Wanda Austin was appointed interim president of USC in August, taking over for C.L. Max Nikias, who stepped down weeks earlier as the university was enveloped by a scandal involving allegations of inappropriate conduct by the campus gynecologist, and earlier allegations of inappropriate conduct by the now former dean of the university’s medical school.
Austin, 64, is the first black woman to hold the post. She is a member of the USC Board of Trustees and is on the committee headed by board Chairman Rick Caruso tasked with selecting the university’s next president. Austin said she is not a candidate for the permanent president position.
She graduated with a doctorate from USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering and eventually joined the engineering and technology group of El Segundo-based Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit that operates a federally funded research and development center for space programs. Austin served as Aerospace Corp.’s chief executive from 2008 through 2016, managing 3,600 employees at 17 offices nationwide and growing revenue to $950 million.
In 2015, President Barack Obama named Austin to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; she served through the end of 2016.
The Business Journal’s Howard Fine sat down with Austin earlier this month to discuss the university’s direction.
You ran Aerospace Corp., and now you’re running USC. What have been the biggest differences for you in these two roles?
There is actually a lot in common between running these two organizations. My experience to date being a trustee, an alum, a board member with Amgen (Inc.) and Chevron (Corp.), my experience on government boards, all have given me practical knowledge and insights about leadership that I can bring to bear here. It’s about making sure that people feel they are valued, that they are working in a safe and secure environment, that they are treated with respect, and that we are really clear about what our mission and goals and values are. The difference here compared to any other of these experiences I’ve had is that (at USC), we have a medical enterprise – an academic medical enterprise and a hospital – so the focus there is on patient care, on transformative research and on teaching for the doctors of the future.
What steps have you taken to try to reassure potential donors that despite the scandals, USC is a worthy institution to give to?
What I would also say is that we’ve just come out of a very difficult period, and that we have identified things that we can correct to make our environment and our culture consistent with our values, and that we’ve made some specific changes to that end. My focus has been on increased transparency and communication with all of our stakeholders, including the donor community.
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