The Board of Trustees announced late Wednesday night that C.L. Max Nikias, USC’s current executive vice president and provost, will be the university’s next president.
“In the whole space of higher education today, this is, by far, the very best job,” an excited Nikias said Thursday.
Nikias, who has been President Steven B. Sample’s second-in-command since 2005, was considered by many to be a shoe-in for the top spot. Still, the Board of Trustees formed a search committee, which included trustees and senior faculty members and enlisted the help of a prestigious higher education consulting firm in trying to find Sample’s successor. The committee considered 75 candidates and interviewed seven – all presidents or provosts at major universities. But in the end, the unanimous consensus was that Nikias is the right man for the job.
“Max is a remarkable and inspiring leader, a brilliant scholar, and the best possible person to lead our university forward,” Board of Trustees Chairman Edward P. Roski, Jr. wrote in an e-mail to students announcing the decision. “Because of what he has already accomplished at USC, and his bold and exciting vision for the future, he was the unanimous choice of the search advisory committee.”
Nikias said he received the good news at about 8:40 p.m. Wednesday night.
“I heard a voice from one of the trustees on the phone – he said, ‘is anybody bringing the champagne?’”
The announcement is a big one for Nikias, who said he felt ready for a presidency but could only hope that it would be at USC, where he has worked since 1991.
“To be a president of a private, research university is something that I felt one day I really wanted to be,” he said. “Whether it was going to be USC or somewhere else or course that you never know until the end.”
Now, Nikias knows: Beginning Aug. 3, 2010, he will be the president of the University of Southern California, following in the footsteps of his mentor, who has been called one of the most successful university presidents in history.
It will not, Nikias acknowledged, be an easy task to take the reins from Sample, one of the most accomplished, renowned and respected figures in higher education. Under Sample’s leadership, USC shot up in the rankings as its endowment grew, its admission rate dropped and its prestige rose.
Still, Nikias said he sees it as a challenge and a duty to live up to the reputation Sample has built for USC.
“There is an old proverb that says ‘stepping into the shoes of a legendary figure, you have to accomplish twice as much in order to be considered a success,’” Nikias said. “For USC, of course, we’re going to need to achieve twice as much. He will expect nothing less from me.”
Nikias noted that his relationship with Sample runs deep; Sample was president of the State University of New York at Buffalo the year Nikias earned his Ph.D from the same school.
“[Sample’s] signature is on my Ph.D. diploma and on my wife’s MBA diploma,” Nikias said. “He has been the president of our two daughters – Georgiana and Maria. And now for me to become his successor on top of that, that’s very, very special.”
In a previous interview with the Daily Trojan, Sample said he considered Nikias to be a talented leader.
“He does a terrific job, he’s an outstanding leader, so far as I can tell … I know a lot of people in the business, [and] I think he’s the best provost I’ve ever known,” Sample said.
Some have drawn comparisons between Nikias and Sample – both electrical engineers, both gifted fundraisers and both positive personalities – but Nikias said he intends to leave his own mark.
“You cannot clone President Sample,” Nikias said. “But by far the best way to honor his legacy is by taking a great university and making it even greater.”
Ultimately, Nikias said, his goal is to cement USC among the ranks of the elite.
“Having accelerated the momentum of the university and building and securing the Sample legacy and its achievements, [I want] USC to storm into the pantheon of undisputed elite university. That’s what I would like to be my legacy,” he said.
Already, Nikias has some specific initiatives in mind he hopes will help him reach this goal. These plans include working to enhance the caliber of the graduate and professional student bodies, accelerating USC’s transformation into a residential university, weaving the global experience into the curriculum and bringing USC’s medical enterprise to the highest level.
In keeping with Sample’s approach, however, Nikias said his first step will be to help the school grow financially. Sample is known as a phenomenal fundraiser, and in his time at USC oversaw the most successful fundraising campaign in the history of higher education.
“By far the most important thing for me as president after August is to work very hard and prepare the university within 12 months to announce a new fundraising campaign,” Nikias said.
When asked what challenges the university faces, Nikias said he did not see any that would be too big to surmount.
“The biggest challenge is not to make the mistake and say, ‘oh, we’re going to pause, oh, we’re going to get some rest before we take the next step,’” he said. “But if we come in and we really accelerate the momentum … I don’t see any challenges.”
There is still some time before Nikias will get to start creating that momentum, but he said he is excited for the coming months, which he plans to use to talk to students, faculty, alumni and staff.
“It’s going to be the best time I can have at USC, these next four months,” Nikias said.
But in the end, what he’s most excited for is the chance to use those conversations and ideas in his new role as president.
“To materialize the aspirations of the Trojan Family and their dreams – that’s very special,” he said.