Higher education arms race must end

At the heart of the dichotomy between USC’s wealthy and elite status and the frequent feelings of neglect many of its students have endured is a trend that has taken hold throughout the country: the higher education arms race — universities’ growing propensity to spend lavishly on superficial sources of appeal like non-academic facilities, campus beautification and famous faculty and lecturers that signal wealth and prestige but have minimal effect on students’ educational experience. 

During C. L. Max Nikias’ presidency, USC time and again proved its full-throated embrace of the higher education arms race. From 2010 to 2018 alone, USC fully renovated the Lyon Center and the Heritage Hall athletics complex, and it opened the Uytengsu Aquatics Center. The University hired former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former U.S. Army general David Petraeus as faculty members, two men who had no experience in higher education at the time they were hired and have not taught regularly since. USC opened the Tutor Campus Center, which has some academic utility with a few classrooms and lecture halls on the second floor but boasts a campus dining center and a large indoor event space as its primary features. And it finished construction of USC Village, perhaps the University’s greatest example of ostentatious spending, complete with retailers, high-end restaurants and a host of other new amenities.

In statements announcing these projects and amenities, the administration, in addition to touting them as signifiers of USC’s prominence and growth, usually emphasized that generous donations that helped bring them to fruition. 

Even if, for the sake of argument, all the aforementioned projects were completely funded by donations — and not at all by students’ tuition and fees — their status as one of USC’s institutional priorities over the past decade must come to an end. 

USC, like any major institution, has a large but finite pool of financial resources and its success is largely dependent on what it uses those resources to invest in. 

These unworthy priorities consumes resources — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars — that could be allocated to financial aid, adequate pay for adjunct faculty, more modern classrooms and other investments that directly affect students’ academic experience at USC. 

Even though many major donors make their contributions for specified causes, the administration still wields major influence by deciding what initiatives the University’s fundraising campaigns are geared toward.

Moreover, USC’s lavish spending on campus beautification and amenities bolsters the perception that it prioritizes style over substance. It fuels students’ frustrations that the University obsesses over prestige-signalling at the expense of caring for its students.

Instead, USC must put those resources into its most important stakeholders — students. 

If President Carol Folt truly wants to turn USC around, her first step should be to reevaluate the University’s participation in the higher education arms race. USC must be a school for its students, not a school for donors and elitism.