C.L. Max Nikias: Scaling the Walls of Higher Education

The road to the presidency – of any office – is distinguished by a series of shining achievements that indicate a propensity for leadership. But upon arrival to this prestigious […]

The road to the presidency – of any office – is distinguished by a series of shining achievements that indicate a propensity for leadership. But upon arrival to this prestigious post, a new journey awaits. The most effective leaders harness an amalgamation of reputation and transferable skill to build an even higher set of noteworthy accomplishments.

Dr. C. L. Max Nikias is a leader of rare quality. A pioneer in the field of digital signal processing, a number of his innovations and patents in sonar, radar, and communications systems have been adopted by the U.S. Department of Defense. He rose up the USC ranks––serving as professor, director of national research centers, dean of the school of engineering, and provost––before becoming just the 11th president in the university’s 135-year history. (To lend proper perspective, there have been 26 U.S. presidents during the same time period.)

Born on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, Nikias graduated from the National Technical University of Athens in 1977, the same year he married his wife, Niki. He became a U.S. citizen in 1989 and joined the USC faculty in 1991, serving as founding director for two university-based research centers – Integrated Media Systems Center and Center for Research on Applied Signal Processing. He was Dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering from 2001-2005 and served as university provost from 2005 until his appointment to president.

This writer was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Nikias in late 2010 on the occasion of CSQ’s Reagan Centennial edition. At the time, he was just wrapping up his first quarter in his new position. One of the topics we discussed was the accelerated rate of change happening in education, technology, and the world at large: The incoming freshmen of 2010 would be entering a very different professional world by the time they earned their undergraduate degrees.

Four years later, this prediction has come to pass, and yet Nikias the man is refreshingly unchanged. His genial manner and jovial disposition are still intact, and his vision for where he wants to take USC is endlessly inspiring. In 2011, Nikias announced an ambitious fundraising campaign, Fas Regna Trojae, which translates to “The Destined Reign of Troy,” or simply The Campaign. With the lofty objective of raising $6 billion in private support from individuals, foundations, and corporations by 2018, Nikias is determined to cement the school’s status as a leading research institution. As of Sept. 4, 2014, $3.65B has been given by 248,000 donors.


C.L. Max Nikias and Colony Capital CEO, Thomas Barrack, Jr.

The Art of the ask

Of course, some of those individuals have given rather substantially. At the time of our interview, the university had received 23 “transformative” gifts of $25 million or more.

In January, renowned inventor and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gary Michelson made a $50 million gift to establish the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience. Michelson never attended USC and had no previous ties with the institution, so Nikias found it especially gratifying to receive such a gift. “He goes where the best people are and that’s how he makes his investments,” says Nikias. “It was a major extent of recognition of who we are and what we are doing in this area.”

Other donors of note include Dana and David Dornsife ($200 million earmarked for USC’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences), the W. M. Keck Foundation for medicine ($142 million), Julie and John Mork ($110 million to support student scholarships), Jimmy Iovine and Andre (Dr. Dre) Young ($70 million for The Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation), and the Price Family Charitable Fund ($50 million for the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy). An anonymous donor also contributed $142 million.

With the lofty objective of raising $6 billion in private support from individuals, foundations, and corporations by 2018, Nikias is determined to cement the school’s status as a leading research institution. As of Sept. 4, 2014, $3.65B has been given by 248,000 donors.

As the beneficiary of such overflowing generosity, I asked Nikias his secret for the delicate and skillful tugging of such bountiful purse strings. When he was dean of the engineering school and provost, Nikias tells me, he was very active in fundraising, with mixed results. But in his first year as president, no one turned him down. “That was a big surprise to me,” he says. “I was very careful and very respectful of whom I solicited.  Some of those donors would have deferred it, but being president and soliciting them” carried undeniable clout.

higher learning with no ceiling

“USC has made a major economic impact on the city,” Nikias points out with palpable pride. Being the largest private employer in Los Angeles is a distinction that carries with it a big responsibility. “We have close to 26,000 people on the USC payroll, including work-study students.” The university’s influence extends far beyond that of higher education. “We also have our medical enterprise,” he says. The university’s medical and health sciences budget has grown from 14% to 43% since Nikias was named president. “When it comes to patient care and what we contribute in that sector not just for the city but for the world, we are making major investments, and already that makes a big difference.”

It is the overall state of education, however, that is of paramount importance to Nikias, as the quality of the K-12 system directly impacts the overall strength and diversity of USC’s applicant pool each year. The university has “adopted” 15 secondary education facilities, supporting them with IT computing infrastructure, teacher training, and neighborhood-based academic initiatives that prep students from disadvantages socioeconomic backgrouns for college. “We have more than 600 kids enrolled in this program from grades 9 to 12, and every year we graduate about 60 or 70 kids that go to college,” he says. “About half of them meet our academic standards, and they come to USC for free for four years.” This program represents a $35 million annual investment, according to Nikias.

This year, the school received more than 51,000 completed applications for 2,700 available spots in the 2014 freshman enrollment class. The diverse pool of applicants covers all socioeconomic backgrounds and is a melting pot of geography and culture. USC students hail from all 50 states, a mere footnote when one considers the fact that 115 nations are represented by the international student body. “Today, 22 percent of our freshman class is an underrepresented minority, primarily Latino or African American,” Nikias says. “Fourteen percent in our freshman class [is] the first generation to go to college,” he continues, his voice showing a sense of awe at the very fact. “We offer out of our own resources $285 million per year of financial aid to students.”

The playing field may be level, but USC standards for matriculation are nonetheless highly competitive. On average, each year the student body adds 600 students who have accumulated perfect GPAs, with SAT scores that corroborate this elevated level of scholastic excellence.

There is a geographic exclusivity that USC enjoys, if only for one exception to the north. “If you take a look at a map of the U.S. and draw a line from Chicago all the way down to Houston, you only see two large, private, top research universities: USC and Stanford. The other 25 competitors of ours are east of Chicago,” Nikias says. “Stanford is a great university, but we are very different from them – and we want to be different. We are defining our own identity.”


Dr. Gary K. Michelson (left) donated $50 million to USC in early 2014
Photo: Steve Cohn

transformative gifts

Nikias points out that the range of curriculum choices available to students, from the medical and life sciences to arts and humanities, offers a plethora of options for specific  disciplines and combinations of study that further serve to enrich the pursuits of the individual.

In 2012, the university established its sixth art school, the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, the result of an endowment gift made by life trustee Glorya Kaufman. In fall 2015, the first class of BFA dance majors will begin study in the three-story, state-of-the-art complex, which officially broke ground in April. The school will also have an exclusive partnership with Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles.

Nikias sees the USC Michelson School for Convergent Bioscience as an avenue for forging a lasting partnership with the city to stimulate the growth of the biomedical industry in Los Angeles. USC research expenditures totaled $646 million for 2012-2013, which translates into an abundance of intellectual property. “A lot of IP is being generated on our campuses as a research university [which] will spin off to business startups or [get] license[d] to companies outside,” Nikias says. “So working with the city and the county, we would like to set up a biomedical technology park adjacent to our health sciences campus.”

Nikias does not let his ambitious goals delude the realities involved when communicating with donors, whether prospective or committed. “Anything I promise, I make sure we deliver,” he states. “That’s a big deal.” The “donor’s remorse” that comes with the feelings of a relationship that has not been well managed has lasting implications and can effectively cripple a program before its has taken root.

On the other hand, earnestness, integrity, and consistent follow-through can reap exponential dividends and can make donors of transformational gifts among the most valued ambassadors of the university.

Such was the case when Leonard and Pamela Schaeffer committed $25 million for the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics in 2009. “Leonard has a great network of contacts in this area, especially health economists and the implications of that in national policy, so he chairs the advisory board of the Institute,” Nikias informs me. “With his help, we were able to recruit very prominent people.” Among those serving on the Advisory Board for the Schaeffer Center are Robert Bradway (pres. & CEO, Amgen), Thomas Priselac (pres. & CEO, Cedars-Sinai Health System), and upper-management executives from more than a dozen major healthcare companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, the California Hospital Association, and Johnson & Johnson.


An independent study by the LA Connective Corporation assessed the economic impact of USC to the City of LA at more than $5 billion
Photo: Dennis Roy Coronel

a new lease on sports

In May, the university signed a new 98-year lease with the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home field for the Trojan football team. An iconic LA sports venue, the Coliseum opened in 1923 and hosted the 1932 and 1984 Olympic Games. It will be the host site for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. “This is a landmark not just for Los Angeles but for the nation, and we assume the responsibility to upgrade and improve it,” pledges Nikias, adding that the university will invest $75 million in the stadium over the next decade. “The mayor is going to bid for the 2022 Olympics, and I’ve got news for you,” promises Nikias. “USC is going to upgrade that stadium and [put Los Angeles] in a position to host the Olympic Games.”

At his annual address to USC faculty last February, Nikias, said, “Great businesses will open and close, and great nations will rise and disappear. Great universities, however, persist through it all.”

The philosophy of C. L. Max Nikias, and the eternal optimism with which he conveys it, hits a harmonious note with overarching goals of the institution he leads. One is challenged to find a silver lining, mainly because it’s difficult to spot a cloud on the USC landscape. Such is the state of education at Southern California’s leading academic research institution.

C. L. Max Nikias

President | University of Southern California




Beverly Hills