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Amid Admissions Scandal, USC Announces New President


The first day on any new job is tough - new colleagues, new work culture, new challenges. Carol Folt's first day on the job will mean having to face a massive scandal. She's just been announced as the new president of the University of Southern California, which was one of the schools at the center of the recent admissions scandal that revealed parents bribing to get their kids into elite schools. USC officials have fired some staff over this. And as Carol Folt gets ready to take the reins at the school this summer, I asked her what more should happen and her broader thoughts about the scandal.

CAROL FOLT: I actually was aghast. And I think if you talk to most presidents and chancellors, I think it was like a gut punch, you know? I don't think any of us ever do anything but think about how to get students to our universities who are excellent and then do everything we can to make them thrive. But I think, then, I and others probably immediately start saying, boy, we have got to get to the bottom of this. And we have to do everything possible to make sure that this doesn't happen.

MARTIN: Part of how the opportunity gap is persisting in the college admissions system is because of legacies, right? This is where kids of alumni get preference in the admissions process. It's my understanding that this year, 19 percent of USC student population was admitted through the legacy system. Would you consider eliminating that preference?

FOLT: I don't have an opinion about what I would do at this particular moment. I've known a lot of students who may be legacies, and they've been outstanding students. I think there's a real problem if we start branding people in any way as a result of their parents.

You know, that's what we're trying not to do - is put them in a box. You know, we have to really do this in a fair and open way. What's important right now is that I think the whole country is wanting to talk about it. And I'm not hearing anybody say to me, I don't want to talk about it. Don't go there.

MARTIN: You talk about diversity as a priority for the school and for you personally. You're in a state that's almost 40 percent Latino. But according to USC statistics, the student population for the freshman class this year is just 16 percent. Do you think that's too low?

FOLT: I guess what I would say is that this is a university that draws from across the country. It's not drawing just from California. So I think you want to look like the rest of the country, and they're getting pretty close. I mean, they're doing a great job here doing that, increasing first gen. You know, we have all these veterans.

So that diversity is very broad. I wouldn't pick out a single category and say it all rests on that one. We want to get the best students from all walks of life, irrespective of their socio-economic status.

MARTIN: Right. But we should just note 50 percent of the student population comes from the state of California.

FOLT: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: And so if 40 percent of California is made up of Latinos, then you're saying, inherently, that you think that number should be higher than 16 percent.

FOLT: I think we're moving towards that. And I do think that's really important. And the question is, how do you actually recruit? Sometimes, we aren't getting into the places where we can draw the talented students from all areas. So we have to create the pipeline. And when we create the pipeline, we're going to see the diversity continue to grow.

MARTIN: I want to ask about one other issue. This week, President Trump signed an executive order tying federal funds to free speech in universities and colleges, which is his response to the fact that several figures on the outer edges of the conservative movement have been prevented from speaking on various campuses because of blowback from student protesters.

Do you believe, as many on the right do, that there has been an intellectual chilling effect on campuses that prevents students from engaging in ideas they might not agree with?

FOLT: I'm always concerned about a chilling effect of any sort. When you do hear students say that they feel, sometimes, that they can't say things - but it comes from all sides - so the point is we have to work on that, to keep it open and make it possible for students to talk in a way that allows disagreement and pretty divergent opinions still be respected and welcomed.

MARTIN: Carol Folt is the new president of the University of Southern California. Thank you so much for talking with us.

FOLT: Thank you, Rachel. I look forward to talking to you again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.