There are many similarities between President Steven B. Sample and President-elect C. L. Max Nikias — both are electrical engineers, gifted fundraisers and positive personalities — but Nikias intends to make his own, distinct mark on the university when he takes over the top job in August.
“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.”
Nikias, currently USC’s executive vice president and provost, was named the university’s 11th president on March 11. He will take over the presidency August 3, following in the footsteps of his mentor and one of the most successful university presidents in recent memory.
Sample will not be an easy act to follow, Nikias acknowledged. Under Sample’s leadership, USC shot up in the rankings as its endowment grew, admission rate dropped and prestige rose. Sample has also been widely recognized as one of the most accomplished and respected figures in higher education.
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. [Sample] will expect nothing less from me.”
To help accomplish that, Nikias plans to undertake several specific initiatives, including 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.
His first step, however, will be to help the school grow financially.
“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.
Nikias’ predecessor is known for his extraordinary fundraising abilities; during his time at USC, Sample led the most successful fundraising campaign in higher education history to date.
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.
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 universities. That’s what I would like to be my legacy,” he said.
Nikias, who has been President Steven B. Sample’s second-in-command since 2005, was considered by many to be a shoo-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 was the right man for the job. The official announcement came March 12.
“Max is a remarkable and inspiring leader, a brilliant scholar and the best possible person to lead our university forward,” Board of Trustees Chairman Ed 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.”
The announcement was an exciting one for Nikias, who said he felt ready for a presidency but could only hope 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.”
He now knows his future will be at USC, and Nikias said he could not be more excited.
“In the whole space of higher education today, this is by far the very best job,” he said.
Nikias is eager to begin is work and intends to dive right in come August 3.
“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 months to come, 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.
In the end though, Nikias said he’s most excited about 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.
Editor’s note: A version of this story ran online Friday, March 12.