Nineteen years after joining the Trojan Family, President C.L. Max Nikias is ready to hit the ground running this fall as USC’s 11th president.
“We’re going to run a marathon at a sprinter’s pace,” said Nikias, who plans to bring USC to what he calls the “undisputed mountain top.”
Nikias, who took office on Aug. 3, succeeds former President Steven B. Sample, who many believe was one of the most successful university presidents of the second half of the 20th century, said Kevin Starr, a USC professor of history and member of the presidential search committees for both Sample and Nikias.
“Of all the candidates, [Nikias] impressed us the most as having the ability to continue the high level of performance of Steven Sample,” Starr said.
Sample was Nikias’ mentor long before their time at USC. During Sample’s first year as president of the State University of New York at Buffalo, he signed Nikias’ diploma and watched him graduate with a Ph.D.
“The best way to secure the Sample legacy, is to take this great university and make it even greater,” Nikias said.
A selection committee of USC trustees and faculty members began the search for USC’s 11th president with 80 candidates, and worked for several months to narrow the potential presidents to seven finalists.
The committee searched for someone with a proven track record as a top administrator role who understood the wide sweep of professional schools, said Warren Bennis, Marshall School of Business professor and member of the presidential search committee.
“Max came out on top of the pile,” Bennis said. “He understood the culture of the Trojan Family.”
As provost for five years and dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering before that, Nikias is well-acquainted with the Trojan Family bond.
“It’s not something you see or smell, but you feel it,” he said. “That’s really a great foundation for us to build on.”
As the father of two USC students, Nikias intends to increase visibility and maintain close contact with the students during his presidency. One of his goals is to hold afternoon tea with students each month to stay in touch with the student body.
“He’s a man of great personal charm,” Starr said. “I’m very proud of the person we chose.”
In 2001, Nikias was named the dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering, where his fundraising made him the only person in USC’s history to raise more than $250 million in four years as a dean.
In 2005, Nikias became USC’s provost and executive vice president, during which he focused on developing new scholarship programs for students who study in multiple disciplines and increasing research opportunities for Ph.D. students.
“The fact that I’ve been a USC parent, it’s helped me be a better dean and a better provost and hopefully a better president,” Nikias said.
Nikias’ overarching goals as president are to improve the quality of student life and add value to the USC degree.
“If you look at our equity, the only thing you have at the end of the day is our education,” Nikias said.
Nikias is the creator of Visions and Voices, a program designed to highlight USC’s dedication to the arts and humanities and provide students provocative experiences outside the classroom. He plans to elevate the international experience for students by weaving more international perspectives into the curriculum and student activities, as well as increasing the diversity of the international student population.
“Our ambition is really to be the university of the world,” Nikias said.
The new president plans to jumpstart an initiative to reach out to South America — a region that sends only a small number of students to USC by establishing high level contacts and recruiting international trustees at South American universities.
“It’s very important to really have a presence,” Nikias said.
On the local level, Nikias intends to continue USC’s outreach to the community surrounding campus. The university already has been recognized for its neighborhood outreach programs established by the USC Family of Schools, said Nikias, but he would like to work with local businesses to help in job creation and entrepreneurship.
Nikias would also like to improve student safety, he said. Although he was impressed with the 85 percent drop in crime since USC installed street cameras and Department of Public Safety command centers, he is confident that crime can drop even more.
“The real world is out there,” Nikias said. “They need to be careful. I need to be careful.”
One project Nikias plans to initiate as soon as he can get plans approved is to build a bigger and better student health center. Nikias projects 18 months of construction in the northwest corner of campus near the Lyon Center to make room for the new health center, he said.
Nikias, who Starr described as never too busy for the students, sees his presidency as an opportunity to amplify both the quality of student life and the prestige of the university.
“At heart, at the end of the day,” Nikias said, “I will always fight on for the best interests for the University of Southern California.”