Two Famagustans, Two USC Presidents: an Interview with Chrysostomos (Max) Nikias

LOS ANGELES, CA – The city of Famagusta in the Turkish-occupied portion of Cyprus was once a bustling port and a tourist haven. But there is another little-known fact about that coastal town: it is the place that gave birth – in one case directly, in the other a generation removed – to two prominent American educators, each currently President of USC.
A few months ago we interviewed one of those presidents, Harris Pastides, of the University of South Carolina (February 27). It was during that interview that he brought to our attention that his West Coast counterpart, Chrysostomos L. “Max” Nikias, President of the University of Southern California, is not only a fellow Cypriot-American, but more specifically, a fellow Famagustan.
In Nikias’ case, he was born near there, in Komi Kebir; Pastides was born in Astoria, to parents who emigrated from Famagusta.
“I know Harris well,” Nikias told TNH. “Funny story: not only are we both from Famagusta, but the neighborhood I grew up in is where one of his parents was born and raised as well. We got together recently and chatted about this. It is indeed an amazing coincidence!”
Nikias’ family moved to Famagusta when he was 10. “That’s where I grew up and eventually graduated form the First Gymnasium of Famagusta, before going to college at the Polytechneio (National Technical University of Athens – NTUA).”
Having served in the Cyprus National Guard, Nikias was chosen as one of only forty Cypriots to be trained as a second lieutenant by the Greek Army School on Crete. “This was a transformative experience for me,” he said. “I learned what it means to work towards a goal, to lead people, and to take responsibility for consequential decisions.”
It was during his undergraduate years in Athens that he met his wife, Niki, who was pursuing a degree in accounting at the University of Athens. “Those were wonderful years and the experiences we shared in Athens in those days really made us who we are today.”
As his executive biography on USC’s website states: “Dr. Nikias is recognized internationally for his pioneering research on digital signal processing, digital media systems, and biomedicine. The U.S. Department of Defense has adopted a number of his innovations and patents in sonar, radar, and communication systems. He has authored more than 275 journal articles and conference papers, three textbooks, and eight patents, and has mentored more than 30 PhD and postdoctoral scholars. Three of his publications received prestigious best papers awards.”
But as he told TNH, originally “it wasn’t in my wildest dreams that I would be the president of one of the top universities in the United States. But a career in education was always something I aspired to.” In fact, his mother always wanted him to become a teacher.
After graduating from NTUA, his advanced studies took him to London and then Buffalo, where he earned a PhD at the State University of New York (SUNY).
He first became a full-time professor of electrical engineering, and eventually had the chance to lead two national research centers at USC.
That is when he was drawn to the appeal of academic leadership. “And I have never looked back. I became provost in 2005 and have served as USC’s 11th president since 2010.”
Why would an out-of-state our out-of-country student choose to attend USC? For one thing, Nikias explains, is that “with students from all 50 states and 128 nations, representing 90 different religious views of the world, over the last five years, USC has had more international students than any other university in the United States.
“In effect, what we create here is an environment that is a microcosm of what the real world is all about. Students and parents today are well aware that the world is becoming increasingly interconnected and globalized. The ability to study on a truly international campus is a very attractive one. We have a saying at USC because of how spread-out around the world our alumni are: ‘the sun never sets on the Trojan Family!’” (Trojans is the name of USC’s athletic teams.)
USC also strives to create a body of students from diverse economic backgrounds. Every year, USC’s representatives visit thousands of high schools all across the country, often focusing on ones that are overcrowded and underfunded. In fact, USC commits $300 million in financial aid each year to ensure that admitted students are able to afford to attend, Nikias explains.
“As a result of these efforts, nearly a quarter of our undergraduates come from low-income families – the most of any academically elite private research university in the country. In addition, we rank number two among all private research universities in Latino students and number three in African-American students,” he said.
“New technologies now let us reach faraway students and create a virtual classroom experience,” Nikias said, and “this means there are a lot of opportunities, even for so-called traditional, brick and mortar institutions. USC has been a leader in this space and in fact, Business Week recently said that we have ‘the world’s first online education model that is both academically and financially viable.’” USC’s online model “expands educational access to more than 40 nations, while maintaining the academic rigor, integrity, and quality students come to expect from a top research university. Today, our programs reach more than 7,600 students globally at the master’s and continuing education levels.”
He is not too quick to agree with those who say that technology will soon wipe traditional universities off the map, but explains that “we can’t stay too attached to the old ways.” Nonetheless, “we need to stay true to our ideals and maintain academic integrity and ensure support for our students, whether they are here on campus or somewhere else.
“At the same time, USC will not offer online degrees at the undergraduate level. The years between 17 and 22, which coincide with the traditional undergraduate experience, are when a student’s identity is really formed. Face-to-face intellectual, social and creative encounters, inside and outside the classroom, have a real impact.”
Nikias happily described USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, which every year sends students to Athens for a semester “as part of our College Year in Athens study abroad program. In between courses, archaeological site visits and classic theater make up an important part of the curricula, as does learning about modern Greece. Students live in Greek apartment complexes and many take part in volunteering and community service initiatives in Athens and beyond. We’ve had great feedback from students that have taken part.”
As USC turned 35 in 1915, the National Herald was born. “Congratulations on your 101st anniversary!” Nikias exclaimed. “The National Herald continues to be a great link to Greek culture for me. When I first came to the United States, and especially when I lived in the Northeast, the Herald was what I relied on for news about the Greek-American community. It helped me feel connected to a familiar group within American society.”