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The President’s Leadership Retreat

A Culture of Caring
by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
November 15, 2007

Good morning and welcome to our annual President’s Leadership Retreat. This retreat is a wonderful opportunity for university leaders to get together and discuss ways in which we can improve this university.

The topic of this year’s retreat is “A Culture of Caring.” I doubt that any of us wake up in the morning and get ready for work explicitly thinking, “Well, it’s off to campus today for another day of caring.” But think about whom and what we deal with every day: students, our colleagues on the staff and faculty, the people who report to us, donors and prospective donors, patients, parents, alumni, research subjects, prospective students, the children in our daycare programs, our neighbors. There are so many people who need us, who demand and deserve our attention, our concern, our best work, our creativity, our brainpower, our unique skills – in other words, our care.

In the university’s Code of Ethics, the word “care” is used three times. In each instance the context is relationships. According to the Code of Ethics, the relationships between individual students and individual professors are “especially sacred and deserve special care.” And elsewhere in the Code of Ethics we are enjoined to be ethical stewards of the university’s resources and the resources of those who are “entrusted to our care.” Again, the Code of Ethics states, “We are attentive to the well-being of students and others who are entrusted to our care or who are especially vulnerable.”

The topics that we will explore later this morning in our breakout sessions reflect the complexity of our culture of caring. We have sessions on the community, on troubled students, on conflicts of interest, admission and financial aid, earthquake preparedness, and our University Park campus’s master plan. In each case we are in essence focusing on relationships, and how we tend to these relationships.

We are, without question, in the people-building business. No matter what your specific duties or your department may be, the ultimate beneficiaries of your work are real live human beings. Yet if we step back and take in the whole view, if we look through the wide-angle lens, what we’re really caring for is the University of Southern California, this enduring entity that is more than the sum of its parts, that was here before we were born, and that will be here long after we are gone. In the end, each of us – no matter our specific job description – is a steward of this university. Each of us is responsible for its well-being, its mission, and its reputation.

We have spent many years building this university’s reputation. Some of you here have devoted yourselves to this endeavor for two, three, or even four decades. Reputation is an intangible thing. It is a result of perception. But reputation and perception are based on tangibles such as the quality of teaching, the innovations coming from our research, the way a parent is treated on the phone, the attention we pay to a donor’s passions and interests, the quality of care a patient receives, how we share the good news of USC’s successes and milestones, the guidance we give a student, the concern we show to our neighbors. Those are tangible, observable attitudes and actions.

We succeed in building our reputation only to the extent that each of us truly cares about what we’re doing and truly cares about advancing the mission of USC. And what is that mission? I never tire of repeating it: “The central mission of the University of Southern California is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.” A lofty mission it is, and a good one.

Notice how dramatically this mission differs from that of a corporation. The chief purpose of any corporation is to make money for its shareholders. Certainly, along the way the company may contribute to the improvement of society as a whole – in technology, for instance, or drug therapies or energy efficiency. But the term says it all: a profit-seeking company. Making money is their raison d’être. But the values of the university are not those of a profit-seeking corporation. It’s not my intention to belittle all the good things profit-seeking corporations do, including all the good things they do for USC. But the university is different. The mission of the University of Southern California is focused not on the short term or on financial returns. Because universities are not profit-seeking entities, we cannot judge our effectiveness by profit margins.

Of course we do care about improving our results every year in every way – more research funding, more students of exceptional caliber, more outstanding faculty, higher alumni participation, better retention rates, more patients, better facilities, more donations. But uncompromised values – not profits – are what are crucial for universities. Values such as free inquiry, mutual respect and tolerance, common bonds, an entrepreneurial and creative spirit, excellence in teaching and research, public service, ethical behavior, the quest for knowledge as well as the quest for – again quoting our Role and Mission statement – “wisdom and insight, love of truth and beauty, moral discernment, understanding of self, and respect and appreciation for others.”

These uncompromised values require us to care about the long haul. But they concomitantly require us to care about the quality and purpose of the work we do today. And the work in which we are engaged – this truly noble and ennobling work – requires us to cultivate a culture of caring.

Although I have no hard research to support it, I believe that the reason most of us have chosen to work for USC, to spend most of our waking hours advancing this university rather than, say, Company XYZ, is because we get “soul-rewards” from it. We do feel as though we are part of something greater than ourselves, something that will endure for the ages. We do feel that we are advancing human beings and society as a whole.

So here we have this self-selecting group of people who work hard every day caring about people, and caring about USC, because they have made a deliberate decision to affiliate themselves with this university. Here we have a body of people who, for the most part, are predisposed to caring, and caring about things that count.

The letters I receive bear this out. I receive and answer hundreds of letters each year. Yes, I do get complaints. I can assure you that letter-writers and e-mailers are quite eloquent when they are upset. They use lots of great adjectives, such as “infuriated,” “astounded,” “dismayed,” “appalling,” “insensitive,” “rude.” (Of course, some of these complaints are about fan behavior at football games!)

But all in all, I receive many more letters commending us than I do complaining about us. Every week I get letters from people who are grateful for the polite and attentive treatment they received from a staff member. I get letters from grateful patients who were treated with sensitivity and compassion. Letters come in complimenting us on our efficient processes, our attention to detail, our responsiveness.

I received a letter early this semester from the parents of a young woman from the East Coast who had applied for freshman admission to USC and had been denied. No, it wasn’t a letter of protest or appeal. Rather, it was a letter complimenting our admissions staff on their attentive, respectful, and cordial manner at every step of what is for all families the pretty arduous trail toward college admissions. As you can imagine, that letter made my day. And I get lots of other letters that really make my day.

This is not to say we’re perfect or even practically perfect, like Mary Poppins. We can always do better. We can never afford the complacency that comes from too much back-patting. But as I said before, I believe that the people who work for USC, and you as our administrative leaders, are predisposed to caring.

Our partnerships in the community are just one example of caring. Our focus on community outreach and service is not entirely prompted by pure altruism. It is motivated in large part by enlightened self-interest. What is good for our neighbors is good for USC. We want to live, work, and study in a thriving environment.

I know that many of you volunteer in our neighborhoods, or you lead our outreach efforts, and I think most all of you here today contribute generously to our Good Neighbors Campaign – indeed, many of you dedicate one percent or more of your hard-earned salary to Good Neighbors.

Consider how dramatically different USC’s model of community engagement is from that of the venerable old universities upon which higher education was initially modeled. Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, were built literally to exclude. They set themselves off geographically and psychologically from their eponymous cities. The architectural model for universities was the quadrangle. This protected the students and faculty from the outside while creating a residential, safe, and congenial environment within. Students and masters were “Gown”: they literally wore scholarly gowns by which they could distinguish themselves from “Town,” that is, from those who lived in the surrounding community.

USC of course is different. Geographically our two campuses bracket the center of the city. Spatially, we flow easily outward into our neighborhoods and into the city – no moats and fortress-like walls. Psychologically, we do not distance ourselves from “Town.” In fact, some of our closest and most caring relationships are with neighborhood school teachers, children, parents, business owners. They consider our campuses their campuses. Many of our employees live in our neighborhoods. And we consider it a great asset to be connected geographically to the arts, culture, and education triangle that stretches from Dodger Stadium to Exposition Park to East L.A.

Still, however, we aren’t New York University, and we don’t want to be. We don’t wish to be largely indistinguishable from the city that surrounds us. We have worked deliberately and tirelessly to make our University Park campus an urban oasis. We do want to demarcate a special zone that is uniquely USC, that is a unique and appropriate scholarly environment. The same kind of efforts to beautify and unify are underway on our Health Sciences campus, and I think we’re making good progress there.

Like Oxford and Cambridge, we do want to nurture a residential atmosphere for our students, where living and learning are integrated into a beautiful environment conducive to reflection, study, and conversation, which are principal ingredients of a good educational experience. Our staff in admissions tell me that one of the most surprising things that prospective students and their families find when they explore USC is that our University Park campus is so lush, serene, and beautiful – a real urban oasis. Especially those from out-of-state – they simply hadn’t realized that USC has a beautiful urban campus with a small-college feel.

As you know our University Park campus is becoming increasingly residential. This has been one of the most significant trends over the last three or so years. I couldn’t be more pleased. A cohesive campus creates community, and with community comes learning, comes understanding, and comes caring.

Let me just emphasize for a moment that those of you here who toil in the fields of our technical infrastructure and of our physical plant operate in areas that are among the most caring and people-oriented in the entire university. What you do day in and day out amounts to real caring for real people. Our campuses are as complex as cities, and you keep us humming, you keep things outfitted, up-to-date, and attractive. All of us owe you a great deal of thanks.

As I said at the outset, each of us is, without question, in the people-building business. Relationships are what it’s all about. No matter your specific duties or your department, the ultimate beneficiaries of your work are real human beings. And that is why – whether you work with our neighbors, our students, our colleagues, parents, alumni, patients, or donors – our collective mandate is to cultivate a culture of caring.

Now, I realize there are lapses in our culture of caring. I’m not looking at the university through rose-colored glasses. Every one of us here knows or has encountered an employee who doesn’t care, who is lackadaisical and unprofessional, who shirks his duties, and who doesn’t understand or share the big picture of the university’s mission and values. Worse, many of us have known someone on our staff who is downright unethical. Still, I’d say that most of the complaints I receive – and remember, there are not many – stem from the failure of someone in charge to cultivate a culture of caring, to set the tone and reinforce the mission. That’s the duty of each of us as administrative leaders, as managers, and as department heads. We must set the tone. We must reinforce the mission. We must nurture and grow our culture of caring.

We are fortunate at USC to have an overarching metaphor that inspires and bolsters our mandate of caring. And that metaphor is the Trojan Family. Let me quote from our Role and Mission statement: “An extraordinary closeness and willingness to help one another are evident among USC students, alumni, faculty, and staff; indeed, for those within its compass the Trojan Family is a genuinely supportive community.” Lots of colleges use some sort of family metaphor. So do some corporations. But here at USC it is real – not merely mythology, not merely hyperbole – but real. The bonds among those who have had their lives touched by USC – whether students, alumni, parents, patients, staff, or faculty – are indeed extraordinary. I can’t explain how it came to be. I’ve reflected a lot on this Trojan Family phenomenon for the past 17 years. But like so many cultural phenomena of great value, the Trojan Family defies precise explanation. Our response, then, is to behold and be glad of this “genuinely supportive community.”

Later this morning, as we take part in the breakout sessions – all of which focus on real issues, on those tangibles I mentioned earlier – let us keep in mind that USC’s culture of caring entails an implicit promise to care about our relationships, to care for one another and for those entrusted to our care. This is one of USC’s most sacred promises. And keeping our promises is critical to the quality, the endurance, and the reputation of this university.

Every day we are asked to be deliberate and patient in caring for the multifaceted relationships that constitute our university and the place of our university in the wider world. We are in the people-building business. Our mission is about individuals, and yet ours is an enterprise which transcends any one individual. Ours is an enterprise that will serve the best interests of society as a whole for many years in the future. I am privileged to be the president of this university, guided and supported by such gifted and motivated leaders as all of you here. I hope our time together will be inspiring for all of us as we help build up this wonderful institution for today and for the centuries to come.