When he was named president of USC two years ago, C.L. Max Nikias had some big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Steve Sample, was a USC icon and deeply revered in local business circles. But Nikias quickly made his mark, raising a record $2 billion in two years as part of the university’s massive $6 billion capital campaign. He’s also overseeing a major transformation of the campus, including construction of several academic buildings and plans for a $1 billion mixed-use project on university land next to the campus. Nikias, 60, is a Greek Cypriot who found himself exiled from his homeland after the Turkish invasion in 1974. He eventually came to the United States to study engineering at State University of New York in Buffalo. USC recruited Nikias in 1990 for the engineering school. He was then tapped to coordinate an application for a National Science Foundation grant to explore the relationship between media and the Internet; after USC won the grant, he headed up the resulting interdisciplinary institute. He served as dean of the engineering school and then university provost before taking over as president in August 2010. Nikias took time from his fundraising and travel schedule to talk with the Business Journal about his experience as an exile, his career and his goals as university president.

Question: What was it like growing up on Cyprus?

Answer: Well, of course it was a bit different growing up on an island. But I have very fond memories of the place and of growing up there. My parents did instill in me from the beginning the need to do well in school. In elementary school, I remember my mother telling me if I don’t bring home good grades, I’m going to bring a lot of shame on my family. That had an effect on me. I was the first of my family to go to college.

What happened to your family when Turkish forces invaded Cyprus in 1974?

I was a student in Athens, (Greece), at the National Technical University when the invasion came. But most of my family was back at home in Famagusta on the island. My family and most of the people in Famagusta fled as they were afraid of airplanes bombing the city. They didn’t take much because they expected to return in a day or two after things calmed down. Childhood photos … were left behind, like nearly everything else. But overnight, the Turkish army invaded and took Famagusta, and the citizens couldn’t go back.

How did that affect your family?

My family never fully recovered. It took my family several years to begin to rebuild my father’s carpentry business. But the important thing is that we all survived.

Did you try to go back?

No. I remained in Athens. Actually, I had been planning to go back home for the summer; had I left a week earlier, I would have been there during the conflict. Over the longer term, my plan was to get an engineering degree and go back to Cyprus and practice as an engineer. But after the invasion, the opportunities in Cyprus were rather limited, so I decided to go abroad.

Where did you go?

I went to London to pursue my graduate studies. My wife and I had recently married. She was an accountant and the company she worked for had a position open in London. I attended Queen Mary College at the University of London and worked part time as a receptionist at a hotel.

How did you meet your wife?

We knew each from high school and got married shortly after the invasion.

How did you end up in the United States?

I realized that the real action in electrical engineering was in the United States. So I applied to several schools and ended up at the State University of New York in Buffalo. Interesting that at that time, the president of the university was Steven Sample – he signed my diploma. Little did I know how much a role he would play later in my life and that he would also sign the diploma of my eldest daughter as she graduated from USC.

What was living in Buffalo like?

It was quite a cultural shock, but we soon adjusted and had a great experience. It did take a while to get used to all the snow, though.

So what did you do with your Ph.D. in digital signal processing?

Looking back, the timing of my degree was fantastic. It was the beginning of the Reagan defense buildup and there was huge investment in digital signal technology at the Department of Defense, and aerospace and technology companies. So I remained at the university and was able to get research grants.

Is that why USC came calling?

Yes, USC recruited me in 1990, ’91 as a professor of electrical engineering. By that time, I had already published extensively. The engineering school had one of the best digital signal processing programs in the nation.

The weather’s not bad, either.

Of course, being from the Mediterranean, I was happy to come to Southern California – the weather and the beaches and the like. Coincidentally, I came to USC the same year that Steve Sample came in as president, though the moves were completely independent of each other.

How did you get on the administrative track?

The transformation happened gradually. In 1991, I would have said, “What are you talking about? Me as a dean of a school or a university president? No way.” I had no ambition for university administration whatsoever. Heck, as an active professor, I even tended to look down a little bit on university administrators.

So how did it begin?

In the mid-1990s, I was asked to bring together the engineering school, the Annenberg school, the film school and the music school to compete for a National Science Foundation grant in the area of teachable media and the future of the Internet. In spring 1996, the announcement was made: The USC proposal was ranked No. 1 out of more than 100 submissions. When we won the grant, I was named founding director of this new institute. And it’s also probably how President Sample noticed me.

What were your first moves as director of this institute?

I had to recruit faculty. Then I had to get corporations from around the country to support the institute; we ended up raising more than $50 million from more than 40 outside corporations. All of a sudden, this became a big undertaking for me; managing all these relationships was a lot of hard work. I was the director for five years; looking back it proved to be a great training ground for me as I then moved up the administrative ladder, especially the fundraising.

You’ve now got a reputation as a prodigious fundraiser. Did you find that it came naturally to you?

It did come to me naturally. Sometimes you’re given an opportunity and you end up discovering a strength you didn’t know you had. That’s what happened here. I realized very quickly it was all about building relationships and the trust behind those relationships.

Besides the fundraising, what were some of the institute’s accomplishments?

We developed a lot of new technologies, we spun off a lot of new business startups. And we licensed some of the technologies to other companies. I would say that in many ways, the institute itself was like a startup company and that’s what made it exciting for me.

You moved on to become dean of the engineering school. What were your main goals and accomplishments there?

A lot of engineering students, after their first year, would transfer out of the school to the other programs in the university. We would typically lose about one-third of the freshman class. That forced us to make our programs more relevant. For example, we brought in prominent engineers or chief executives of aerospace or engineering companies to explain to the students how much opportunity was out there for engineering graduates.

Any other accomplishments?

One of the first things I did was to announce a fundraising campaign and build the endowment for the school. We got (Qualcomm Corp. co-founder) Andrew Viterbi and his wife, Erna, to donate $52 million and have the school named for them. I also started recruiting faculty in biomedical and biochemical engineering, which were really exciting areas.

Did you ever have any regrets over becoming a university administrator?

My first year as dean, I remember one morning getting up and looking at myself in the mirror and wondering, “What’s happening here? I set out all my life to be a research engineer and now I’m an administrator.” But then, I thought, “You know, I really love this job.”

You went on to become provost, the No. 2 post at USC behind the president.

Yes, but I didn’t really set out to become provost. In my fourth year as dean, I was nominated for the provost position. But I felt I had everything going for me as dean of the engineering school. It was Steve Sample who convinced me to apply. He said that the provost position would expose me to running the medical school and that familiarity with the medical program is one of the key requirements for any president of a top research university.

You embarked on a massive capital campaign. How has that been going?

When we announced our $6 billion capital campaign, it was the largest campaign of any American university. When we closed our second year with a (cumulative) total of $2 billion, that far exceeded any other American university for two consecutive years.

What is it that surprised you the most about the fundraising?

So far, nobody has turned me down. I didn’t expect this when I started. I had previously learned that part of any job as fundraiser is to learn how, after making your best effort, to take “no” for an answer and move on. I think the key is choosing very carefully whom you solicit for funds.

USC is pursuing a $1 billion master plan development across from the current campus. Can you explain how University Village fits into your plans for USC?

We’ve never done anything this big in the 132-year history of the university. Until now, it’s all been brick by brick, building by building. But now, we have this piece of land owned by the university and it’s going to be a massive two-phase development. The first phase, on 20 acres of land, will include 3,000 beds of student housing, retail stores, restaurants, grocery stores. This will be for the university community and for our neighbors.

What do you do for fun?

I took up cycling because we bought a house in Palos Verdes. I started cycling up and down the Strand from Palos Verdes to Santa Monica. That was a beautiful ride – crowded but beautiful. That’s how I gradually developed a passion for cycling. The California weather really helped; I couldn’t really do that in Buffalo. Now, I bicycle with my wife or small groups of friends. I don’t go in for races or large tours, because for me, bicycling is a way of relaxation. We especially love cycling around our vacation home in Sun Valley, (Idaho).

Why did you choose to live in Palos Verdes?

The Palos Verdes Peninsula is the Greek island of the Pacific. We just fell in love with the place. We still have our home there, but we spend most of our time now in the president’s house in San Marino.

Did you ever return to Cyprus?

I got to know the American ambassador to Cyprus and I organized a conference of information technology professionals of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. That was the most successful bicommunal event up to that time on the island.

Did you get to visit your childhood home?

It wasn’t until 2004 that we were allowed to go back and visit our homes. My wife and I took our daughters so we could see the neighborhoods where we grew up.

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