Henry Russell Sanders, UCLA’s football coach in the ’50s, once said that “beating ’SC is not a matter of life or death, it’s more important than that.” From time to time, however, defectors do arise and as the idiom goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows.
In 1977, Antonio Villaraigosa received a bachelor’s degree in history from UCLA. But today, as the mayor of Los Angeles, Villaraigosa has worked to help USC expand its footprint in the city, so much so that he admits to putting in a few extra hours to help his alma mater’s cross-town rival.
“What I love about ’SC is they see their destiny as tied to our city, and that’s important,” Villaraigosa said to an audience of about 150 on a warm August evening. “And that’s why I work overtime to make things work for ’SC.”
It was 6 p.m. when the mayor took his seat on the stage of a Taper Hall of Humanities lecture auditorium Aug. 8. He was at USC for a conversation with Dan Schnur, the director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, and an interview with the Daily Trojan.
From endorsing USC development plans to praising its agreement to control the Coliseum, Villaraigosa has welcomed the university’s decade-long effort to establish a lasting mark on the city.
Roughly 20 years ago, after USC officials decided to keep the campus in its current location, the university began working more closely with politicians, said Thomas Sayles, senior vice president for university relations.
“We decided we were going to commit ourselves to the community, which means we have to work with the elected officials as well as the community,” Sayles said.
According to Sayles, the university regularly communicates with the mayor’s office, lobbying the Villaraigosa administration on a wide range of initiatives.
“We try to brief his office on what we are doing, [and] we seek his support on projects,” Sayles said. “He’s actually been a very big supporter of the university.”
In the interview after his talk with Schnur, Villaraigosa outlined his position on several USC projects.
“With respect to the Master Plan, I’ve said, ‘Hey, look, we’ve got to mitigate the impacts on the surrounding community. We’ve got to ensure that the community benefits … with it,’” Villaraigosa said. “But I think it’s a net plus.”
The mayor also said he supports USC’s master lease agreement to gain operational control of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, chastising the commission that oversees the stadium for wasting the historic landmark.
“It’s very clear that the Coliseum Commission has squandered a great asset, and I believe that ’SC would be a better steward,” he said. “I think we have to drive a tough deal that benefits the city, the state, the county and the surrounding community, and I think that will happen.”
The deal between USC and the Coliseum Commission is pending approval from three state agencies.
During Villaraigosa’s time in office, Schnur said he believes the mayor has found more ways to collaborate with the university.
“My impression is that the more time he spends in office, the more he’s seen natural links and shared opportunities between the city and the campus,” Schnur said.
In addition to forming a greater professional connection to USC during his tenure, Villaraigosa’s personal connections to the university have also grown. In 2006, the mayor was awarded an honorary doctorate after delivering the university’s commencement address. And last year, Villaraigosa’s ties became even stronger when his daughter began college as a Trojan. As a USC parent, the mayor said he was especially affected when two Chinese graduate students were fatally shot off campus around 2 a.m. last April.
“When I got word of that tragedy, I was awake in the middle of the night,” he said. “I have a daughter here. It was personal.”
Though the mayor said USC’s surrounding neighborhoods are safer than they have been in 20 years, he said the university and the city must always work to keep the area protected.
“This university is absolutely committed to keeping this neighborhood and this university community as safe as possible and so are we,” he said. “That’s why we are collaborating and working together. But we [have] to always make sure that we’re doing everything possible to keep this great jewel of a community and this great jewel of a university a place where people feel safe.”
Following the shooting of Ming Qu and Ying Wu, two 23-year-old graduate students studying electrical engineering, the Los Angeles Police Department announced several new security measures at a press conference April 26. Among them was the addition of 30 police officers to the Southwest Division, which patrols around the campus. The university funded some of the changes. The parents of Qu and Wu filed a wrongful death suit against the university May 18.
Whether at a press conference, participating in an event or visiting a class, Villaraigosa is a frequent visitor to campus.
“He’s never turned me down,” Schnur said. “Every time we’ve asked him to come to campus for a program, he’s either accepted that invitation or asked his office to find another time when he could be over here.”
Still, when it comes to a UCLA and USC match-up, Villaraigosa is far from ready to toss aside his Bruin roots.
“I hope UCLA wins at everything they play against USC,” Villaraigosa said. “But I’ve changed over the years. Now I’m for ’SC when they play against the world.”