University of Southern California

About USC

A Brief History

Los Angeles was little more than a frontier town in the 1870s, when a group of public-spirited citizens with a reverence for learning first sought to establish a university in the region. Although the “city” still lacked paved streets, electric lights, telephones and a reliable fire alarm system, the effort to create an institution of higher education, led by members of the Southern California Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, found an enthusiastic reception among the more far-sighted residents, who were eager to advance their community.

Among the founders of USC, the prime mover was Judge Robert Maclay Widney, a leading Los Angeles businessman who had come to the area to practice law and develop real estate. It was Widney who, after 11 years, succeeded in forming the future university’s Board of Trustees and took up the challenge of securing a donation of property for the fledgling enterprise.

In 1879, three civic leaders — Ozro W. Childs, a Protestant horticulturist; former California governor John G. Downey, an Irish-Catholic businessman; and Isaias W. Hellman, a German-Jewish banker and philanthropist — deeded to the Board of Trustees 308 lots located in an area designated as “West Los Angeles,” near the intersection of today’s Vermont Avenue and Exposition Boulevard. A portion of the land was to be reserved for the actual campus, while sales of the remaining lots would create an endowment to provide the seeds of financial support for the institution. More than an act of generosity, the gift of land was an expression of assuredness about the future.

In a similar vote of confidence, not to mention a display of audacity, the Board of Trustees named the nascent institution, rather grandiosely, the University of Southern California.

The Era of the Founders (1880–1921)

On September 4, 1880 — 99 years to the day after the founding of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles — nearly a tenth of the city’s population braved the late summer heat and dust to witness the laying of the cornerstone for the university’s first building. Just days after the construction was completed, on October 6, 1880, USC opened its doors to welcome 53 students.

Marion McKinley Bovard became USC’s first president, under an initial agreement that put him in charge of the internal organization of the university as well as its educational program for a period of five years. Bovard presided over seven boom years prior to 1887 and then over an extended period of fiscal uncertainty and near collapse, until his untimely death in December 1891.

The man who took on the task of leading the university through the impending financial crisis was Joseph P. Widney, brother of Robert Maclay Widney and the first dean of USC’s medical school (founded in 1885). Widney served as president for three years, accepting no salary and paying most of his own expenses. In 1895, he stepped down from his post to resume his medical practice.

During the presidency of George W. White, USC continued to progress both financially and educationally. Although White returned to the Methodist ministry in 1899, the momentum built during his administration sustained the university throughout a four-year interregnum during which the Board of Trustees sought a suitable replacement.

George Finley Bovard, younger brother of USC’s first president, took the helm of the young university in 1903. Dedicated to keeping up with the demands of Southern California’s rapidly expanding population — which grew from 11,000 in 1880 to 319,000 in 1910 — USC began to evolve from a small, struggling institution into one of the principal seats of learning on the Pacific Coast.

While elsewhere in the country, the Carnegies, Cornells, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Stanfords had been heavily endowing universities during the late 19th century, USC forged ahead largely on the energies of its faculty, deans, presidents and trustees. Likewise, as challenging as the years of World War I proved to be, they demonstrated — as did the financial panic of the 1890s — that USC was vulnerable to economic cycles but nevertheless resilient in difficult times.

During the era of the founders, the forerunners of today’s schools or departments of architecture, business, dentistry, education, engineering, fine arts, journalism, law, marine biology, music, pharmacy, philosophy, religion and sociology were added to the university.

USC marked another high point when Los Angeles Times sportswriter Owen R. Bird dubbed the university’s spirited athletic teams the “Trojans” in 1912.

The von KleinSmid Years (1921–1947)

Rufus Bernhard von KleinSmid — or “Dr. Von” as he was affectionately known — became USC’s fifth president in 1921. By the end of his first decade in office, USC had attained full national accreditation, established a graduate school to unify graduate work across the university and become a large non-denominational institution. Additionally, the university implemented a number of pioneering academic initiatives.

Von KleinSmid created an extension division at USC in 1922, offering classes in locations ranging from Glendale to San Diego. In 1924, he founded the first school of international relations in the United States; in 1929, the nation’s second school of public administration was established at USC. Also in 1929, USC initiated the country’s first college-level program in cinematography. The first Ph.D. degree conferred in Southern California was awarded at USC in 1923.

Whereas the first priority of von KleinSmid’s administration was to expand professional training programs, the Great Depression arrived at decade’s end, and, once again, USC was forced to retrench. Non-essential courses were eliminated, and USC debuted the “University of the Air,” an educational outreach program broadcast on radio. Thanks to donors, von KleinSmid was able to proceed with an ambitious plan of capital expansion that added several major buildings to the campus, including Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library.

During World War II, military units took over several university buildings and the curriculum was reconfigured to include a wartime emphasis on aerospace science, geography, international relations, languages, photography and the like.

After the war, USC faced yet another challenge as the G.I. Bill brought former servicemen to campus for study. Enrollment soared from 8,500 in 1945 to more than 24,000 in 1947. Von KleinSmid, now 70 years old, announced that he would step down and become chancellor of the university for life.

The Fagg Years (1947–1957)

Taking the helm of the university in September 1947, President Fred D. Fagg Jr. joined an institution whose facilities were stretched to the limit to accommodate what became known as the “G.I. Bulge.” He immediately turned his attention to easing space shortages, and in April 1948, USC dedicated some 29 buildings donated by the Federal Works Agency and relocated from Santa Ana Air Base. Fagg also initiated the construction of six new buildings, including a cafeteria and residence halls as well as classroom and research facilities.

As support for higher education increased during the post-war years, USC entered a new, modern era that brought increased significance both nationally and internationally. Fagg hastened the process by instituting modern cost-accounting practices, establishing a development office and increasing library holdings by two-thirds. He also began a program of land acquisition, expanding the boundaries of the University Park Campus and purchasing land near the county hospital to create the Health Sciences Campus.

The Topping Years (1958–1970)

In 1958, Norman H. Topping succeeded Fagg as president of USC, embarking on one of the most dynamic periods in the university’s history. Topping established a comprehensive planning commission that produced, in May 1961, the “Master Plan for Enterprise and Excellence in Education.” This courageous and forward-looking academic blueprint set a goal of raising $106,675,000 in new funds. Although Topping predicted that it might take 20 years to accomplish this goal, it was reached and surpassed in little more than five. All told, the campaign doubled USC’s endowment and added 30 new buildings to the university’s two campuses.

The crowning achievement of the Topping years was USC’s election to the Association of American Universities, an organization today made up of 63 leading public and private universities. The AAU bases membership on general excellence, with an emphasis on graduate and research programs.

The Hubbard Years (1970–1980)

When Topping stepped down in 1970, the mantle of leadership passed to John R. Hubbard, who charted his priority as bringing USC to even higher levels of academic distinction. Toward this end, Hubbard launched the “Toward Century II” campaign, an overwhelmingly successful fundraising effort that brought in more than $309 million.

Although American higher education in the 1970s was characterized by lowered enrollments and a drop-off in funding, USC rose to new heights during this time. Ten major buildings were begun or completed; USC’s total number of endowed chairs and professorships rose to 67; applications for admission soared from 4,100 in 1970 to more than 11,000 in 1979; and the mean grade point average for admitted freshmen rose to 3.4 on a 4.0 scale.

The Hubbard administration also brought a renewed dedication to USC’s urban community. As an outward sign of this commitment, the university’s Joint Educational Project was founded in 1972.

The Zumberge Years (1980–1991)

James H. Zumberge was inaugurated as USC’s ninth president on May 10, 1981, during a ceremony that was the capstone of a year of celebrations marking the centennial of the university.

Building on an academic planning process that began early in his tenure, Zumberge focused on strengthening undergraduate education; expanding key doctoral, research, professional and health sciences programs; and forging stronger community connections. The Zumberge years also saw USC’s highly successful participation in the 1984 Olympics.

In addition, Zumberge launched “The Campaign for USC,” which at the time was the biggest fundraising program in the university’s history. When it concluded in June 1990, the campaign had raised $641.6 million, contributing over $188 million to USC’s endowment and boosting annual support of university programs to unprecedented levels.

USC made major strides in funding for research during the Zumberge years as well. Sponsored research grew from $71.5 million in 1981 to $174.5 million in 1990 — a 144 percent increase. Major research efforts, such as the USC-based National Center for Integrated Photonic Technology and the Southern California Earthquake Center, contributed significantly to USC’s emergence as one of the nation’s premier research universities.

Among the more than a dozen major new buildings completed during Zumberge’s tenure were the Hedco Neurosciences Building, General William Lyon University Center, the Cinematic Arts Complex, Pertusati University Bookstore and Kaprielian Hall, as well as major additions to the architecture and fine arts library and the law school building. Plans for a new teaching library also got under way.

USC’s Health Sciences Campus, too, underwent dramatic transformations during the Zumberge decade, nearly doubling in size with the acquisition of land and existing buildings from Los Angeles County. As Zumberge stepped down, the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, which opened in 1983, was in the final stages of fundraising for a major building addition. Additionally, construction was nearing completion on Richard K. Eamer Medical Plaza, a cooperative project of the university and National Medical Enterprises that included the 284-bed USC University Hospital and USC Healthcare Consultation Center I.

The Sample Years (1991–2010)

Steven B. Sample took office as USC’s 10th president in March 1991.

Despite a first year fraught with earthquakes, riots and fiscal difficulties, he personally drafted USC’s Role and Mission Statement and set in motion a strategic planning process that identified four initiatives — undergraduate education, interdisciplinary research and education, programs building upon the resources of Southern California and Los Angeles, and internationalization — for guiding USC to new heights throughout the 1990s.

Under Sample’s leadership, the university developed a distinctive core curriculum as well as a broad array of academic and professional minors that made “breadth with depth” the hallmark of undergraduate education at USC. Thanks to these and other enhancements, USC became regarded nationally as a pacesetter in undergraduate education and enrolled some of the most academically talented freshman classes in the country.

Sample sharpened the university’s focus on improving schools and promoting safe streets in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding its two campuses. Among the flagship programs developed to meet these goals were the USC Good Neighbors Campaign, which channels faculty and staff giving into support of USC-community partnerships, and the Family of Schools, an alliance between the university and local schools that provides educational, cultural and development opportunities for neighborhood schoolchildren. This approach to community service became a national mark of distinction when the editors of Time magazine and The Princeton Review named USC “College of the Year 2000” in recognition of its ambitious social-outreach programs.

Sample also steered USC to new fundraising heights. Under the banner of “Building on Excellence,” the university mounted a $2.85 billion fundraising drive that concluded in 2002 as the most successful campaign in the history of American higher education. At the time, USC was the only university to have received four nine-figure gifts — $120 million from the Annenberg Foundation to create the USC Annenberg Center for Communication; $113 million (later increased to $163 million) from Alfred Mann to establish the Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering; $110 million from the W. M. Keck Foundation for the Keck School of Medicine of USC; and a second gift from the Annenberg Foundation of $100 million. In 2006, USC received a fifth nine-figure gift: $175 million from the Lucasfilm Foundation to endow the USC School of Cinematic Arts and construct a new building for the school.

Among the major facilities opened during the Sample administration were the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Library, Jane Hoffman Popovich and J. Kristoffer Popovich Hall, the International Residential College at Parkside, Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute, Ronald Tutor Hall, Ray R. Irani Hall, USC Healthcare Consultation Center II, the Galen Center, the Arts and Humanities Residential College at Parkside, and the USC School of Cinematic Arts complex. Additionally, fulfilling a long-held Trojan dream, ground was broken for the Ronald Tutor Campus Center in May 2008.

Sample oversaw a dramatic gain in USC’s academic prowess as well. In 1994, George Olah, director of the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The number of National Academy members on the USC faculty more than doubled during the Sample years, and sponsored research by USC investigators rose from $183.3 million to $464 million. USC also became world-renowned in the fields of communication, multimedia technologies and the life sciences as well as in cross-disciplinary teaching and research.

Sample stepped down from the presidency of USC effective August 2, 2010, taking a yearlong sabbatical before resuming his teaching and research work as a tenured member of the faculty of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

A New Era: President C. L. Max Nikias (2010– )

C. L. Max Nikias became the University of Southern California’s 11th president on August 3, 2010. He is the holder of the Robert C. Packard President’s Chair and the Malcolm R. Currie Chair in Technology and the Humanities.

As president, Nikias has articulated a vision for USC to attain undisputed, elite status as a global research university. His initiatives include recruiting a cadre of transformative, world-class faculty; elevating USC’s academic medical enterprise; expanding USC’s international presence; further improving the breadth and quality of USC’s outstanding student body; and advancing the largest fundraising campaign in the history of higher education.

The Campaign for the University of Southern California aims to raise $6 billion to advance the university’s academic priorities and expand its positive impact on the community and the world. Nikias’ first three years as president were highlighted by 23 transformative gifts that allowed USC to raise an unprecedented total of $3 billion.

Nikias brought the country’s largest literary festival, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, to USC. Also under his leadership, the university announced an alliance to establish the USC Pacific Asia Museum, and embarked on a capital construction initiative that already includes the McKay Center, Engemann Student Health Center, a new cinematic arts building, the University Club at Stoops Hall, the Soto Building on the Health Sciences Campus, Dauterive Hall and Wallis Annenberg Hall, as well as beautification projects for both of USC’s main campuses.

Before assuming the presidency, Nikias had served as USC’s chief academic officer since June 2005. In that role, he was credited with recruiting new academic leadership, strengthening the academic medical enterprise, attracting a series of major donations to the university, creating innovative cross-disciplinary programs and enhancing USC’s globalization efforts as well as increasing support for students at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels.

Nikias was instrumental in bringing the Shoah Foundation, originally established by filmmaker and USC trustee Steven Spielberg, to USC. The USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education’s repository of 52,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors represents the world’s largest visual archives digital library. Nikias also established the Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging, the Stevens Center for Innovation, the U.S.-China Institute, and the Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics. He launched Visions and Voices, USC’s campus-wide arts and humanities initiative, as well as a grant program to advance scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. In addition, he teaches freshmen about ancient Athenian democracy and drama.

With the goal of advancing medical and biological sciences and patient care at USC, Nikias spearheaded the integration of faculty practice plans at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, oversaw the transfer of Keck Hospital of USC and USC Norris Cancer Hospital from Tenet Healthcare Corporation to the university, and recruited a new leadership team for the university’s medical enterprise. He currently chairs the USC Health System Board.

In 2011, the university received a transformative $150 million naming gift from the W. M. Keck Foundation, a gift that unified USC’s medical enterprise under the name Keck Medicine of USC. This further aligned the missions of the Keck School of Medicine and Keck Medical Center (Keck Hospital of USC, USC Norris Cancer Hospital and the university’s faculty practices).

Nikias joined the university faculty in 1991. As dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering from 2001 to 2005, he solidified the school’s top-tier position, oversaw the expansion of its biomedical engineering enterprise and developed its distance-learning program into one of the largest in the country. He also established key partnerships with corporations, among them Pratt and Whitney, Airbus, Boeing, Chevron and Northrop Grumman, and led a fundraising campaign that brought in more than $250 million, including the historic $52 million school-naming gift from Andrew and Erna Viterbi.

Over his two-decade career as an active scholar, Nikias has been internationally recognized for his pioneering research on digital signal processing, digital media systems and biomedicine. He was founding director of two national research centers at USC: the NSF-funded Integrated Media Systems Center and the Department of Defense (DoD)-funded Center for Research on Applied Signal Processing. He has served as a senior consultant to a wide range of corporations and as a high-level consultant to the U.S. government, holding a security clearance for 15 years. The DoD has adopted a number of his innovations and patents in sonar, radar and communication systems. The author of more than 275 journal articles and conference papers, three textbooks and eight patents, Nikias has mentored more than 30 Ph.D. and postdoctoral students. Three of his publications have received best papers awards. Before coming to USC, he held faculty appointments at the University of Connecticut and Northeastern University.

Nikias is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a charter fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among other honors, he has received the IEEE Simon Ramo Medal; the University of New York at Buffalo’s Distinguished Alumni Award and Clifford C. Furnas Memorial Award; the Aristeia medal, the Republic of Cyprus’ highest honor in letters, arts and sciences; and the USC Black Alumni Association’s Thomas Kilgore Service Award. He also received a commendation for cutting-edge research from the governor of California.

Nikias graduated with honors from Famagusta Gymnasium, a school that emphasizes sciences, history and Greco-Roman classics. He received a diploma from the National Technical University of Athens (also known as National Metsovion Polytechnic, the oldest and most prestigious institution of higher education in Greece) and later earned his M.S. and Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He holds honorary doctorates from Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion and the University of Cyprus.