Wanda Austin USC president with Provost Michael Quick
USC interim President Wanda Austin now steers the university’s overall direction, while Provost Michael Quick continues to oversee academic issues. (Photo/ Karen Ballard)

The USC Board of Trustees in August appointed Wanda M. Austin PhD ’88 as interim president. Known for her work in aeronautics and systems engineering, Austin is former president and CEO of The Aerospace Corp. The first USC graduate, woman and African-American to lead USC, she will carry the university forward until a new president takes office. She recently spoke with USC University Communications’ David Medzerian about her vision for the university.

How do you see your role as USC’s interim president?

I need to think about our students, making sure that we are fully prepared to embrace them in the way that gives them the confidence that they are going to have the academic experience that they expected, and to be able to reassure parents that this is a great decision for their student, one that really ensures that they’re going to have a bright and promising future.

I need to engage with our faculty and remind them about the wonderful opportunity that they have to shape the minds and direction that our future leaders are going to go. And I need to embrace our staff and tell them that we appreciate all the hard work they do to make everything else possible.

It’s also very important to have open communication across all of our stakeholders: alumni, students, faculty, everyone who is impacted by what’s going on here — and that includes the local community. On a national level, we need to make sure that people understand the phenomenal things that are happening on this campus.

How will the university ensure that students get a top-tier academic experience at USC?

By making sure that they have an opportunity to explore things that they don’t even know about. They have to take advantage of the rich experiences that are here — not only the science-engineering-technology work, but the arts, Visions & Voices, the fact that you’re situated in the greater Los Angeles area, which is the focal point to most anything you can think of. We have to make sure that the students understand that that’s all part of their academic experience, that we want them to be well rounded, well-informed global citizens by the time they leave.

Where would you like to see the university when you complete your time as interim president?

I’d like to see the university take the wonderful things that are already happening and make them better. I want us to have that culture of: Yes, we did a good job, but if we work on it — if we try something a little different, if we bring in some other people — we can add another dimension to what we’ve already achieved.

How can we best move the university forward?

One thing is to make sure we are living our values. We have our values on Tommy Trojan, but as we make decisions, are these decisions consistent with the values that we have? My focus really is about making sure that we’re doing our job and that we’re doing that consistent with our values.

Let’s talk about the situation involving the former staff gynecologist at the student health center.

At no time does anyone here expect that a student who comes to this campus and uses a service on this campus doesn’t get the very best of care, or feel secure and supported. We have failed if we find circumstances where we have allowed that to be the case.

The first thing we have to do is come together as a community and realize that we are all in this together. Everyone who has any association with USC has the opportunity to say, “Hey, I see an area where we could be better.” And that voice needs to be heard, that voice needs to be encouraged.

I really want to stress that in my short time, however long it is, one of the things we can do is to make sure that we have a culture where people know that it’s OK to say, “I think we have an opportunity to make an improvement.”

It’s also important for us to do proactive education so that people know what’s right, and what’s appropriate, and what’s ethical, and as you step on this campus, have it be reinforced to you that this is a place where we have zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior, we have zero tolerance for people not being safe and secure, and that you can turn to multiple places for help — whatever is required for you to feel comfortable.

This has to be one of the things that we talk about and focus on, because if you don’t focus on it and pay attention to it, it’s not going to change — and we have to change.

I want us to have that culture of: Yes, we did a good job, but if we work on it — if we try something a little different, if we bring in some other people — we can add another dimension to what we’ve already achieved.

Wanda Austin

You became the first female and African-American CEO of The Aerospace Corp. Do you see yourself as a pioneer?

No, because pioneers are bigger than life. But I do see myself as having an opportunity to be encouraging to others. When you look at my life, at key times someone said to me, “Of course you can do that.”

I feel like I have the opportunity to be able to do that for others — to say, “Of course you can achieve your dreams; of course you can achieve your goals.”

How did your time as a CEO prepare you to become president at USC?

It’s not just my time as a CEO. It’s my time as an inner-city child who was afforded the opportunity to get a great education. … It’s my time of going to a first-class high school focused on math and science that enabled me to believe that I could be whatever I wanted to be in the world.

By the time I joined The Aerospace Corporation, I didn’t know I was going to be a CEO. But each one of the projects I worked on, I learned something new. I learned about teams. I learned about working with people. I learned about making decisions when there are some unknowns, and how you work your way through that.

I think all of my experiences have culminated in giving me a rich toolbox that I can draw on for the things that I need to address here at USC.