Photo by Gus Ruelas

Michael Quick might not yet be a household name for the Trojan Family, but give him time. The USC Dornsife professor of biological sciences recently was chosen from more than 200 candidates, including several university presidents, to become USC’s new provost.

We 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, 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 who 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.

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

I wish… 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.