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Why no one should be 'thrilled' or 'elated' over the downfall of Max Nikias at USC

Why no one should be 'thrilled' or 'elated' over the downfall of Max Nikias at USC
USC President Max Nikias addressing students on May 6. (Ziva Santop/EPA-EFE/REX)

In the midst of the rush to judgment of USC President C.L. Max Nikias by people who are “thrilled” and “elated” with his downfall, his enormous achievements at the university have been ignored and minimized.

Certainly USC deserves criticism in response to the governance problems uncovered over the last year at the school. But just one perspective — a negative one — has dominated recent coverage of Nikias. It’s crucial to point out that many among the faculty did not sign the letter calling on him to resign, and they were not merely neutral or undecided, they privately indicated their support for him.

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The potshots and screeds against Nikias have focused on his emphasis on fund-raising, but few seem to care what the funds were for, what has been accomplished at USC — information that is publicly available for anyone who can stand aside, even briefly, from the pervasive emotions of the moment.

When Nikias became provost in 2005, one of his first acts was to institute Visions and Voices, an arts and humanities program that is free to all students, bringing writers, actors, dancers and other prominent artists to campus to create a vibrant nighttime activity rather than the commuter wasteland that had existed before.

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When he took over the top job in 2010, Nikias built on the legacy of former President Steven Sample and then decisively moved it forward, raising the university’s profile.

It does little good to vilify someone who has presided over so many positive changes at USC.


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More than 100 endowed faculty chairs and 20 new research centers were established under Nikias’ leadership and with the funds he raised. The number of residential colleges, where students can fruitfully interact with faculty, graduate students and each other, increased from one to 15. Older campus buildings were renovated and new ones added, including the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, and the Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. The campus itself has been beautified with more than a thousand new trees as well as numerous places for students and faculty to sit, have coffee and converse.

And if you are in search of an ethical as well as a bricks-and-mortar legacy, consider his enormous expansion of the diversity of USC's community of scholars, and especially his strong support of first-generation students, students from foster families and DACA students.

The USC student body now is drawn from all 50 states and 129 countries. Sixteen percent of the incoming freshman class will be the first in their families to attend college; about a quarter are underrepresented minorities. Two-thirds of all USC students receive financial aid, which has increased almost 80% under Nikias, from $187 million to $325 million — the biggest financial aid pool in America. Very few “spoiled children” here.

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Nor is USC any longer the University of Second Choice. The university is rated 15th nationally by the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings, and USC this year had 63,000 freshman applications. I could easily go on for pages detailing the innovative and rewarding changes for the better that occurred under Nikias’ tenure and as a direct result of his efforts to make USC a more outstanding institution of learning.

At the same time, I don’t discount the deficiencies in USC’s administration. Some of them in my view are the result of the university’s history as a congeries of schools that fiscally are supposed to be “tubs on their own bottoms” — self-sufficient, in other words — justifying their budgets and in competition with other schools for further support. That bunker mentality leads to an unwillingness to expose problems to the upper administration, a reluctance made worse by USC’s unparalleled growth in size and prestige over the last several years.

I understand that because of his position, Nikias has become both the symbolic and actual target of justified criticisms and sometimes ill-founded anger. But it does little good to vilify someone who has presided over so many positive changes at USC. I will regret the loss of his leadership. I came to USC 35 years ago, drawn by the sense of a university on the move, full of ambition for a brighter future. Max Nikias was an important part of that continuing story. I believe that the truly substantial things he did to make it a better place will endure.

Leo Braudy is University Professor and Bing Professor of English at USC. Among his numerous books are “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History,” and “From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity.”

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