OPINION: New leadership must re-emphasize USC’s positive qualities

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

After decades of bold promises and massive fundraising efforts, USC’s academic success has finally begun to match the acclaim it has been striving toward: Civic engagement projects continue to tie USC closer to its immediate community while new programs and partnerships  connect the University to the rest of the country and the world. To top it off, USC Village opened its doors to the public just a year ago.

In the past decade, USC reached a $6 billion fundraising target 18 months ahead of schedule, dropped to a record-low 12.6 percent acceptance rate and was ranked No. 21 on the U.S. News & World Report college list. To this day, the University continues to double down on these commitments, launching and developing groundbreaking initiatives and pipeline programs from the Good Neighbors Campaign, which annually raises millions for local nonprofits, to the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, which boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate for local, underserved students in its program. And during a time when elite institutions remain exclusionary for so many, USC has led the way by accepting more community college transfers than any other private university. Former president C. L. Max Nikias led the University during a critical era defined by unprecedented growth and development and achieved a number of the ambitious goals it set for itself — but now we find ourselves asking what the cost of all that was.

These impressive numbers and statistics cannot mask the innumerable controversies that have left the USC community feeling betrayed by an institution they call home. Especially as the cost of attendance continues to skyrocket — now exceeding $70,000 per year — and news of corruption and abuse at senior levels pervade the University, we as members of the Trojan Family have repeatedly paid the price.

In the midst of these scandals, the national media and country joined us in a call for accountability and transparency from our administration while we struggle to fathom how our university could have knowingly endangered its students for so many years. The cover-ups that have rocked USC not only broke our trust and compromised our safety, but also revealed a culture that seems to prioritize damage control over prevention.

But after a tarnished president’s resignation, a changing of the guard in the Board of Trustees and many months under national scrutiny, USC desperately needs a president and a culture committed to transparency and prevention while remaining dedicated to preserving and expanding inclusivity on and off campus. Simply put, we need new moral leadership.

Interim president Wanda Austin must bear the needs and demands of the Trojan community in mind as she assumes her new role. Even if only temporarily, she must take students’ long-held grievances to heart rather than ignore them as past leaders have done.

False promises and inherent contradictions must become a thing of the past. For example, when construction began on USC Village, a USC press release promised “a wide range of high-quality, affordable retail” and affirmed that “student customer price points and community member custom prices points are an extremely good match.” Yet when the fireworks of the grand opening ceremony dissipated, pricey eateries such as Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop and Sunlife Organics emerged in a neighborhood where 47.3 percent of families with children in the University Park Campus area live in poverty and 24 percent of USC students are eligible for Pell Grants. And while USC opened a food pantry last semester, an untold number of students continue to struggle with food insecurity.

We still struggle to escape the label of “University of Spoiled Children,” and despite recent progress, we must continue to tackle inequity and promote inclusion. Though one of seven Trojans in the entering class of 2022 are first generation college students, a New York Times report finds 63 percent of students come from the top 20 percent income bracket while only 4.9 percent come from the bottom 20 percent. USC is the largest private employer in Los Angeles County, recent union protests over the wages and benefits of subcontracted workers reveal tensions over workforce treatment and integration. Though the construction of the USC Village aimed to provide more University housing for students, community members continue to face eviction as developers seek to house more Trojans off campus.

These challenges also persist on a federal level. The recently upheld travel ban impacts roughly 250 USC students. Undocumented students, staff and faculty still live in fear as they grapple with the threat of federally-mandated deportation. Higher education still reels from the recent tax bill, which threatened the pocketbooks and livelihoods of graduate students until just days before its passage in December 2017. These policies, as well as dangerous rhetoric coming from Washington, D.C., make the protection of our most marginalized students even more pressing.

Our new president must recognize that behind all these statistics are human lives. These pressing issues — the ones that students hold dear and have so valiantly fought for in the past year — must finally be addressed on deeper levels.

At a time when USC has jeopardized the confidence and trust of its community and on a campus where false promises, damage control and lack of transparency have set back years of progress, 2018 marks a crucial turning point for the University. Throughout this crisis, our faculty stood with us, from the 200 professors who demanded Nikias’ resignation in late May to the almost 700 professors who raised concern that Nikias wasn’t leaving office in July. Their persistence and courage remind us what it means to be a Trojan. They encourage us to restore the USC known for diversity and innovation rather than the USC making national headlines for failing to protect its own students. And collectively, we expect our administration to hold itself to the same standards. The Trojan Family deserves nothing less and it’s high time we have a president who recognizes that.