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Annual Address to the Faculty

By Steven B. Sample, President
University of Southern California
Jaunary 26, 2010

Each year since 1991 I have given a formal address to you, my faculty colleagues, focusing on some of the year’s highlights and on USC’s achievements as well as its challenges. Since this is my final opportunity to give this annual address to you as your president, I want to extend the view beyond just this year. I should like to spend a few moments reflecting on what we have been able to accomplish together over the course of 19 years.

In embarking on this reflection, I am reminded of a remark once made by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, to wit: “Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen.” So, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll do my best to remember what I have actually seen, and what you and I have seen together.

When I came to USC as president, I came also as a student – someone who wanted and needed to listen and learn about this particular institution which I had been called to lead. I didn’t have a detailed notion of what USC needed to do in order to climb higher in the ranks of the nation’s research universities. Of course I knew that USC had to recruit better students, grow our endowment, attract and retain the best faculty, and have good relations with our neighbors. But those were at best very general ideas.

So I arrived on campus with an open mind, and I encountered something really wonderful – namely, a faculty who were willing to cut me some slack. My colleagues in the professoriate here at USC were willing to give me some running room. I never felt stymied or hemmed in. On the contrary, I felt supported and encouraged. I found faculty members who were eager to put their personal energy and creativity into accelerating USC’s upward trajectory.

I have also had the benefit over these 19 years of working with three outstanding provosts: Neal Pings, who guided me during my first two years at USC before leaving to lead the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C.; Lloyd Armstrong, who served from 1993 to 2005, and who was the principal author of our strategic plan; and Max Nikias, who has been our provost for the past four years and who is one of the most effective and creative academic administrators I’ve ever known.

I was very lucky to have had Dennis Dougherty as my chief financial officer; he was, quite frankly, the best university CFO in the country. Martha Harris and Jane Pisano and I worked extremely well together in advancing USC’s reputation both locally and nationally. Alan Kreditor and I had great success as the “odd couple” in academic fundraising. And there were dozens of other gifted administrators who contributed to our success, including especially our academic deans, and also Joe Allen, Katharine Harrington, Steve Ryan, Mike Garrett, Michael Jackson, Todd Dickey, Anne Westfall, and Dennis Cornell, to name just a few.

Then too, I was fortunate to be heading up a university with a well-functioning Board of Trustees who truly had the university’s best interests at heart and who were led by five superb chairmen: Forrest Shumway, Mal Currie, John Argue, Stanley Gold, and Ed Roski. And I was fortunate to have come to a university with loyal, hardworking staff.

Kathryn and I also realized early on how fortunate we were to be part of a university where the term family had real meaning, where a sense of belonging and of strong, lifelong bonds was a reality, especially among our alumni. And we were fortunate to have some very bright students at the undergraduate level and in our graduate and professional programs.

Faculty Were Key
The key people in bringing our collective dreams to fruition were the faculty – that is, the people who actually do the teaching, research, public service, and patient care. If the faculty at any great university are fired up, if they are excited about the institution and its direction and potential, there is simply no limit to what that university can achieve. But if the faculty are not fired up, not much happens no matter how hard the president or anyone else may try to make it happen.

It was clear to me at the outset that we needed to find some goals and aspirations about which the faculty, and I as the president, could get excited. And we found them. Initially we set our sights on four goals, to which others were added in subsequent years. These goals included, first and foremost, strengthening every aspect of undergraduate education; second, developing our Health Sciences campus into a world-renowned center for clinical care and research; third, recruiting more of the finest doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows; and fourth, enhancing our service to the community, particularly in our immediate neighborhoods.

As our plans began to take shape, we were hit with a few setbacks: the L.A. riots of 1992, the Northridge earthquake, a severe recession in Southern California in the early 1990s, a dramatic shortfall in tuition revenue, our provost left for Washington, and our football team went 3 and 8. The shortfall in tuition revenue forced us late in 1991 to eliminate 800 positions at USC. Three hundred of those positions were eliminated by combining and collapsing vacancies, but 500 of these positions were filled with flesh-and-blood people whom we had to lay off. It was very painful, but absolutely necessary in order to restore the university to financial health.

Surprisingly, the cumulative effect of these setbacks was, in fact, galvanizing. They got everyone’s attention. We realized just how challenging it was going to be not only to achieve our lofty new goals, but also simply to survive.

But, as in a good family, everyone rallied round. Our budget problems engendered a cooperative spirit at USC. I want to point out just how different that cooperative impulse at USC was from what we’re seeing at so many other universities around the country that are suffering financially. Various members of those university communities prefer to find a scapegoat, and engage in endless finger-pointing and seeking out targets to blame.

One of the major reasons for our success at USC, then, was unity of purpose, which made it much easier to implement new programs and new approaches. Another reason for our success was strategic focus, because we knew we couldn’t be all things to all people.

But it wasn’t enough merely to articulate those broad – though important – goals. We had to determine within each of those broad goals what specifically USC could do better than our academic competitors. So for my first few years in office, my colleagues and I kept looking for what we could offer that our aspirational competitors – such as Stanford and Harvard – either could not or would not offer. All of the university’s leaders – faculty, deans, and senior administrators – wanted to go where USC’s competitors were not going. We wanted to be in the top ranks academically, but we didn’t want to be the Harvard of the west or the Stanford of the south. We all understood that you can’t copy your way to excellence; rather, true excellence can be achieved only through original thinking and unconventional approaches. Consequently, one of our guiding questions was: What can we do that differentiates us from the competition?

We observed and analyzed USC’s unique strengths as well as the climate of higher education nationally, and then we determined which opportunities we would seize that our peers and competitors couldn’t or wouldn’t seize. We were not trying to be different for the sake of being different. Rather, our goal was to be better. So, the question became: What could we, or what do we, do better than our competitors?

One of the ways we knew we could do better was in formulating a strategic plan that was succinct and had only a few broad priorities. We knew that the strategic plans of most other universities were hundreds of pages long with dozens of priorities. But thanks to Lloyd Armstrong, our strategic plan was only 15 pages long and focused on just four initiatives: undergraduate education, interdisciplinary research and teaching, internationalization, and the exploitation of our location in L.A. The clarity and brevity of our strategic plan allowed people at every level of the university to understand what was expected of them individually and collectively.

Another decision we made at that time was to resurrect merit-based financial aid in order to attract more of the top students away from our competitors. This tactic was essential to our broad goal of enhancing the quality of undergraduate education.

And it worked. A few statistics help tell the story: In 1991 we had 33 National Merit Scholars in the freshman class. This past fall we had 232 National Merit Scholars as freshmen. Over that same period annual freshman applications more than tripled, from just above 10,000 to 36,000, and average SAT scores rose dramatically, so that today our SAT scores are higher than those at most other research universities. Moreover, USC climbed an unprecedented 25 places in the national rankings of research universities. As a consequence of these factors, USC is now one of the most selective universities in the country.

Also early in the 1990s we made the contrarian decision to reduce the target size of our freshman class. Now, this made no sense at all to most people. Remember, USC was having severe budgetary problems. We needed more tuition revenue, not less. But our theory was that if we enrolled fewer students who were better academically, we would be able to retain more students as sophomores, juniors, and seniors, thereby replacing the tuition revenue lost by virtue of our having a smaller freshman class. Our graduation rate in 1991 was an abysmal 58 percent, so we had nowhere to go but up. Today our graduation rate is 88 percent. We need to drive that rate even higher, of course, in order to better compete with our aspirational peers. But a 30-point gain over less than two decades is nothing short of phenomenal.

Another original idea was to encourage undergraduates to pursue depth with breadth by taking majors and minors in widely disparate fields, thereby creating a kind of modern-day Renaissance education that stretches the student’s mind a long distance across the intellectual landscape. One of the appealing aspects of this concept was that a student couldn’t easily combine disparate fields of study at our aspirational competitors. Thus, we were offering something original and unique to our undergraduates.

A story I recently heard about one of our freshman applicants really struck me in this regard. This young woman had an outstanding high school record, near-perfect SAT scores, was an athlete and a musician, was president of her class, and did extensive community service work. She applied to 12 distinguished universities, and was accepted by all 12. She and her parents then visited all of the 12 campuses that had admitted her. This young woman wanted to be a doctor, and that meant she needed to take a pre-med curriculum that was heavily weighted to the life sciences. But she also loved the cello, which was a big part of her life in high school. She wanted to attend a university where she could get an excellent pre-med education and continue her studies in cello performance. Eleven of those 12 universities said, Look, kid, that’s ridiculous. If you want to pursue cello performance, we can help you do that. If you want to be a doctor, we can certainly help you do that. But there’s no way we can work out scheduling or anything else that would allow you to pursue a major in pre-med and a minor in cello performance. But the 12th university, our university, was the only place that told her: Absolutely, of course you can do pre-med and cello performance here. And, lo and behold, she ended up at USC.

I credit our faculty with making depth with breadth, and our concomitant Renaissance Scholars program, such a success and a wonderful, distinctive feature of a USC education. One of the keys to this success is that you, our faculty, created more than 130 minors, which we believe represents the largest and broadest array of minors of any university in the country. There were 79 Renaissance Scholars in the program’s first graduating class in 2000. Last year there were 215, and we’ve now had a total of nearly 1,900 of these broadly based scholars finish their degrees at USC.

Each year we witness new ways in which our undergraduates are creatively combining disparate majors and minors, thereby unlocking that unpredictable release of intellectual energy and change in perspective which occur when two widely separated fields of thought are brought together within one mind. Of all of USC’s initiatives during my tenure as president, I’m proudest of the Renaissance Scholars program and our emphasis on depth with breadth.

Yet another opportunity that presented itself early on involved capitalizing on our location in Los Angeles as a rich asset, not a liability. And we wanted to take advantage of our location in the city which is the de facto capital of the Pacific Rim. Here again, our faculty have been the key to establishing global collaborations, recruiting excellent students and faculty from around the world, and encouraging our students to expand their horizons by studying abroad.

Healthy Competition
In all of these cases, and in many more than I could possibly mention here, we identified our advantages relative to our competitors, and we worked hard and quickly to build not a copy but a genuine original: the University of Southern California.

Once we began to have tangible success – for instance, once faculty began to see that we could in fact successfully compete for more and more of the best students in the United States and the world, and once our faculty saw that it was possible for USC to compete successfully for more and more major research grants, and once our faculty realized that research at USC could lead to a Nobel Prize – many faculty members began to get really excited. It was then that I could see there was no limit to what we could achieve.

I heard someone recently describe me as a very competitive person. I don’t deny it, although for me competition is more akin to something a Formula One race-car driver once said: “I love my competitors; I just hate to lose.” At USC, however, the president isn’t the only one who is competitive. The trustees, the officers, the deans, the department chairs, and the faculty have all developed a healthy competitive spirit vis-à-vis our institutional peers. All of us understand that it’s our responsibility to meet our rivals head-on, and not simply to engage them but to prevail.

I think being a good competitor can be fun. And to the extent that I and other leaders at USC have been able to engender that spirit of competition throughout the institution, we have seen that it pays enormous dividends. For one thing, this sense of healthy competition helped transform our deans and faculty into outstanding fundraisers, and raisers not just of private-sector gifts, but of government grants as well.

So far as I know, fundraising is something we do better than the vast majority of our competitors. And when it comes to fundraising, you have to believe deeply in your mission and in the importance of your enterprise. And you can’t be afraid to lose. Our greatest asset in fundraising has been those highly motivated faculty who can attract the largest grants, the best donors, the best students, and the best postdocs from around the world. Make no mistake, if a university wants to recruit the best students, it must have excellent faculty.

At the heart of our efforts, then, are excellent faculty who are highly motivated and who believe in the goals and mission of the university. To my mind, USC has truly excelled in this regard over the last 19 years.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the pivotal role faculty have played in our most recent ambition, which is to have one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. When the USC University Hospital and the Norris Cancer Hospital were under corporate ownership, the working conditions for our doctors and medical staff became very difficult. Nonetheless, many members of our medical faculty kept working and believing and guiding the university until eventually we took the bold and salutary step of purchasing those two hospitals. Here again, our faculty and administrative leadership saw an opportunity to do something well, to make our mark. We calculated the risk, and then seized the opportunity.

I could list many other programs and initiatives that over the years have demonstrated how effective it has been to identify something that makes us special, something that USC can do better than others – from cinematic arts and communications to the B.A./M.D. program, from interdisciplinary collaborations in biomedical engineering to raising funds from faculty and staff through our Good Neighbors Campaign in order to help improve our neighborhoods.

It is my profound hope that as USC goes forward, we will keep asking our signature question and keep finding answers to it: What can we do better than anybody else in the world?

The Future
So let me shift now from a time-lapse glimpse of where we’ve gone together to where we now find ourselves going together on the path ahead. I would not be so presumptuous as to offer definitive advice to our next president. I think it’s extremely important that he or she be allowed to set a unique and original direction for USC, just as I was allowed to do some 19 years ago. However, I do want to offer this admonition: The worst thing our new president could do would be to arrive at USC and say, “Under Sample it’s been pedal to the metal, drive, drive, drive; push, push, push. We need a couple of years to kick back, take a rest, and consolidate our gains.” To my mind that would be a horrible mistake. It’s when you have your competitors on the run that you should push the hardest.

In the competitive climate of American higher education, you’re either moving ahead of the competition or you’re falling behind. You’re never going to just stay even with the competition; that is, you can never simply call “time out” and conserve your present position.

The British writer G. K. Chesterton made an interesting observation about this point. Chesterton said:

Conservatism is based on the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of changes. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

Most people think that an organization can reach a goal and then take a breather and coast for a while. The truth is that you have to be continually working, constantly adjusting, always adapting. So I would hope that, under our new president, we would continue our fervent commitment to competitiveness, our sincere commitment to taking on worthy competitors.

But, most important, as we go forward, we must constantly renew the spirit of innovation and calculated risk-taking for which USC is known around the world.

We are making our unique mark on the higher-education landscape by offering opportunities, and combinations of strengths, that other universities cannot or will not do. We have the potential in dozens of areas to solidify our reputation for excellence and enhance it.

Let me close by relating a little story from last November 1, the day I formally announced my retirement. Throughout that morning, lots of people from the media called or came by my office to talk with me. One of them, a reporter from KPCC-FM, a local NPR affiliate, wanted to take my photo to post on the station’s web site. He considered various places to pose me in my office – next to a little statue of Tommy Trojan, or next to my bookshelves, where there was a football helmet signed by Coach Carroll and Mike Garrett, and a shofar – the ram’s horn that is sounded in certain Jewish religious services. And, as I am wont to always look for unique strengths, I played the shofar for him and told him, “I think I’m the only Episcopalian shofar player in Los Angeles.”

But then I said to the reporter: “If you want to take a picture of me standing next to something that is really, really meaningful to me, let’s go over to this wall.” There, hanging in a frame, is a resolution in fine calligraphy from the USC Academic Senate. It was presented to me by the Academic Senate in 2000, and the gist of all the beautiful language of this resolution is “as our president you’ve led us well, we’re grateful for your service.”

It means so much to me to have received this recognition from my faculty colleagues. Four years ago Kathryn, likewise, received a formal commendation from the USC Academic Senate honoring her work as first lady of USC. For Kathryn and me, being allowed to play a part in leading this beautiful and noble institution for almost two decades has been a wonderful gift for which we shall always be grateful. For both of us, the presidency of USC has been far more than just a job – rather, it has been a calling, an all-consuming passion to move this university ahead farther and faster than any other university in the United States. Thanks to all of you, we have done exactly that. Kathryn and I look forward to continuing to work with you to advance USC, and we are delighted that we will remain your colleagues and fellow Trojans in the years ahead. May God bless the University of Southern California! Fight On!