Replacing a president of Steven B. Sample’s caliber won’t be easy. His leadership and poise have launched this university to unprecedented heights.
Though Sample has accomplished much, his work is anything but finished. In the hectic interim, it is critical that USC selects the right candidate to carry on Sample’s legacy.
The search seems daunting, but if USC’s trustees are looking to continue down the road Sample paved, then they won’t have to look any farther than their own backyard. Vice President and Provost C.L. Max Nikias, a front-runner in the selection, is the most suitable candidate.
Though universities often conduct outside hires in the education realm, it makes no sense to risk going with someone new when the university knows exactly what it will get from Nikias.
USC is well aware of the unique combination of abilities and experience Nikias brings to the table. It’s why he was hired from a pool of more than 160 candidates as the USC’s next provost.
The hire has certainly paid dividends. Nikias has been the center of USC’s recent academic surge as well as the acquisition of University Hospital and Norris Cancer Center. Under his tenure, he has launched the ever-popular Visions and Voices initiative that showcases a dedication to the arts and humanities.
He’s also responsible for the foundation of the Stevens Institute of Innovation, which gives students the means to turn business ideas into reality.
Much has been made of these latest advancements and the university’s achievements as a whole, but make no mistake, USC is facing some sizable challenges.
The university’s endowment has plummeted 33 percent, in a time when student financial need is expected to increase. USC needs to fund these students without letting its cost-cutting affect classroom sizes, as it has with the University of California system.
Nor can the university phase out smaller majors as it did when USC’s German major was discontinued a year back. Doing this hinders our academic reputation and overall progress.
For USC to meet these challenges, it will need a proven leader who can also secure the fundraising the university needs to sustain its momentum. Nikias’ prior role as dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering proved he could establish a highly ranked academic program by bringing major research institutes to USC while securing $250 million in gifts and endowment, comprising largely of Andrew and Erna Viterbi’s $52 million school naming.
But more importantly, Nikias’ resume proves he can foster the overall growth of the university rather than USC’s more select programs in film or communication.
As current holder of the Malcolm R. Currie Chair in Technology and the Humanities, Nikias exemplifies how fields as diverse as science and art are critical to one another. He serves as a member of the National Academy of Engineering yet teaches freshmen ancient Athenian democracy and drama.
That’s not to say promoting Nikias doesn’t come with its own share of risks — specifically, the way that Nikias would handle the university’s delicate relationship with the local community.
As USC continues to expand into the neighborhood, its relationship with the community dwindles as families have to move farther from the campus to find affordable housing. With the Master Plan coming into effect, this problem will only persist. The success of USC’s future president will rely in part on how he or she handles this situation. How Nikias would handle this is unknown.
There may very be an outside candidate who could foster relations with the community better than Nikias could, and there are many outside candidates who are more than qualified for the job. Bringing in a fresh face could breathe new life into the campus, by introducing a new direction in how to take the university forward.
The fact remains: USC has already benefited greatly from Nikias’ presence. Thanks to his effort, the school’s academic ranking has never been higher. Despite some setbacks largely due to economic forces outside of the university’s control, there are no signs that Nikias would stall the growth it has enjoyed under Sample.
But if USC still needs Sample’s leadership, our university would be wise to promote the man who can pick up right where Sample left off.
Robert Fragoza is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. His column, “Reality Check,” runs Fridays.