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USC's $100-Million Academic Pursuit

Education: The bid to upgrade its faculty may heat up bidding wars for the nation's best professors.


In a major initiative to upgrade its reputation and compete nationally for faculty superstars, USC is launching a $100-million effort to hire 100 high-profile professors over the next three years, campus officials said Friday.

The recruiting campaign will expand by nearly 25% the full-time faculty at the university's College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, which includes such departments as comparative literature, economics and biology. More broadly, it could heat up the bidding wars among the nation's major universities for academics with top-flight credentials, particularly in budding research fields.

USC officials said the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences--the biggest undergraduate division, but also home to many graduate students--traditionally has had a weaker reputation than other schools at USC. They said the lagging status of the college has threatened to hinder what has been a dramatic rise in the stature of the university in the last decade.

"In many ways, the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences is the core of a university, and if we wanted to achieve the position we wanted in the hierarchy of universities in the world, we needed to improve the college," said Lloyd Armstrong Jr., USC's provost.

Armstrong said a successful fund-raising campaign launched in 1993 and ending this year has so far collected more than $2.5 billion in gifts and pledges. It has provided USC with the resources to fund much of the hiring initiative.

USC officials said about two-thirds of the $100 million for the hiring effort, known as the senior faculty initiative, is already pledged or in hand for salaries, labs, support staff, moving expenses and housing aid. The rest is expected to be raised soon. "This is not an iffy thing," Armstrong said. "This is going to happen."

The university will focus on hiring high-profile professors in three broad areas: biology and other life sciences; urban studies and globalization; and language and culture. Officials said they have not begun to identify particular candidates.

Joseph Aoun, dean of the college since 2000, said the aim is to "single out initiatives that we can excel at and, at the same time, make a contribution not only to academia but the nation as a whole." Aoun emphasized the expansion in the life sciences, which he said has important implications for expanding biotechnology industries and related fields in Southern California.

The College of Letters, Arts & Sciences provides the majors for about 40% of USC's undergraduate students, and accounts for about 30% of its PhD candidates. The university's overall enrollment is nearly 31,000 at its main University Park campus south of downtown Los Angeles and its health sciences campus in Boyle Heights.

Higher education officials applauded the move as a bold stroke destined to draw attention to USC as an increasingly significant force on the national education scene.

"USC has clearly made a very important commitment to quality and to being a major player in the area of private higher education," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, which represents about 1,800 colleges and universities.

The recruiting campaign, Ward said, will draw the attention of the sorts of top-tier, highly recruited professors that USC wants.

"It's a very shrewd, very strategic move," he said. "They're saying they've got a war chest, that they'll be hiring in several thematic areas and that they're giving themselves three or four years to do it."

Recruiting such a large group, Ward added, puts out a message to potential recruits that "not only are they being hired, but that they may have new colleagues of similar stature," Ward said. "That's very attractive."

The announcement also is likely to throw down a gauntlet of sorts to top public universities, perhaps particularly UCLA, at a time when shrinking state budgets and small pay raises have made administrators worry about their ability to retain senior faculty.

Until now, UCLA officials have said they didn't worry that USC would be able to make serious runs at their faculty members.

Around the country, bidding wars have been especially hot in such fields as genomics, bioengineering and ethnic studies.

Harvard and Princeton earlier this year waged a high-stakes tug-of-war over prominent African American scholars, with Princeton in the end stealing away Harvard stars Cornel West and K. Anthony Appiah.

But some higher education officials question the trend, saying it rewards a tiny number of gifted academics at the expense of students, other faculty members and higher education as a whole.

Others, however, point to the success of New York University, which in recent years spent lavishly on faculty recruitment, scholarships and a new campus and managed to transform itself from a middling commuter school to one of the nation's premier private universities.

NYU's makeover grabbed the attention of many in higher education, including USC President Steven B. Sample.

USC has quietly succeeded over the last few years in luring such big-name faculty as Thomas H. Jordan, a geophysicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Kenneth H. Nealson, a geobiologist from Caltech; and James Higginbotham, a philosopher from Oxford University.

Armstrong said that after the $100 million is spent on initial salaries, equipment, research efforts and other costs over about three years, USC will budget about $30 million a year to continue such support. He said that in some cases, compensation packages for the new professors will exceed $200,000 a year, mainly in the competitive research fields.

Among the other enticements for some of the professors is a new $60-million life sciences building with cutting-edge equipment. Construction is scheduled to begin in January and to be completed in 2004. In addition, USC recently announced a $100-million effort to strengthen and step up recruiting for its graduate programs, mainly through financial aid.

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