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Nikias pledges to stand firm for academic rigor

Higher education enters a new era, USC president says

C. L. Max Nikias
USC President C. L. Max Nikias speaks to the faculty at Town & Gown, where he emphasized that the university must build on its strengths. (USC Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

An “academic earthquake” in the form of online education will throw higher education into a new era of change, but USC welcomes the challenge, said USC President C. L. Max Nikias in his annual addresses to faculty and staff on Feb. 10 and 13.

Acknowledging that “our children are inheriting a world that functions like nothing humanity has ever witnessed before,” Nikias emphasized that USC must build on its strengths as American universities grapple with an increasingly altered landscape.

“Some say [online education] is the end of the lecture hall as we know it. Some predict that only a few super-universities will survive,” he said. While some institutions are bracing for the worst or struggling to keep up, he noted that USC is not “copying or chasing anyone else.” Trends come and go, he added, but USC has found its own quality online learning model.

Balancing global with local

Nikias described how the university quietly has been building an online education model that is academically and financially viable. USC delivered 18 high-quality online graduate and continuing education programs to students from more than 40 countries, bringing in an unprecedented $123 million last year, he said. These numbers will climb as USC builds enrollment and doubles its online degree offerings in the next five years.

Questions loom among universities nationwide about how online education will force them to evolve, but the online movement has crystallized USC’s commitment to academic rigor and quality — and decisions about what can be taught online.

“USC does not and will not offer online degrees at the undergraduate level,” Nikias said. The years between 17 and 22, he noted, represent “a corridor of transformation” best nurtured with “face-to-face intellectual and creative encounters.”

USC also steers away from offering unproven online courses that accommodate thousands of remote students. Most students fail to complete these courses, which are of questionable quality, he said.

He also emphasized that USC faculty members maintain full control over the academic integrity of courses, even when the university partners with outside business partners in the online world — a concern among faculty nationwide.

Looking ahead to new programs

Nikias highlighted a variety of signs of the university’s success. For one, he flagged a new landmark in undergraduate selectivity: USC recently received a record 50,400 applications for 2,700 slots in this fall’s class.

While USC has led the charge in technology and the online education revolution, arts and humanities programs have experienced their own revolution.

Nikias credited USC’s “diversity of disciplines” for paving the way for the establishment of the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy of Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. And the establishment of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance now offers students a sixth school dedicated to arts.

Nikias tapped a variety of growing programs and centers as symbols of the university’s expansion. But growth requires support, he noted. USC launched its current $6 billion campaign because “our ambitious vision for USC’s academic future far exceeded our ability to pay for it,” he said.

In an unprecedented year of fundraising, the Campaign for the University of Southern California reached its mid-point in 2013 — achieving a record $3 billion in three years.

Half of the funds, Nikias said, have come from 23 transformative gifts of $25 million of more; the rest have come from 208,000 individual donations. That includes $738 million from USC parents — people who “have chosen to make an investment that goes far beyond paying tuition,” Nikias noted, citing their support as an endorsement of education quality.

While he praised USC’s success in scientific research, Nikias closed with a nod to the humanist tradition of the great universities.

“In this technological age,” he said, “I believe we have a special responsibility to model unconditional loyalty to humanities and the arts … We must all remain humanists in the great Renaissance tradition.”

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Nikias pledges to stand firm for academic rigor

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