Madam President: Wanda Austin’s plan to rebuild USC

Leading the renovation · Alumna, trustee and former CEO of The Aerospace Corporation Wanda Austin will serve as interim president following C. L. Max Nikias’ departure. (Daily Trojan file photo)

Dr. Wanda Austin is not a president who wants to lead from behind a desk. She wants to make sure that everyone on her team is heard, and that she continues to learn from those who surround her.

On Friday, in her first interview as interim president of USC, Austin spoke with the Daily Trojan at the conference table in her new office, rather than from behind her desk.

The office she now occupies — at least until the University finds a new president — is located within the brick walls of the Bovard Administration Building. This space is where USC’s most prominent leader holds court over a university with nearly 45,000 students, an expanding alumni network of 375,000 members and an endowment of over $5 billion.

The inconspicuous chair behind the desk in her office is one of the most powerful seats in Los Angeles — a seat previously held by Southern California behemoths like the late Steven B. Sample and C. L. Max Nikias, who announced his resignation just a few months ago.

But on the day of the interview, Austin’s office was a blank canvas, devoid of any signs that Nikias, who held the presidency for eight years prior, had ever inhabited the venerated space.

There were no traces of the trustee-turned-president, either — the shelves of the bookcase towering behind the imposing wooden desk were barren, the desk bearing not so much as a nameplate identifying USC’s new leader, a woman representative of countless firsts. Perhaps there’s an explanation for the hollowness of the room; Austin only intends to serve temporarily. She says she has asked the board not to consider her for the permanent position, and wants to focus on how she can help revitalize the school during her brief tenure.

The only thing in front of Austin during the interview was a Fiji water bottle and her propped-up iPad, which buzzed sporadically throughout the 40-minute conversation.

Austin ponders and responds to questions with sincerity. She says she is a confident leader, though not a natural-born one. “Leadership is not a birthright; it is a skill,” she wrote in her book

“Making Space: Strategic Leadership for a Complex World.”

On Aug. 8, the University’s Board of Trustees appointed Austin to temporarily lead USC as it searches for Nikias’ official replacement, whose ousting followed inexorable outcry from alumni, students and faculty for what they believe was poor handling of the sexual misconduct allegations leveled against campus gynecologist George Tyndall over decades.

From this storied office on the first floor of Bovard — markedly spotless and vacant as the University’s uncertain future — Austin is ready to move forward and help the community heal from the calamitous year it has experienced.


A lifetime of firsts

Austin’s appointment is a momentous first in USC’s complex history. She doesn’t look like any of the presidents who have come before her. As a matter of fact, all 11 of her predecessors were men — more specifically, white men.

However, she remains unfazed by the prospect of following in their footsteps. As a businesswoman and aerospace engineer, she naturally exudes authority and wisdom in her new role. Being a black woman heading a large enterprise isn’t new to her; she served as president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation from 2008 to 2016. In an industry which, like higher education administration, is dominated by white men, Austin climbed the ranks of the company and was often the only person of color in the room.

She’s no stranger to this. In fact, she said becoming both the first woman and first person of color to be named president of the University was not the first thought that crossed her mind when she accepted the role. Though she admits she may be considered a role model for being such, she thinks “it’s very difficult to say ‘you represent a faction.’”

Austin was raised in a predominantly black area in The Bronx, and attended a recently integrated school in an all-white neighborhood — three entire bus trips away.

“There [were] a lot of things you could screw up, but you could not bring home bad grades,” Austin said of her upbringing. “[My parents] really worked hard for us to recognize that there was more than that inner-city block, and that we were exposed to that.”

The clear separation between black and white students became even more evident when she left for Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and was one of  only 20 black students in a school of nearly 2,000.

“Talk about making adjustments,” she laughs.

She went on to receive a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, followed by a doctorate in systems engineering from USC.

While serving as president of The Aerospace Corporation, Austin received numerous awards and was even selected by then-President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, an experience that inspired her leadership philosophy.

She’s served on various advisory councils, including those of National Geographic and NASA. Most recently, she was on the governing boards of both the Space Foundation and USC before assuming the role of interim president.


The legacy she inherited

When asked if the University’s tumultuous year deterred her from accepting the position, her response was immediate and emphatic: “No.”

It’s easy to retrospectively regard USC as a series of unflattering headlines — “The secret life of a USC med school dean,” “Former students recount decades of disturbing behavior by USC gynecologist.” But beyond the critical language plastered across front pages, Austin says USC has been on the rise in ways that have gone largely unnoticed in the past year.

The past eight years under Nikias’ leadership saw the creation of two new schools, the construction of USC Village and the introduction of several new buildings to the University Park Campus. The University’s acceptance rate also dropped to record-low 13 percent.

“A lot of great things happened under Nikias’ great leadership,” Austin said, adding that the next president would push further in those goals. “We’re ranked 15th in the nation. I think that’s something we’re very proud of.”

However, Austin admits that the way USC responded to sexual misconduct allegations could have been better. “Communication,” she answered after being asked what went wrong with Nikias’ handling of the past year.

Much of the clamor regarding the sexual abuse allegations at the University erupted following reports from the Los Angeles Times; before the paper broke the stories, the University had not publicly divulged any information about staff members’ alleged misconduct, since “silence doesn’t mean that nothing is happening,” Austin says.


Fixing a broken system

Ankit Mukherjee | Daily Trojan

Austin declined to comment on whether she supported Nikias’ resignation, since her opinion isn’t “something that needs to be shared publicly.” However, she did say that she never actively sought out the role of interim president.

“What I said was, ‘I’m happy to help,’” she said she told the board. “If there’s something that I can do [then] I would be willing to help.”

Now that she has the position, Austin says that one of the first priorities of her presidency is to engage with small community groups and ensure that their voices are heard, even if they don’t have a direct seat at the trustee table.

She wants to be a collaborative leader, one who not only listens but actually hears every person who speaks. She noted how inspiring Obama’s style of being focused and engaged — no matter who he was talking to or what he was talking about — was for her, as well as how much serving under him informed her own leadership philosophy.

“You have to learn,” Austin says. “You have to take the time to get the benefit of your team, to make sure you’re engaging them so that you can make decisions that give you the best chance at a positive outcome.”

Austin added that all of her posts, especially those at The Aerospace Corporation, have prepared her for the position she holds today, despite her lack of prior experience in academia. Indeed, the most valuable lessons she’s learned have come from other leaders.

“I’m a leader that is willing to steal the best ideas from anyone,” she said. “Everyday, I learn something from someone — and it doesn’t have to be someone who’s got leader in their title. It can be a student. It can be someone who says, ‘Hey this is something I saw, something I learned, something I did that worked.’ I’m just always open to that and I get energized by that because when you stop learning, the lights are dimming and that’s not good.”

Ankit Mukherjee | Daily Trojan

Austin wants the first months of her presidency to be a period of healing and rebuilding.

“I’m going to work hard to make sure that our faculty and staff feel like they have the resources and the focus and the attention of the administration so that they are unhindered from being able to deliver their best performance every day,” Austin said.

To conclude the interview, Austin extended a firm handshake — a fitting emblem of the leadership philosophy she espouses and cooperative environment she intends to foster as president.