The news that wealthy parents spent huge amounts to illegally get their kids into the University of Southern California was the latest in a string of unwelcome scandals involving the school where I teach. But this particular news also highlighted something else: USC’s remarkable academic progress over the past 30 years.
Most students and younger faculty do not remember the old USC. In 1990, it was known more as a football school than an academic powerhouse, and ordinary kids with goodish grades didn’t need a “side door” to get in. But things have changed.
The average SAT score for admitted students has continually risen, from around the 50th percentile in 2008 to about the 95th percentile today, and the average ACT score is in the 97th percentile. Over the past decade, freshman applications have nearly doubled, and the admittance rate has dropped from 28% to less than 14%. Financial aid has meanwhile skyrocketed from $222 million to $400 million per year, which has allowed the school to admit more low-income students. It has also gone from 16% to 23% underrepresented minority students.
This increase in student quality and diversity has been matched by ambitious recruitment of top faculty. Between 1990 and 2018, the number of National Academy members on the faculty rose from 38 to more than 67. The number of Nobel laureates, MacArthur geniuses and Guggenheim fellows has climbed sharply. The USC of today is an elite research and teaching university, something it wouldn’t have been called even 10 years ago.
But these achievements remain fragile, and the combined weight of the scandals could put them in jeopardy without careful management.
From the start, not everyone with a stake in USC’s future has gotten fully on board with the type and pace of change. Many members of USC’s faculty predate the ambitious push of the past decade. And while a lot of them are excited about the school’s direction, some are openly hostile to the new, more competitive culture on campus.
While tenure is necessary for academic freedom, it can also be a shield for mediocrity. Some departments have resisted hiring the absolute best new faculty members, saying they don’t want to destroy the “family” feeling of the status quo. High-level research is difficult, and it comes with heavy pressure and an unrelenting quest for quality on the part of both faculty and administrators. Working to counter entrenched mediocrity is still a huge part of USC’s mission to become a top school.
Resistance to the “new” USC has also come from outside. Some alumni who have long considered themselves part of the “Trojan Family” are finding that their children and grandchildren can’t gain admission to USC, which is of course upsetting. Some of them are dismayed at seeing a university that isn’t the way they remember their alma mater.
The ongoing scandals have posed a different kind of challenge. USC’s rise has required ambitious fundraising, but it still does not have the financial means to fully compete with top-tier schools such as Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, or Princeton. The university’s ability to continue recruiting an academically elite and diverse group of students and faculty could be harmed if fundraising drops dramatically because of the revelations.
Another issue has been distraction, as university leaders have rightly focused attention and resources on managing scandals, addressing student wellness and instituting reforms and administrative transitions. We need all of those things. And we need more transparency and shared governance that includes faculty and students. But at the same time university officials attend to improving governance, they also need to keep pushing for the highest academic standards and raising the funds necessary to support them.
If elite students and faculty recruits get even a whiff that forward progress has stalled, they will be wary of coming to USC. For the moment, USC still can still attract and retain top faculty, but I have heard some of my colleagues fret about the future. They have no interest in hitching their careers to a declining institution, and who can blame them?
The university has reached a crucial juncture. Part of the new president’s job will be to turn the page on the scandals and be more transparent. But she also should make clear to her colleagues and the wider community that academic excellence is still the primary driver of what we do. If she does that, the top students, the transformative faculty — and the donations — will follow.