University of Southern California
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About USC

A Brief History

Los Angeles was little more than a frontier town in the 1870s, when a group of public-spirited citizens with a reverence for learning first sought to establish a university in the region. Although the “city” still lacked paved streets, electric lights, telephones and a reliable fire alarm system, the effort to create an institution of higher education, led by members of the Southern California Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, found an enthusiastic reception among the more far-sighted residents, who were eager to advance their community.

Among the founders of USC, the prime mover was Judge Robert Maclay Widney, a leading Los Angeles businessman who had come to the area to practice law and develop real estate. It was Widney who, after 11 years, succeeded in forming the future university’s Board of Trustees and took up the challenge of securing a donation of property for the fledgling enterprise.

In 1879, three civic leaders — Ozro W. Childs, a Protestant horticulturist; former California governor John G. Downey, an Irish-Catholic businessman; and Isaias W. Hellman, a German-Jewish banker and philanthropist — deeded to the Board of Trustees 308 lots located in an area designated as “West Los Angeles,” near the intersection of today’s Vermont Avenue and Exposition Boulevard. A portion of the land was to be reserved for the actual campus, while sales of the remaining lots would create an endowment to provide the seeds of financial support for the institution. More than an act of generosity, the gift of land was an expression of assuredness about the future.

In a similar vote of confidence, not to mention a display of audacity, the Board of Trustees named the nascent institution, rather grandiosely, the University of Southern California.

The Era of the Founders (1880-1921)

On September 4, 1880 — 99 years to the day after the founding of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles — nearly a tenth of the city’s population braved the late summer heat and dust to witness the laying of the cornerstone for the university’s first building. Just days after the construction was completed, on October 6, 1880, USC opened its doors to welcome 53 students.

Marion McKinley Bovard became USC’s first president, under an initial agreement that put him in charge of the internal organization of the university as well as its educational program for a period of five years. Bovard presided over seven boom years prior to 1887 and then over an extended period of fiscal uncertainty and near collapse, until his untimely death in December 1891.

The man who took on the task of leading the university through the impending financial crisis was Joseph P. Widney, brother of Robert Maclay Widney and the first dean of USC’s medical school (founded in 1885). Widney served as president for three years, accepting no salary and paying most of his own expenses. In 1895, he stepped down from his post to resume his medical practice.

During the presidency of George W. White, USC continued to progress both financially and educationally. Although White returned to the Methodist ministry in 1899, the momentum built during his administration sustained the university throughout a four-year interregnum during which the Board of Trustees sought a suitable replacement.

George Finley Bovard, younger brother of USC’s first president, took the helm of the young university in 1903. Dedicated to keeping up with the demands of Southern California’s rapidly expanding population — which grew from 11,000 in 1880 to 319,000 in 1910 — USC began to evolve from a small, struggling institution into one of the principal seats of learning on the Pacific Coast.

While elsewhere in the country, the Carnegies, Cornells, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Stanfords had been heavily endowing universities during the late 19th century, USC forged ahead largely on the energies of its faculty, deans, presidents and trustees. Likewise, as challenging as the years of World War I proved to be, they demonstrated — as did the financial panic of the 1890s — that USC was vulnerable to economic cycles but nevertheless resilient in difficult times.

During the era of the founders, the forerunners to today’s schools or departments of architecture, business, dentistry, education, engineering, fine arts, journalism, law, marine biology, music, pharmacy, philosophy, religion and sociology were added to the university.

USC marked another high point when Los Angeles Times sportswriter Owen R. Bird dubbed the university’s spirited athletic teams the “Trojans” in 1912.

The von KleinSmid Era (1921-1947)

Rufus Bernhard von KleinSmid — or “Dr. Von” as he was affectionately known — became USC’s fifth president in 1921. By the end of his first decade in office, USC had attained full national accreditation, established a graduate school to unify graduate work across the university and become a large non-denominational institution. Additionally, the university implemented a number of pioneering academic initiatives.

Von KleinSmid created an extension division at USC in 1922, offering classes in locations ranging from Glendale to San Diego. In 1924, he founded the first school of international relations in the United States; in 1929, the nation’s second school of public administration was established at USC. Also in 1929, USC initiated the country’s first college-level program in cinematography. The first Ph.D. degree conferred in Southern California was awarded at USC in 1923.

Whereas the first priority of von KleinSmid’s administration was to expand professional training programs, the Great Depression arrived at decade’s end, and, once again, USC was forced to retrench. Non-essential courses were eliminated, and USC debuted the “University of the Air,” an educational outreach program broadcast on radio. Thanks to donors, von KleinSmid was able to proceed with an ambitious plan of capital expansion that added several major buildings to the campus, including Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library.

During World War II, military units took over several university buildings and the curriculum was reconfigured to include a wartime emphasis on aerospace science, geography, international relations, languages, photography and the like.

After the war, USC faced yet another challenge as the G.I. Bill brought former servicemen to campus for study. Enrollment soared from 8,500 in 1945 to more than 24,000 in 1947. Von KleinSmid, now 70 years old, announced that he would step down and become chancellor of the university for life.

The Era of Maturity (1946-1980)

As support for higher education increased during the post-war years, USC entered a new, modern era that brought increased significance both nationally and internationally. President Fred D. Fagg, Jr. began the process by instituting modern cost-accounting practices, purchasing land near the Los Angeles County Hospital for a health sciences campus, and establishing a development office. Fagg also initiated the construction of six buildings, set in motion an aggressive program of land acquisition and augmented the library collection by two-thirds.

In 1958, Norman H. Topping succeeded Fagg as president of USC, embarking on one of the most dynamic periods in the university’s history. Topping established a comprehensive planning commission that produced, in May 1961, the “Master Plan for Enterprise and Excellence in Education.” This courageous and forward-looking academic blueprint set a goal of raising $106,675,000 in new funds. Although Topping predicted that it might take 20 years to accomplish this goal, it was reached and surpassed in little more than five. All told, the campaign doubled USC’s endowment and added 30 new buildings to the university’s two campuses.

The crowning achievement of the Topping years was USC’s election to the Association of American Universities, an organization today made up of 62 leading public and private universities. The AAU bases membership on general excellence, with an emphasis on graduate and research programs.

When Topping stepped down in 1970, the mantle of leadership passed to John R. Hubbard, who charted his priority as bringing USC to even higher levels of academic distinction. Toward this end, Hubbard launched the “Toward Century II” campaign, an overwhelmingly successful fund-raising effort that brought in more than $309 million.

Although American higher education in the 1970s was characterized by lowered enrollments and a drop-off in funding, USC rose to new heights during this time. Ten major buildings were begun or completed; USC’s total number of endowed chairs and professorships rose to 67; applications for admission soared from 4,100 in 1970 to more than 11,000 in 1979; and the mean grade point average for admitted freshmen rose to 3.4 on a 4.0 scale.

The Hubbard administration also brought a renewed dedication to USC’s urban community. As an outward sign of this commitment, the university’s Joint Educational Project was founded in 1972.

Great Expectations (1980-1991)

James H. Zumberge was inaugurated as USC’s ninth president on May 10, 1981, during a ceremony that was the capstone of a year of celebrations marking the centennial of the university.

Building on an academic planning process that began early in his tenure, Zumberge focused on strengthening undergraduate education; expanding key doctoral, research, professional and health sciences programs; and forging stronger community connections. The Zumberge years also saw USC’s highly successful participation in the 1984 Olympics.

In addition, Zumberge launched “The Campaign for USC,” which at the time was the biggest fund-raising program in the university’s history. When it concluded in June 1990, the campaign had raised $641.6 million, contributing over $188 million to USC’s endowment and boosting annual support of university programs to unprecedented levels.

USC made major strides in funding for research during the Zumberge years as well. Sponsored research grew from $71.5 million in 1981 to $174.5 million in 1990 — a 144 percent increase. Major research efforts, such as the USC-based National Center for Integrated Photonic Technology and the Southern California Earthquake Center, contributed significantly to USC’s emergence as one of the nation’s premier research universities.

Among the more than a dozen major new buildings completed during Zumberge’s tenure were the Hedco Neurosciences Building, General William Lyon University Center, the Cinematic Arts Complex, Pertusati University Bookstore and Kaprielian Hall, as well as major additions to the architecture and fine arts library and the law school building. Plans for a new teaching library also got under way.

USC’s Health Sciences campus, too, underwent dramatic transformations during the Zumberge decade, nearly doubling in size with the acquisition of land and existing buildings from Los Angeles County. As Zumberge stepped down, the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, which opened in 1983, was in the final stages of fund-raising for a major building addition. Additionally, construction was nearing completion on Richard K. Eamer Medical Plaza, a cooperative project of the university and National Medical Enterprises that included the 284-bed USC University Hospital and USC Healthcare Consultation Center I.

Redefining the Research University (1991-2010)

Steven B. Sample, the 10th president of the University of Southern California, inaugurated his tenure by calling upon USC to strengthen undergraduate education, develop the Health Sciences campus into an international center of excellence, aggressively recruit a larger number of the very best doctoral and post-doctoral students, expand USC’s tradition of public service, and improve programs and services while conserving resources. Above all, however, he cautioned USC to avoid complacency and to fiercely maintain its focus on improving in every measure.

Despite a first year fraught with earthquakes, riots and fiscal difficulties, Sample personally drafted USC’s Role and Mission Statement and set in motion a strategic planning process that identified four initiatives — undergraduate education, interdisciplinary research and education, programs building upon the resources of Southern California and Los Angeles, and internationalization — for guiding USC to new heights throughout the 1990s.

Under Sample’s leadership, the university developed a distinctive core curriculum as well as a broad array of academic and professional minors that have made “breadth with depth” the hallmark of undergraduate education at USC. Thanks to these and other enhancements — including expanded opportunities for undergraduates to participate in interdisciplinary research — USC has become regarded nationally as a pacesetter in undergraduate education and has enrolled some of the most academically talented freshman classes in the country.

Challenging USC to redouble its time-honored tradition of service to community, Sample sharpened the university’s focus on improving schools and promoting safe streets in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding its two campuses. Among the flagship programs developed to meet these goals are the USC Good Neighbors Campaign, which channels faculty and staff giving into support of USC-community partnerships, and the Family of Schools, an alliance between the university and local schools that provides educational, cultural and development opportunities for neighborhood schoolchildren. This approach to community service became a national mark of distinction when the editors of Time magazine and the Princeton Review named USC “College of the Year 2000” in recognition of its ambitious social-outreach programs.

Sample also has steered USC to new fund-raising heights. Under the banner of “Building on Excellence,” the university mounted a $2.85 billion fund-raising drive that concluded in 2002 as the most successful campaign in the history of American higher education. At the time, USC was the only university to have received four nine-figure gifts — $120 million from the Annenberg Foundation to create the USC Annenberg Center for Communication; $113 million (later increased to $163 million) from Alfred Mann to establish the Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering; $110 million from the W. M. Keck Foundation for the Keck School of Medicine of USC; and a second gift from the Annenberg Foundation of $100 million. In 2006, USC received a fifth nine-figure gift: $175 million from the Lucasfilm Foundation to endow the USC School of Cinematic Arts and construct a new building for the school.

Among the major campus facilities opened during the Sample administration are the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Library, Jane Hoffman Popovich and J. Kristoffer Popovich Hall, the International Residential College at Parkside, Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute, Ronald Tutor Hall, Ray R. Irani Hall, USC Healthcare Consultation Center II, the Galen Center, the Arts and Humanities Residential College at Parkside, and the new USC School of Cinematic Arts complex. Additionally, fulfilling a long-held Trojan dream, the Ronald Tutor Campus Center is set to open in fall 2010.

Sample also has overseen a dramatic gain in USC’s academic prowess. In 1994, George Olah, director of the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and the faculty now includes 53 members of the three national academies recognized by the AAU. USC has become world-renowned in the fields of communication, multimedia technologies and the life sciences as well as in cross-disciplinary teaching and research. Likewise, sponsored research by USC investigators nearly doubled in the 1990s. Today, USC brings in nearly $464 million a year in contract and grant funds and has solidified its status as one of the leading research universities in the United States.

Pressing upward toward increasingly lofty goals, Sample spearheaded the development of a second strategic plan that was adopted by the Board of Trustees in 2004. This plan outlines a vision for the future in which USC reinvents the research university of the 21st century, and becomes “one of the most influential and productive universities in the world.”

President Sample’s distinguished career spans academic administration as well as teaching, research and its practical application. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Sample was on the faculty at Purdue University, held administrative posts with the Illinois Board of Higher Education and at the University of Nebraska, and served as president of the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, before joining USC. He has published numerous articles in the fields of science, engineering and higher education, and he invented a digital electronic control system that has been installed behind the touch panels in more than 300 million microwave ovens and other home appliances around the world. Sample was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1998 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. The recipient of numerous awards for his service and leadership, he also holds eight honorary degrees.

Throughout his career, Sample has continued to teach. During his first year at USC, he co‑taught a freshman seminar, “Science and Technology in Human Culture,” and he has since taught junior-level classes in electrical engineering. Since 1996, Sample and University Professor Warren Bennis have co-taught the course “The Art and Adventure of Leadership.” Largely growing out of his experience in teaching this course, Sample wrote a best-selling book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, which was named one of six “must-reads” for leaders by Harvard Management Update of the Harvard Business School and has been translated into five languages. He has also chaired a number of statewide and national groups examining the state of elementary, secondary and higher education.

After 19 years of taking USC farther faster than any other university in the country, Sample will step down from the presidency of USC effective August 2, 2010. He will take a yearlong sabbatical before resuming his teaching and research work as a tenured member of the faculty of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.