Can C.L. Max Nikias Turn USC into the Stanford of Southern California?

The president of USC is on a six billion dollar mission


alk the 226-acre grounds of the University of Southern California and you’ll see a school in the midst of a multibillion-dollar transformation. Massive construction projects—more than 80 in 2014 alone—rumble alongside sparkling new buildings that make the 124-year-old main campus look as sleek as an iPad (while earning USC the nickname “University of Summer Construction” by some of its students). Dozens of recently erected buildings are etched with the marquee names of USC’s wealthiest benefactors: the six-story, 98,000-square-foot Dr. Verna and Peter Dauterive Hall (a $30 million gift from Verna Dauterive, an educator and USC alum), which held its opening ceremony on September 3; the 88,000-square-foot Wallis Annenberg Hall, which opened this summer as part of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; the Engemann Student Health Center, a $15 million gift from Roger and Michele Engemann (she’s the daughter of the late Trojan baseball coach Rod Dedeaux); and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, home to the George Lucas and Steven Spielberg buildings as well as the $45 million Interactive Media Building, which is tricked out with the sort of technological amenities (motion sensors, Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets, touch-screen monitors) that look as if they were sprung from the set of a sci-fi blockbuster.

A generation ago USC was lauded for its film school and athletic programs, but the private university was dismissed by many as a safety school for wealthy kids who couldn’t get into UCLA. Within a relatively short period of time, thanks to a staggering amount of money, USC has rebranded itself as a top-tier university, the kind with Nobel Prize-winning professors, celebrity faculty members, and headline-making donations that rival those of endowment heavyweights Harvard and Stanford. In 2011, steel magnate David Dornsife and his wife, Dana, pledged $200 million—a university record—for the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. (My father is a professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife.) A year later Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged $20 million and launched a political think tank, now known as the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. Rounding out the epic gift giving—and upping the cool cred—are rap impresario Dr. Dre and music mogul Jimmy Iovine, who have put $70 million into a new entrepreneurial academy focused on the arts and technology. USC, Jimmy Iovine, and Andre Young Academy enrolled the first group of 25 students this fall.

These news-making projects—and the famous names attached to them—mark the midpoint of USC’s long-term fund-raising campaign to generate $6 billion by 2018, one of the most ambitious ever announced by an academic institution. (Not to be outdone in the endowment arms race, Harvard recently announced its plan to bring in $6.5 billion by 2018.) “I pushed it to $6 billion,” says C.L. Max Nikias, the 62-year-old president of USC, with a wide, slightly mischievous smile. “I said [to myself], ‘This is going to be a stretch, but if I succeed in exciting the Trojan family, then it’s going to be doable. We have to take that risk.’ ”

On this fall afternoon Nikias sports his professional uniform: dark suit and striped shirt set off by a shiny USC pin on his jacket lapel. He is sitting on a sofa inside the presidential dining room on the ground floor of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. Completed in 2010, the grand hall seems middle-aged compared with the newer buildings nearby. At the end of the room is a large polished dining table, where Nikias hosts dinners for the growing list of luminaries who pass through the campus these days. “This is the ultimate goal,” Nikias says, “to really set up this university academically, where there is no question that we belong in that pantheon of elite universities.” If the president meets his goal—at $3.4 billion, he’s more than halfway there—he’ll be known as one of the greatest academic rainmakers of all time.

This potential for modern mythological status suits the Greek Cypriot expat’s affinity for epic tales. Nikias came to USC in 1991, hired by the university to teach electrical engineering. But he credits his passion for Greco-Roman history with helping him advance to the president’s office in 2010. “I have always been fascinated by the role Themistocles played in the young democracy of Athens,” he says. “He stood out to me because of his role and accomplishments as a leader.” To those of you who slept through Classics 101, Themistocles was a politician, general, and war strategist who persuaded his fellow Athenians to build battleships and successfully defeated the much larger Persian navy in a crucial battle. (Nikias doesn’t mention the postscript about his later ostracization and exile by the Athenian government, which feared he had acquired too much power.)

Since assuming the presidency from his predecessor, Steven Sample—whose 19-year tenure is widely respected for (possibly) saving USC and (certainly) transforming it—Nikias has been relentless in beating Sample’s fund-raising record of close to $3 billion. It’s a compelling, albeit one-sided, competition, as the two men couldn’t be more different in their leadership styles. Sample was admired for being reserved, a leader who was most comfortable operating behind the scenes. Nikias is brash, theatrical, and prone to lofty rhetoric. “I don’t mean to appear self-serving in any way, but people give money when they trust the leadership of the university,” he says. “What makes me a good fund-raiser is that I articulate the visions and priorities of the future of the university. I also make the case for major donations, which can make a difference. I think I am a good listener. It’s about building relationships, and I have been successful in that.”

Nikias is forthcoming about those major donations and his university’s cachet. But this pay-for-prestige is unseemly to many academics, who have, at least in theory, eschewed the financial rewards of the marketplace for a more noble pursuit. “I think people worry that universities are just machines, where fund-raising is more important than academic goals,” says Bill Boyarsky, who taught journalism at USC from the 1990s to 2007, when he was a columnist at the Los Angeles Times. (He now writes for the political Web site Truthdig.) Nikias has the difficult task of balancing multiple roles—statesman, salesman, and intellectual—to mollify the academics while pitching the university’s future to media, real estate, and entertainment titans.

Iovine recalls how he initially approached USC administrators about a tentative multimillion-dollar investment, but he says Nikias closed the deal: “Max is a guy who sold me.” Ultimately Iovine contributed $50 million (of the total $70 million) for his namesake academy. “He told me he could do it and that he was excited to do it. He told me he would get [the building] done quickly, and here we are. Max did everything he said, and there wasn’t one bump along the way. Not one ‘we can’t.’ Do you know how hard that is? The only thing I heard from him is, ‘We can.’ ”

Nikias (center) believes that USC has the potential to be in the "pantheon of elite universities"
Nikias (center) believes that USC has the potential to be in the “pantheon of elite universities”


hen USC opened in 1880, the city’s population was 11,000. There were few paved roads and even fewer streetlights. In its first year USC had ten faculty members and 53 students. Tuition was $30 a year. During the next several decades, USC earned its reputation as a regional private school with loyal alumni and a strong athletic tradition, but it consistently fell short in national college rankings.

The early 1990s are often acknowledged as the school’s low point. “The perception was that they had a strong internal culture,” says Robin Kramer, who chairs the Pitzer College board of trustees and served as chief of staff to mayors Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa. “The USC family was strong, but in the 1990s, the go-to for intellectual capacity was UCLA.”

Nikias describes that period as “the world falling apart in Los Angeles.” The collapse of the aerospace industry gutted the local economy. Gang-related crimes in the area surrounding the campus were at an all-time high, and racial tensions were mounting and would soon erupt. Things had so deteriorated in South L.A., some USC trustees floated the idea of taking a page out of the Pepperdine handbook. Pepperdine’s original campus was at 79th Street and South Vernon Avenue and narrowly escaped being torched during the Watts riots in 1965. So Pepperdine’s trustees opted to move the school to its current location in Malibu. USC’s partisans considered a similar move to Orange County during the ’90s. Had it not been for then-president Sample’s refusal, the Trojans’ crosstown rival might have been UC Irvine.

The decision to stay put in South L.A. led to a few pivotal changes. Sample made a commitment to cultivate a higher-achieving student body, so he reached out to alumni and local philanthropists, prioritizing the financial investment in academic programs over sports—a risky move. He also doubled down on seeking talented professors and guest lecturers in L.A., including film director Robert Zemeckis. “All through the ’90s, Sample raised the admissions standards, and that was a very big deal,” Boyarsky says. “I noticed that the quality of students from when I started teaching to the time I quit had really improved.”

Twenty years ago the school’s acceptance rate was 70 percent of applicants. Today it’s 20 percent. Of the 18,000 undergraduate and 23,000 graduate students enrolled at USC, a sizable number are from outside California, with five times as many international students in attendance as there were in 1993. In the past 30 years USC has pickaxed its way up the annual list of best colleges published by U.S. News & World Report, from a ranking of 50 to its current spot at 25. With an annual tuition of $48,000, USC is no bargain, but its scholarship budget recently increased from $180 million to $285 million, one of the largest in the country. (In 2012, the typical USC student graduated with roughly $23,000 in loan debt, which is about the national average.)

USC has also strengthened its “brand” in health care. In 2009, USC’s Keck School of Medicine acquired USC Norris Cancer Hospital and USC University Hospital from Tenet Healthcare Corporation. Last year came Verdugo Hills. In July Keck planted its flag in Orange County by acquiring a small oncology network.

As USC is expanding, so are the greater community’s concerns about the school’s real estate monopoly on South L.A. In 2013, several state agencies granted USC a 98-year lease for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which allows the school to take in most of the venue’s future revenue and to tear down buildings on the property without a public hearing. On September 15 the university broke ground on the controversial USC Village, a $650 million city-approved project at Jefferson Boulevard and Hoover Street. The 1.25 million square feet of academic and commercial space, plus student housing, makes for a substantial footprint on the area. Neighborhood advocates say this aggressive gentrification will push out low-income residents. “USC is not an inclusive place,” says L.A. city council member and former police chief Bernard Parks. Despite being a USC alumnus (class of ’76), he’s one of the school’s most vocal critics. “They’re the greatest neighbor in the world as long as you do as they say.”

It seems Nikias, like his hero Themistocles, sees skirmishes as necessary in achieving the greater victory. “We are almost there,” he says of USC’s financial and academic zenith. “The last mile of the journey is always the steepest, the most difficult—and the most expensive.”

This feature originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine