital (including specialized nursing and technician teams) up to the level of UCLA and Stanford. After all, a first-class research hospital is necessary for attracting physician scientists who want to be heavily involved in clinical research, and especially in translational (i.e., bench to bedside) research.

Overall I’m very bullish on the Keck School, and I’m absolutely convinced that, under Dean Brian Henderson’s leadership, we can meet the challenges facing our medical school. For example, we need to create a stable and sustainable funding base for the Keck School of Medicine. This will require a great deal of teamwork and lots of changes in the way we do business, including much more interdisciplinary work among the Health Sciences campus, the University Park campus, and Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

Another challenge involves fundraising for the Keck School. The school has set a goal for itself of raising $2 billion in philanthropic support by 2010, and I’m happy to report that we are already more than halfway toward that goal.

Then too, we expect to open a small research park on land contiguous to the Keck School by 2009. This park is designed to attract entrepreneurs, and established companies as well, who believe their own R&D programs will benefit from being in the middle of a research-based medical school.

And finally, we have developed a landscape and hardscape plan for the entire Health Sciences campus, which will begin to reflect the attention to aesthetics and connectedness that is so apparent on the University Park campus.

All of us as faculty, irrespective of our home schools and departments, need to understand why the Keck School is so important to USC’s future as a research university. Fifty years from now people will look back on the current era as the golden age of research in the biological and life-related sciences. We can expect that many of the breakthroughs in research in the decades ahead will occur in medical schools, and most especially in interdisciplinary programs that bring together medical scientists with faculty in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

Embracing Change
Let me conclude by noting that change is in the air. In my 45 years as an academician, I can’t recall a time when there was so much pressure on universities to change their ways without abandoning their core values. Whether it be medical research or artistic creation or scholarship in the humanities, all of us are being asked to focus our efforts more on our students, and on solving society’s problems.

Of course we must aggressively resist any effort to prostitute the university or compromise our ethical principles. But at the same time, let us not resist change simply because it is uncomfortable or somewhat disconcerting. Rather, let us embrace the possibility of changing in ways that will make us even more valuable to those whom we now serve, and as well to those whom we will serve in the decades ahead.