Last week, USC hired James Staten, chief financial officer of the Yale New Haven Health System, as its new chief financial officer. His position, which replaces that of previous officer Robert Abeles, oversees budgetary planning and finances for the Keck School of Medicine, the University comptroller and information technology services.
Staten’s experience with business management is definitely impressive, but the University presents unique challenges in responsible investing. The University’s budget — around $4.2 billion with $4.7 billion in its endowment — presents huge opportunities to fund services ranging from world-class academic programs to comprehensive financial aid. As the University grows in reputation as a top-ranked research university, students and University workers alike have consistently challenged its stance on socially responsible growth. In June, the removal of the University’s employees’ $30 per month reduced-price transit passes caused public media blowback and made employees’ daily lives more difficult. The proposed re-development of the University Village raised further concerns over gentrification in the local community. The recent rally by subcontracted USC janitors protesting contractor Aramark’s lack of raises and unfair work conditions have made issues with employment plain. A litany of protests by non-tenured faculty demanding higher wages and a right to unionize further question USC’s growth. As new administrators like Provost Michael Quick and Staten determine the course of the University, responses to worker rights have consistently denied more negotiating power to those who serve the foundation of our University. As Staten becomes a new voice which profoundly influences University financial decisions, he should focus on expanding services for University workers and listening to student voices on socially responsible investments.
The lackluster response by University officials to University workers is concerning for the school’s narrative of a new era of academic growth, especially in the midst of an ambitious $6 billion fundraising campaign for the University’s philanthropy and expansion communities. With a whopping staff of 450 working on the fundraising team, this new round will be the largest effort to raise money in the history of American higher education.
Academically comparable universities such as Northwestern and Columbia already have established offices on social investment, and Northwestern is actively listening to student voices on the direction of University endowments and budgets. Divestment movements across the country have encouraged Universities to disconnect their funding from sources that students disagree with.
In addition, student and worker voices should take a stronger position on University financial decisions. The recent introduction to the Undergraduate Student Government Senate of a comprehensive resolution that would provide a litany of resources for services to students of color already highlights a growth in student dialogue over where money flows. Protests by University staff ranging from higher-ed professors to janitors highlight a need for better engagement among students, administrators and University staff. The University occupies a unique role as both an employer and a contractor and stands to make better lives for those who keep the University running.
Our University consistently characterizes itself as a world-class research institution in terms of academic prestige and community outreach. It’s an exciting time to be a Trojan, both as a witness to the University’s educational growth in and outside of the classroom. Staten’s appointment lends further credence to USC’s attempt to bring talent into the inner workings of the University. As we enter this growth, however, it’s integral to remember those who keep the school alive and invest in the labor that makes our education possible.