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3 of 6 Stories

New Life for USC
Prolific fundraising keys big changes in recent years

By Kay Mills
Los Angeles

The University of Southern California is on a roll. It concluded a nine-year, $2.85 billion fundraising campaign-the most successful ever in higher education-in 2003. The average SAT score for its entering freshman class is now higher than it is at public cross-town rival UCLA or at the University of California flagship in Berkeley. And its football team has won or shared the national championship two years in a row.

"There's a certain level of energy," said Ann Crigler, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "It's great to be here." Or as Andy Pitts, a sophomore from Xenia, Ohio, who transferred from the University of Pittsburgh last fall, put it: "You're part of something bigger than yourself when you're here. Everyone's excited to be here, and that's a completely different attitude."

USC? The butt of jokes two decades ago as the University of Second Choice or the University of Spoiled Children, everybody's "safety school" in case they failed to win admission elsewhere? Why the buzz?

For answers, many point to USC President Steve Sample, who arrived on campus from the presidency at SUNY Buffalo in 1991, and Lloyd Armstrong, the provost he hired from Johns Hopkins University in 1993. "Steve Sample has an amazing capacity to get people to write checks. He's a brilliant fundraiser," said history professor Philippa Levine, a former president of USC's Academic Senate. Four of the gifts to USC were $100 million or more, and half of the donors in the campaign were not USC alumni. Sample also has been very smart about hiring people who are very good at their jobs, Levine added.

 
Journalism professor Felix Gutierrez, absent from USC for 15 years, returned to find "a campus that was much more ambitious academically."
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
 

Armstrong has been "as important as Steve in terms of changes at USC," Levine said, citing as an example his hands-on concern about tenure decisions. "These are the most important decisions a university makes-it's very important to the quality of the faculty. So you have a rare combination of Steve's fundraising ability and Lloyd's very rigorous vision of what a research university should be doing."

However, Armstrong stepped down on June 1 and has been replaced as provost by the dean of the engineering school, C.L. Max Nikias. The new provost immediately put his own stamp on the office by naming six new top staff members, including Barry Glassner, professor of sociology, as executive vice provost.

There is some uncertainty on campus about the significance of these changes. Another source of campus concern has been Sample's health. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease four years ago but "there has been no progress in the disease" since its diagnosis, the president said in an interview.

Felix Gutierrez, professor of journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, taught at the university 15 years ago, left for a post as senior vice president of the Freedom Forum journalism foundation, and returned to campus in 2003. "The biggest change I saw was the attitude of the university toward itself, its own identity," he said. "I came back to a campus that was much more ambitious academically, that had much better resources, and that was using those resources to address the central research and teaching functions of the university."

 
Lloyd Armstrong, USC provost from 1993 until June 1 of this year, is credited with enhancing the university's academic reputation.
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
 
USC doubtless has been helped in its efforts because it is not a public institution, hit by the budget cuts that have affected public higher education in many states. "A private university can be a little more nimble than a public university," said Robert Atwell, president emeritus of the American Council on Education. "It doesn't answer to a legislature or a state coordinating board. Public universities are generally parts of systems these days, and often the systems have to approve new programs." Still, Atwell added, "it's a little like moving a cemetery or herding cats to accomplish change at a university."

Although Sample and Armstrong are given much of the credit for USC's recent rise, several previous presidents, especially Norman Topping, president from 1958 to 1970, helped lay the foundation for this success. Topping oversaw an ambitious master plan for academic enrichment and physical growth. More buildings went up on campus during his tenure as president than had been constructed in the previous 80 years.

USC's ambitions have led it to reduce the size of its freshman classes, thus raising admissions standards; move the core general education requirements back into the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, to restore rigor to those classes; undertake hiring 100 senior faculty members for that college; urge students to minor in subjects unrelated to their majors; stress interdisciplinary teaching and research; increase diversity among the student body and faculty; and co-sponsor many programs in the immediate neighborhood.

No one would say that Eden has been reached. While USC's endowment has grown to $2.4 billion, it is still considerably smaller than schools it now views as its competition, such as Stanford and Harvard, smaller even than Columbia or Duke. People attempting interdisciplinary research encounter departmental budgeting barriers. Many faculty members believe the library is not what it should be. Others say there is still insufficient faculty diversity. Despite campus police patrols on university grounds and in the neighborhood beyond, students sometimes still are victims of crime. And neighborhood activists decry USC's lack of student housing, which they say is boosting rents around the campus out of reach for low-income people there.

USC has long been known for training many of southern California's doctors, dentists, educators and lawyers, but the reputation of its undergraduate program lagged badly behind the professional schools. "We didn't take our own education seriously in 1990," Armstrong said. Students could take courses elsewhere-say, a community college in Santa Monica-and still get a USC degree. "We had to ask ourselves, were we prepared to be really serious about our undergraduate education?"

To build quality, he added, "We had to change almost everything we were doing." One of the first steps was to move the core general education requirements-two science and technology courses, two humanities and two social science courses-into the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Previously, many of the colleges had offered English courses or had their own general education requirements because the dollars followed the students. Many of these offerings were weak.

While the fight over moving the courses was a hard one, it was about money, not philosophy, Armstrong said. "We phased in this switch over three years and told the schools they were going to have to learn to make money" some other way-by offering continuing professional education programs, for example.

So many students now go on for advanced degrees that the bachelor's degree is "just a way station," Sample said. "So we turned the paradigm of minors on its head," encouraging students to minor in subjects far afield from their majors-"breadth with depth," he called it. Many students have found this appealing. For example, Andy Pitts is majoring in biomedical engineering but has a minor in music recording. Katie McGuire, a junior from New York City, majors in kinesiology and minors in French.

Students also pick USC because of its honors program, its top-rated cinema school, its location in a major city, or its Southern California weather. Clara Marshall, a junior from Houston majoring in English, said that in addition to the improving academics at USC, she was attracted by students' friendliness. She had visited the campus during spring break and "some guys showed my mom and me their dorm-we couldn't have gotten in otherwise-and they didn't have to do that. I got a big scholarship, and that definitely helped as well." Indeed, financial aid has grown to $326 million this academic year, with 47 percent of that coming from USC grants.

About a decade ago the entering freshman class numbered 3,200. But then the university decided to shrink the size of that class, something President Sample likes to call a "counterintuitive" move. "It's important to say that USC is now one of the most selective universities. Quite frankly, 30 years ago it wasn't," he said. "But now it's like somebody threw a toggle switch."

Even as USC was laying off 800 people in 1991, in the midst of a budget crisis, it started gradually reducing the number of freshmen. There were 2,750 students in this year's freshman class. What the university lost in tuition revenue at the front end, it gained later on, as more students stayed in school and more graduated. "It was a little bit risky," Sample conceded, but the move has paid off.

USC had been concerned that as SAT scores went up for entering freshmen-the average is now 1350 (out of a possible 1600)-the number of children and grandchildren of alumni enrolling might decrease. "The Trojan Family is very important to this institution," Armstrong said. "But in 1991 about ten percent of the freshmen were what we call 'scions'; today it's 20 percent." The more selective USC became, apparently, the more eager alumni children were to attend.

Students from elite high schools and prep schools now are coming to USC in greater numbers. Last year USC admitted 14 students from New Trier, an outstanding high school in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, after years of having few applicants from there; three enrolled last fall. In the past there were few applicants from the prestigious Lawrenceville Academy, near Princeton, N.J. But last year USC admitted 21 Lawrenceville graduates, and six enrolled.

University planners also "tried to think of things to attract students that our competitors-Stanford and Harvard-wouldn't do," Sample said. Each year USC reserves 35 to 37 slots in the freshman class, and guarantees those students seats in the medical school if they maintain a 3.3 grade point average and finish in the top 50 percent on the Medical College Admission Test. "It worked miracles for us," Sample said. "You don't always have to use those seats. Some decide they don't want to be doctors. Some don't want to go to our medical school. But on the front end, in recruiting, it was great."

 
USC graduate student Alejandro Venegas (second from left) is shown with his father Justo (left), mother Damiana (right) and 100-year-old grandmother Filipa Olanda (second from right).
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
 

However, the university's six-year graduation rate still lags behind Stanford's and Harvard's, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. After six years, 97.8 percent of members of the entering class of 1997 had graduated from Harvard, 94.1 percent from Stanford and 80.6 percent from USC.

In 2002, USC accelerated a decade-long effort to upgrade its College of Letters, Arts and Sciences by launching a campaign to recruit 100 new senior faculty. Sixty-eight have been hired so far. "We realized that we could not copy success stories of other institutions," said the college's dean, Joseph Aoun (pronounced Ah-OON). "We have to define our own identity." The college is concentrating on three areas: life sciences, globalization and urbanization issues, and language and culture. It also has created interdisciplinary centers to provide leadership in emerging fields or rethink established ones, Aoun said.

Collaborating with the Getty Research Institute, for example, the college has established a center on the history of collecting and displaying art, bringing Malcolm Baker from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as director. Antonio and Hanna Damasio are joining the USC faculty as professors of psychology and neuroscience, leaving the University of Iowa College of Medicine; they will head the newly created Institute for the Study of the Brain and Creativity.

USC's establishment, with the Huntington Library, of an institute on California and the West lured historian William Deverell away from California Institute of Technology to be its director. Part of USC's attraction was the opportunity to work with graduate students-there are none in Caltech's humanities program, Deverell said-"but the prime thing was the opportunity to be the founding director of this institute, an opportunity not to be passed up in my field. It's a chance to really build something" and work with two "very, very ambitious institutions in a critical time."

John Carlos Rowe, an expert on Henry James, was attracted to USC by a joint appointment in English and American Studies and Ethnicity after trying unsuccessfully for 20 years to institutionalize a similar program at UC Irvine. Another attraction for Rowe was the opportunity to teach freshmen. He had not done that for more than 20 years, and he likes the idea. "The feeling seems to be that this is a distinguished private university, and freshmen ought to be taught by all the faculty," Rowe said.

To help provide "the same level of expectations" for quality teaching from one college to the next, Armstrong, the former provost, said he sat in with the senior faculty members on the committee discussing tenure decisions and posed questions about the candidates. At USC, authority to make these decisions rests with the president but he has designated the provost to make them. Armstrong said that he occasionally turned someone down for tenure, but usually-although not always-it was someone whose name came forward with negative recommendations.

William G. Tierney, director of USC's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis and a former Academic Senate president, said the provost's attendance during these deliberations signaled the importance the university placed on awarding tenure. Armstrong's presence "pointed out that we did not want the status quo," Tierney said.

USC has changed physically as well as academically in the last 15 years. It remains an oasis of red-brick Italian Romanesque architecture and green grass in an inner-city neighborhood filled with Hispanic mercados, long-time African American residents and an influx of immigrants from Belize. But many of the streets that once ran through campus have been turned into walkways. There seems "to be a greater sense of an architectural plan for building instead of just people's individual dream buildings," said Felix Gutierrez.

Indeed, something is always under construction at USC, which has 28 projects either in the planning stages, under construction or recently completed. Ten of them are at its Health Sciences Campus, which is located seven miles from the main campus.

Among the biggest and most controversial projects is the $70 million Galen Center, which will house USC's basketball and volleyball teams and is due for completion in September 2006. Before construction started, the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice tried unsuccessfully to negotiate what it called a "community benefits package" with the university, including affordable housing and jobs for local residents. Carolyn Webb de Macias, USC vice president for external relations, said the university declined to sign an agreement with the group because "they are not the only community organization with whom we would work or talk." Furthermore, the construction is a union project so the unions, not the university, would control jobs and wages, she added.

 
Lutheran Pastor Brian Eklund says USC's efforts to improve the campus neighborhood have driven out many low-income families.
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
 
Members of the coalition-named for a strip of land east of campus-remain concerned about the lack of student housing provided by the university. As Pastor Brian Eklund of St. Mark's Lutheran Church, a founding member of the coalition, walked around the neighborhood recently, he pointed out apartment buildings, bungalows and Victorian-era homes that private landlords have bought, "fixed up marginally and rented at much higher rates" to students, who can better afford the increased rents than can the low-income residents they displaced. Eklund acknowledged that USC has worked to improve its immediate neighborhood, but "it's not taking care of long-term needs," he said. "Sometimes they're destroying the very neighborhood they're trying to be tied into."

Safety on and around the campus remains a student and parental concern. Students have been robbed at gunpoint north of campus several times this past year. In February, a member of the Dance Force, which performs at USC basketball games, was struck by an assailant while the group was practicing at 8:00 pm in front of Heritage Hall near the center of campus.

After the 1992 riots near the campus, many people urged USC to move to safer ground. Sample, who had just arrived, said no. Instead, he insisted that the university focus its energies and initiatives on problems of the immediate neighborhood. An extensive community outreach program has been developed in which USC partners with local schools, Head Start centers and other organizations that provide needed services.

Through the Joint Educational Project, as many as 60 percent of USC undergraduates do some community work during their years on campus, although that figure might include some repeaters, said Tammy Anderson, the project's executive director.

The university also has launched the Neighborhood Academic Initiative for seventh through 12th graders, who participate in special classes at area public schools, receive extra tutoring, and take Saturday morning college preparatory sessions on the USC campus. Those who graduate from high school and are eligible for USC admission receive a full financial ride for four years. If they elect to attend another school for their undergraduate work, they are eligible for two years of financial aid for graduate work at USC afterward.

Alejandro Venegas completed the program in 1998, graduated from USC in 2002 and is now a graduate student in communications. Venegas said his parents had always wanted him to go to college but, as factory workers, thought they could not afford it. USC was always, in his eyes, "a place you aspired to come to."

 
Professor Doe Mayer praised new USC courses that combine classroom work with community service.
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
 

The increase in community-based education is the most exciting change that Doe Mayer, the Mary Pickford Professor of Film and Television Production, has seen since coming to USC in 1988. "It's not just volunteer work but part of their course work. It gives them a very different grounding in the community." She also likes the encouragement of varied minors. "Graduates of the film school often don't come out with a broad enough understanding of the world. The minor program has been a big help. That perspective improves their film making."

Another measure of change at USC is its increasing diversity. Growing up in Lincoln Heights in East Los Angeles, Felix Gutierrez considered USC an "Orange County, beach and surf type of place-a rich white kids school." Today USC undergraduates are 47.4 percent white, 21 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 13 percent Hispanic, 6.5 percent African American, 0.7 percent Native American, and 2.7 percent unknown. International students account for 8.7 percent of undergraduate enrollment.

USC is doing "very well in terms of African American and Latino undergraduates, good for graduate students, and average for faculty of color," said William Tierney. "But this is an institution that does not accept average. Good enough is not good enough. I am not embarrassed by the results but we demand excellence and we are not good enough."

Gutierrez agreed. There is more assertiveness at USC "about saying it is important to learn about people who are different from you," he said. Nevertheless, USC has a "tremendous leadership gap as it relates to Latinos. Until USC addresses that and brings in leadership from the top, we're not going to be all we can be. I don't know why that is. It's a mystery to me and I'm disappointed." USC's ranking Hispanic administrator is Roberta Diaz Brinton, a pharmacy professor named last November as vice provost to oversee institutional diversity.

USC now has more Jewish students than in days past, when the university was viewed as the home of WASPs. Today a USC admissions officer actively recruits Jewish students; the dean of religious life is Rabbi Susan Laemmle; and the chairman of the board of trustees is Jewish.

Laemmle, who earned her bachelor's degree at USC and her Ph.D. at UCLA, said that when she was an undergraduate, "I was not persecuted but I was looked upon as a kind of odd duck. That is awkward." In addition to developments ranging from the recruitment efforts to greater availability of kosher food on campus, Laemmle pointed to creation of the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life as making USC known more positively in the Jewish community.

This increased inclusiveness has helped in tapping new fundraising sources, said Stanley Gold, trustees chairman and head of Shamrock Holdings, Inc., an investment company. "If you're a white, Protestant club, it's hard to attract other donors." Gold said. While he acknowledged that Sample has put USC in a new league academically, Gold added, "our competition has endowments significantly larger than ours...We need to go out and shorten that gap."

Gold said President Sample's fundraising success "depends on a very well oiled machine" at which he stands at the pinnacle. "He has an enormously ingratiating personality and a genuinely curious mind. He sits down with you, hears what you're interested in and makes you feel that you are into something the university is interested in-because it is."

Sample called fundraising a back-and-forth process. He listens to learn what interests a donor. "I never just ask where they want to give because it may be a whole lot less than I'm looking for," the president said. "The very best fundraisers work long and hard, as much as two or three years, cultivating a potential donor before a specific project or amount of money is mentioned." Some donors, he reported, are surprised he waits that long before asking.

"We use faculty a lot, too," Sample said. "The most precious thing a research university like USC has is its faculty." Some don't like fundraising, but others enjoy it, Sample added, "maybe not as much as I do, but they enjoy it. You're showing off your best goods."


Kay Mills, a former Los Angeles Times editorial writer, is the author of "Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television" (University Press of Mississippi, 2004).

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