Exclusive Interview: C. L. Max Nikias, President of University of Southern California (USC)  

Dr. Nikias is a behemoth in the field of Higher Education.  He serves as the President of University of Southern California (USC), holding this position since 2010.  He first began his career at USC in 1991, where he had several leadership roles in the university.  Dr. Nikias is from the Island of Cyprus.  After graduating from the National Technical University of Athens, he came to the U.S. with his wife Niki to pursue their graduate studies.   He earned his M.S. and Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.  He has contributed largely to Academia since then, not only through his administrative and leadership roles but also through his many publications and patents.  He has also received a variety of accolades that include, most recently, an honorary doctorate from the National Technical University of Athens.  This honor is awarded only to exceptional individuals who have excelled in their fields.  Dr. Nikias is a proud Hellene and a true leader in one of the world’s most renowned academic institutions.  Paul Kotrotsios, Founder and Publisher of the Hellenic News of America sat down with Dr. Nikias to talk more about his endeavors as President and his recent honorary doctorate.

Paul Kotrotsios (PK):  First and foremost, Dr. Nikias, congratulations on your recent award from National Technical University of Athens.  We are extremely proud of you not only for your honor but the fact that you honor us with your presidency at a world renowned research institution such as USC.  There are not many Greek-Americans in such a position, and it is wonderful to see that a Greek-American of your Academic caliber is able to attain such an achievement.  In regards to your resume, Mr. President, one wonders how could you possibly have achieved all this. We are proud of your accomplishments and we all know what an honor it is to have received the honorary doctorate from the National Technical University of Athens, your undergraduate Alma Matter.

Dr. C.L. Max Nikias (CN):  That’s right, I will tell you, Paul, it was a very moving ceremony. I was really touched by it.  It brought back for my wife and me a lot of fond memories from my undergraduate years in Athens. My wife was in Athens at the same time, also as an undergraduate student at the Athens University of Economics and Business.  She was pursuing her degree in accounting while I was studying at NTUA.  But those fine years, looking back were wonderful years, the very best days of our lives.  All those experiences shaped and defined us, and made us who we are today.

PK: Where were you born, Mr. President?

CN:  I was born in Cyprus, a village called Famagusta, Amochostos.  I graduated from the Famagusta Gymnasium, and as you know, back then in Cyprus, there was still a mandatory military draft for two years.  I served in the Cyprus National Guard and was one of forty Cypriots that was selected and sent to the island of Crete to the Σχολή Εφέδρων Αξιωματικών Πεζικού, Ηράκλειο Κρήτης.   After my discharge, I passed the Polytechnic exams in 1970 and 1972, I started at the University as a freshman.

PK: You are from Cyprus and thus aware of the human rights violations taking place there, what does being a Hellene mean to you? Part of the goal of this interview Mr. President is to praise you and to show you we appreciate your achievements in the educational intellectual spectrum, but on the other hand to also show the very good example you are leading to our younger Greek-American generation.

CN:  I have to tell you, even at the freshman seminars I teach, (made up of students of all different nationalities), I tell all my students that I honestly believe we are all Hellenes.  If you truly believe in the ideals of the classical Greek civilization, then you are a Hellene.  By ideals I mean the democratic ideals and individual freedom as represented in “Pericles’ Funeral Oration”, which is ‘Enas Hmnos Tis Dimokratias’.  If you believe in these ideals, that cradle western civilization, then at the end of the day, all those believers are Hellenes. That is how I felt even when I was going to school in Cyprus. I was fascinated by the richness of the ancient Greek civilization.  But I have to tell you, I realized for the first time in my life, when I came to the U.S., as a twenty-seven-year-old to do my graduate studies, what a lucky person I am that I moved into a nation that embodies a lot of these ideals from ancient Athens.  And that is what I tell my two daughters too.  That you are very fortunate because, on the one hand, you are Greek-American, you were born here, but on the other hand you have this rich heritage of ancient Greek civilization that not everybody can claim they have and that is very special.  And therefore I say you have to cherish that.

PK: How many universities were you at before you ended up at USC?

CN:  I have been fortunate that I have not had to move very much. I have been at USC since 1991, almost twenty-four years and prior to that I did my Ph.D. studies in NY at the University of NY in Buffalo.  I started my career as an assistant professor in engineering at the University of Connecticut.  Then, I worked for a few years at Northeastern University in Boston. Then USC recruited me in 1991, and I came here as a full-time professor of electrical engineering.

(PK):  As President of USC, what are you goals for the University?

(CN):  We set up a strategy here to make USC achieve the status of an undisputed academically elite global research university.  USC has come a long way academically, over several decades.   In the inaugural speech I gave as USC’s new president five years ago, I explained that we have this great opportunity in front of us and over the next ten years, if we do it right, – and we will – we can bring this university into the world, into the pantheon of undisputedly elite research universities and to achieve that, we need to set up a number of initiatives. Our first goal was recruiting transformative faculty.  And that’s exactly what we have been doing – recruiting faculty superstars from other universities.  Next, we have increased the quality of our student body substantially. Now, we have over fifty-three thousand applications for twenty-seven hundred spots in the freshman class. It’s a very popular school. Out of the twenty-seven hundred kids enrolled every year, six hundred of them during their high school education never received a B on their report card.  But this doesn’t mean that we are only looking for good grades and test scores; we are looking for well-rounded students.  We have strengths in areas such as the arts, engineering, humanities, and social sciences. For example, we have the world’s best school of cinematic arts. The quality of the institution is all about the quality of the people.  So, we have focused significantly on the quality of the faculty and the student body and we have had a lot of successes there. We currently have five Nobel laureates.  We have arguably the best brain sciences institute in the world, which we brought over from UCLA to USC. In fact, we just received a big donation of $ 50 million to endow that institute.  Also, we recruited professor Andrew McMahon, in the area of stem cell research from Harvard University with an entire laboratory team of twenty-five people.  Doing all of this, of course, requires money and that is why we have a very ambitious fundraising campaign.  Four years ago we announced a goal to raise $ 6 billion in three years.  In five years, we have raised $4.5 billion dollars.  It’s a campaign that received a lot of national attention as the largest in the history of U.S. Higher Education when we first announced it!  Another key aspect is that we have students now from all fifty different states and one hundred and fifteen different nations. In fact, I get more and more requests now from families in Greece that would like their children educated here.

(PK): You are an active member of your community, which initiatives are most important to you?

(CN):  There are a number of initiatives I am proud of, but the one I am most proud of is the one we call the Neighborhood Academic Initiative.  Our university has adopted fifteen local schools, which are the closest to the university campuses.  I am referring to grades 6-12 with youth who are basically the children of underrepresented minorities. They come to the campus every weekend and USC students volunteer and provide tutoring for these children throughout the week.  Our goal is to prepare these kids to go to college, once they graduate high school. We have six hundred and fifty students enrolled in the Neighborhood Academic Initiative. And every year sixty to seventy students graduate – and all of them go to college. We have a 100% success rate.  I am very proud of the difference this initiative makes.

(PK):  How do you determine or evaluate success?

(CN):  My background is in engineering; I am a very strong believer that nothing improves unless you measure it.  Internally, we have a number of very different metrics that reflect academic improvements, in many different areas and in many different disciplines, and this is how I monitor our programs. This is how I hold my senior officers and the members of my cabinet accountable for the number of initiatives we have in place.  But, the ultimate success in a university environment, the overarching principle, is the improvement you achieve in your academic reputation.   In a university environment, the only equity that we have is our academic reputation and continuing to improve this will always be a key metric.

(PK):  What qualities do you think are the most important in leadership?

(CN):  That is a really good question Paul, and if you do not mind I would like to take you back to the Greeks. Imagine a triangle with three corners.  Starting at the base, I will put the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who teaches us virtue through character. Many great leaders have fallen as a result of character flaws. On another side of the triangle, I put Plato, whose virtue is knowledge. So, the more educated you are, the more qualified you become to lead an organization. And at the top of the triangle is CICERO, who teaches reason and good judgment, which clearly comes with experience.  For example, there are people who have impeccable character, with excellent knowledge, but cannot make a decision because they lack the judgment.  But if you combine these three qualities –  good character, knowledge and good judgment –  then I think that is the foundation of great leadership.  Furthermore, you have to lead by example, demonstrate humility, but on the other hand you have to be a risk taker and be decisive once you make that decision.  Then, there is one final overarching factor; this is the pace I set up for everybody.  At USC, we act with a sense of urgency.  In other words, when we are advancing the academic agenda of the university, we want our policies carried out effectively and urgently.

 

Photos courtesy of USC and NTUA