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Myths, meals and paying his dues: Q&A with new Provost Michael Quick

USC’s top academic officer has advice for students, a vision for the university — and a foodie side

Michael Quick
As provost, Michael Quick is the second-ranking officer after the president and is the chief academic officer of USC. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Michael Quick never set out to be a college administrator, but today he’s USC’s chief academic officer. A professor of biological sciences from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, he rose to become provost as of April 1.

Writer Merrill Balassone ’05 recently sat down with the affable administrator and neuroscientist known for his dry wit to discuss USC’s future, words of wisdom for students and his unintentional route to leadership.

You were a first-generation college student and you put in a lot of sweat equity to pay your own way. Is that what inspired you to make college more accessible?

My father worked tunnel construction his whole life. So when I was in college, I needed to pay for it. He was nice enough to get me some tunnel jobs with people he knew. Working in construction taught me a lot. It taught me not to be afraid. It taught me about how to work hard. I feel lucky every day I get up and I don’t have to go down into the tunnels.

I went to Oglethorpe University, a small liberal arts college in Atlanta. My high school grades were terrible, but the college saw something in me and said, “You’re worth taking a risk on.” I grew up in college.

I’m proud that USC has so many students who come from community college and financially diverse backgrounds. We do anything we can do to find students from a lot of different places. It’s great not only for them, but it’s great for this university. You learn so much by being around people who are not like you.

Given that USC’s past two provosts became college presidents [C. L. Max Nikias at USC and Elizabeth Garrett at Cornell University], do you see yourself in that role someday?

I don’t think about the future that way. Every job I’ve had, I’ve loved, and that was whether I was working construction or stocking grocery shelves. I’ve loved being a scientist. I’ve loved being a teacher. [Quick will continue to teach his undergraduate course on diseases of the nervous system one semester a year.] Being in the provost job, it’s certainly going to be challenging. There’s so much to do at this university, so I’m looking forward to it.

How do you balance great research and great teaching at USC?

What I love about USC is we have great people that are on different tracks. We have great faculty who purely do research and make amazing discoveries. We have faculty who are predominantly teachers, and they’re great in the classroom. Then we have faculty who mix those things. We want to find people who are passionate about what they do regardless of what that track is. People can contribute to this university, and this goes beyond the faculty, in a million different ways.

Since I’ve been at USC I come across people who aren’t just about making their lives better, but actually making this university better. They’re willing to put the time and the energy in. So it’s going to be fun to work with everyone to figure out what our next steps are.

You’ve often told students that having it all figured out by the time you enter college is a myth. Still true?

That is one of the things I absolutely believe, yes. I think students put way too much pressure on themselves, thinking that they’re supposed to have it all figured out by the time they come out of the womb. Take your whole life to figure out what you’re going to do with it.

You have a reputation as a foodie. Do you have any foodie wishes for the USC campus, if you have any power to make that happen?

Yeah, a big foodie. I have no idea where it came about. LA is such a great food city. It’s totally underappreciated. People always think of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, but man the LA food scene is terrific. It’s almost overwhelming the number of choices.

There are so many great, sort of mom-and-pop food vendor places that you could bring onto our campuses that serve terrific food from hundreds of different nationalities, that our students should be trying to expand their horizons a little bit. It would be a great opportunity for the community to bond with the university.

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