USC President Folt shares varsity's vision, India connect & more in an interview - Hindustan Times

HT interview: USC President Carol Folt discusses university's India connect, unique identity, success stories and more

Feb 26, 2024 06:14 PM IST

President Folt shares USC's vision and discusses its unique identity as a school of schools and highlights the success stories of Indian alumni.

In an e-mail interview with HT Digital, President Carol L. Folt of the University of Southern California (USC) shares her insights on the institution's vision and future plans. President Folt talks about university's unique identity, initiatives, and groundbreaking developments such as the recently announced USC School of Advanced Computing.

University of Southern California President Dr Carol Folt welcomes the audience at the USC-India Innovation Summit in Mumbai.
University of Southern California President Dr Carol Folt welcomes the audience at the USC-India Innovation Summit in Mumbai.

Congratulations on assuming the role of president at USC, one of the most prestigious universities. Could you provide us with your perspective on USC and how you envision its future?

USC is a big, great, fast university that is taking on the grand challenges of the world and pioneering solutions across disciplines and through path-breaking research. We can do this because we are uniquely connected – through nearly 500,000 passionate alumni in more than 150 countries, including tens of thousands in India who are inventing the future today, though innovation, entrepreneurism and transformational growth. The strength and power of the Trojan Family is truly unmatched.

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USC is an unparalleled constellation of schools, centers and institutes. We just announced our 23rd school, the School of Advanced Computing – led by Indian native Gaurav Sukhatme. Unlike most other private universities, we have a large enrollment of 21,000 undergraduate students, and more than 28,000 graduate students. The predominant number of graduate students are in Technology, Medicine and Business but they're also in Pharmacy, in Cinema, and in Law. Being located in the creative and technological heart of Los Angeles, there’s no place like us in American higher education. Our large size allows for a diverse range of academic programs and research opportunities. At USC, we combine forces to boost our multi-hyphenate creative economies in business, in the labs, in the arts, and on the screen.

One-fourth of our overall student body is comprised of international students. More than 20% are Indian. Notably, in the Graduate School, the international student representation surges to nearly 50%. Our Indian students develop an extremely wide network. They take care of each other, and they feel very connected. I often compare USC to a major international airport: a large population of diverse students, always on the move, engaging with people from different cultures, and learning to see the world from a global perspective other than their own.

We've grown as a university almost 20% in just over a decade. Our research portfolio in that time has nearly doubled, and research spending surpassed $1 billion last year for the first-time ever. Our Indian students and Indian faculty have been leaders in that research and innovation ecosystem. We are continuing to move, and move fast.

USC has been a preferred destination for many Indian students. What, in your view, makes USC an attractive choice for these students, and how do you plan to enhance this appeal?

When I talk about what USC has to offer Indian students, I often say USC is a school of schools for a country of countries. With schools and an inter-disciplinary model that allows students to explore their passions outside a major, we give Indian student an opportunity to build a portfolio of diverse skillsets that will serve them well when they return home to India to build their careers.

One of the reasons students choose USC over many of our peers is the fact that our campus will feel welcoming and like home on day one. With over a fifth of our international student body originating from India, this vibrant community comprises nearly 2,700 students. They actively engage in learning, living, and exploring our picturesque campus and beyond on a daily basis. Indian students find friendship and community through the Association of Indian Students (AIS), the largest student group at USC, whose roots go back to the early 1970s. The association brings students together and annually hosts cultural celebrations such as Diwali and Holi.

Even cricket, India’s most popular sport, has a home at USC through the Trojan Cricket Club. Established in 1992, this club is one of the top five sports clubs at USC, consistently attracting around 200 new members annually. As an aside, I may be the only U.S. university president who is also a passionate Cricket fan. My husband, who is originally from Australia, introduced the sport to me early in our relationship and I was hooked!

What is your vision for USC, and how do you intend to address current and future challenges to propel the university forward?

USC is all about solving grand, global challenges like sustainable energy and technologies, green medicine, and ways to close the digital divide. Our presidential moonshots are tailor-made to tackle these challenges. Those moonshots are: Frontiers in Computing, Health Sciences 3.0, USC Competes, USC Athletics and Sustainable Urban Futures. Over many decades, USC conducted important, groundbreaking research across many of those moonshots in India, with many more underway right now in collaboration with partnering universities and organizations throughout the country.

Can you shed light on the USC School of Advanced Computing - Frontiers of Computing and its role within the university's academic landscape?

While we were in India, we announced the new USC School of Advanced Computing, a key part of the 10-year, $1 billion+ Frontiers of Computing Initiative. The new school will position the university to be the leading source of tech talent on the West Coast. Within the next decade, more than 28,000 USC students will graduate with computing-related proficiency across different disciplines and degrees, preparing them for tech-forward professions of the future. We also introduced Gaurav Sukhatme as the inaugural director of the USC School of Advanced Computing. Gaurav’s expertise is in networked robots and field robotics, and he received his undergraduate education from IIT Bombay in Computer Science and Engineering.

In addition, the new school will serve as a nexus and incubator for advanced computation projects for students and faculty. It will spur research and innovation in advanced computing technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, data science, blockchain and quantum information. These initiatives will also be a big part of our plans to leverage our current partnerships in India and expand to include more collaborations across institutes and industry.

USC stands out among reputed universities. What distinguishes USC, and how do you plan to further strengthen its unique identity?

We are a school of schools. USC strives to combine forces to boost our multi-hyphenate creative economies in business, in the labs, in the arts, and on the screen. It is possible to come to USC to be an engineer and also study gaming, theater or creative writing to build upon personal passions and interests that help create a more diverse professional skillset.

Due to our location in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world’s most dynamic creative, cultural and tech centers, USC is able to offer a unique university experience like no other. We are also distinguished by our connections – nearly 500,000 passionate alumni in more than 150 countries, including tens of thousands in India who are inventing the future today, though innovation, entrepreneurism and transformational growth. The strength and power of the Trojan Family is truly unmatched.

USC is at the forefront of innovation in education, computer science and the arts, and we are uniquely positioned to understand and influence how this emerging technology is changing the ways we live, work and play. There are so many initiatives underway to strengthen this unique identity.

We established the new Center for Generative AI and Society in March 2023, almost the same time when ChatGPT became a global phenomenon. The mission of this new $10 million center is to explore the transformative impact of artificial intelligence on culture, education, media and society.

The new center will seed research, convene experts and expand the university’s national leadership with a special focus on the ethical use and innovation of generative AI. The center aims to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow by giving them access to the latest AI technology, and while fostering education grounded in the highest standards of integrity and accountability. The center will mobilize the expertise of all of USC’s 23 schools to explore themes across multiple industry sectors and professions, as well as support further research and the development of educational programs.

Considering the financial constraints some talented students from countries like India face, do you believe there is a need for USC to accommodate such students? If so, what steps is USC taking in this direction, and what are the future plans?

USC provides financial aid to international students in the form of merit-based scholarships, exclusively to undergraduate students, and on-campus work, open to all students. My goal is to develop additional sources of funding to make our university more accessible to talented students globally.

We are encouraging our alumni and the Indian business community to consider contributing to a new fund we’ve created to help provide additional financial support for Indian students.

Is establishing a USC campus in India feasible? How do you plan to cultivate meaningful and enduring partnerships with Indian institutions, and what initiatives are in place to foster this collaboration?

We don’t intend to set up a campus here and don’t believe foreign institution can operate better than those based in India. In addition, we know the most authentic, robust USC experience can only be had in Los Angeles; we simply could not replicate the full USC experience here. That’s why we brought our largest delegation ever to India. We are actively exploring opportunities for collaboration, exchange programs, and partnerships with Indian institutions.

In fact, during our trip to India we signed two important MOU’s:

- The USC Viterbi School of Engineering signed an MOU with the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Viterbi has already partnered with the Indian Institute of Technology at a number of campuses across India.

The USC Marshall School of Business signed a new MOU on January 16th with BITS School of Management in Mumbai that allows for greater academic exchange between our schools. This is in addition to a recent partnership signed with the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research to allow students from SP Jain to have the opportunity to graduate from Marshall’s M.S. in Global Supply Chain Management program.

Could you share success stories of Indian alumni who have studied at USC and achieved notable success in their respective fields? How has USC played a role in their accomplishments?

We have countless outstanding alumni from India who are making significant contributions to their respective industries. During our USC-India Partner the Future Innovation Summit on January 16, I hosted a panel featuring three of our alums who are already building amazing careers in India. In fact, everywhere we went, when we met with our alumni here, it was apparent that they are returning to India from Los Angeles in a position to thrive in their fields.

I can give you a few other examples:

USC School of Cinematic Arts early alum was a pioneer in Indian cinema – Ellis Dungan; often credited for revolutionizing Tamil cinema.

Radha Basu (Viterbi ’74) Founder and CEO of iMerit, a technology-enabled services company that delivers digital data services for machine learning, content, and support while effecting positive social and economic impact by employing and skilling marginalized youth and women.

Rahat Raj Sud (Marshall and School of Cinematic Arts) heads originals, programming and content strategy at the most prominent digital company in India, Times Internet, creating multiple long and short-form IPs across platforms, working with influencers and content creators, and striving to introduce world-class storytelling to the Indian content landscape.

Piara Singh Gill (Keck School of Medicine) was the first Director of Central Scientific Instruments Organisation (CSIO) of India. He established CSIO as a leader in advanced scientific instrument design in Asia. Gill was a key advisor to Nehru on India's nuclear weapons strategy in the 1950-60s.

How much emphasis should students place on university rankings when selecting a university for their studies? In your opinion, what is the significance of university rankings?

While university rankings may provide a snapshot of certain attributes, they often fall short in capturing the comprehensive value and unique offerings of an institution like USC. It is the experience inside and outside of the classroom, the cutting-edge research, the interaction with people of various cultural backgrounds, the dynamic and diverse culture of Los Angeles that truly distinguishes USC.

Yet, for those who want to look at rankings, many of our 22 established schools (the School of Advanced Computing, our 23rd , has just been announced) are at the top or are ranked among the tops in their fields.

Research and innovation are crucial for a university's success. How do you plan to elevate academic excellence at USC, especially concerning these two vital aspects?

We aim for technological breakthroughs that are accessible and secure, and that fuel innovation and exploration. Our 10-year, $1B+ Frontiers of Computing initiative paves the road to accelerate advanced computing. Our research portfolio in the past decade has nearly doubled, and research spending surpassed $1 billion last year for the first-time ever. Our Indian students and Indian faculty have been leaders in that research and innovation ecosystem. Students are the cultural and creative fuel that drive us, and we are opening up new pathways for all our students to learn at USC.

The other aspect is collaboration. We believe vibrant partnerships create new opportunities and unite us against shared global challenges, so USC continuously connects and establishes new meaningful partnerships with our global counterparts. USC collaborates closely with our partners in India and worldwide to enhance talent exchanges in research, academics, and professional industries across diverse fields. Additionally, we empower and facilitate access for our Trojan network and alumni to engage with startup incubators, forge industry partnerships, and immerse themselves in a culture of innovation.

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    Nilesh Mathur is online news editor with Hindustan Times. He has worked on the online news desk for the last 21 years. Presently, he covers education and career related news.

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