When Noel Aguilar took a job as a temporary maintenance worker at the University of Southern California, he was 23, with a new wife and a baby on the way. The Salvadoran immigrant had no idea, as he was repairing light fixtures and unclogging dormitory sinks, that over the next three decades his job would provide a tuition-free education for him and for three of the couple's four children.
Mr. Aguilar worked his way up to his current position as senior manager for sales and audit in the university's department of transportation. He's the kind of employee who epitomizes the term derived from Southern Cal's sports mascot: "Trojan family."
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"Putting my family through here has meant the world to me," says Mr. Aguilar, who moved to the United States after his undergraduate studies in El Salvador were disrupted by civil war.
At Southern California, he advanced his career by earning certificates in computer programming from the engineering school in 1989 and in business management from the business school in 1998. Two of his children graduated from the university, and a third will begin as a sophomore this fall. His fourth hopes to attend graduate school there.
Employees who responded to The Chronicle's third annual Great Colleges to Work For survey cited USC's generous employee benefits, which include full undergraduate tuition and discounted graduate tuition for employees and their spouses and children. They also described a close-knit, collaborative atmosphere, and they point to the university's Center for Work and Family Life, which helps faculty and staff members find a balance between the two.
No one denies that working on an urban campus has its drawbacks. Crime is a constant concern in the gritty neighborhoods that surround the campus, which is just south of downtown. Traffic jams are legendary, and housing costs are high. But the university has tackled those negatives head-on, with aggressive crime-prevention efforts, public-transportation options aimed at minimizing commuting times, and a popular housing-assistance program.
On the campus, employees, as well as the 17,000 undergraduate and 18,000 graduate students, have access to frequent, free shuttles to their cars or public transportation, on which travel is partially subsidized by the university. Peter Exline, an adjunct professor in the School of Cinematic Arts, got an even better deal: He took advantage of a $50,000 housing allowance to buy a 1908 bungalow three blocks north of the campus. The allowance, which is spread out in $600 monthly installments over seven years, allowed Mr. Exline and his wife to trade a one-bedroom apartment for a two-bedroom house a 15-minute walk from his office.
The program is open to employees who work at least half time and buy homes within a defined proximity of the main or health-sciences campuses. The allowance, which does not have to be repaid, covers $50,000 or 20 percent of the house's purchase price, whichever is less.
Those perks are necessary to persuade employees to live in some nearby neighborhoods. Mr. Exline's house has reinforced doors and bars across the windows. "We had a drive-by shooting across the street," he says. "You get to know your neighbors in a hurry." But living close to campus has its benefits, Mr. Exline says.
For one thing, neighbors look out for one another, thanks in part to a comprehensive outreach effort by USC to make the surrounding neighborhoods safer and the public schools stronger. Private security officers, contracted by the university, stand guard on street corners near the campus. The officers, who wear yellow jackets, provide a reassuring presence. Local residents who have volunteered for the Kid Watch program go outside to rake their front yards or sit on their porches when children are walking to and from school. Anyone who spots suspicious activity can call the USC police, whose patrol areas, through a partnership between the university and the city, extend well beyond the campus boundaries.
"We changed the image of our cops from the guardians of the privileged to neighborhood cops," said Steven B. Sample, president of the university since 1991.
Southern California also gives preference, in hiring, to people who live near the campus. "We want our neighbors to be our employees and our employees to be our neighbors," the president said during a recent interview over breakfast in his office.
Mr. Sample, who will retire next month, is widely credited with transforming the image of the university. "When I arrived, USC had a reputation, somewhat undeserved, as a party school in a bad neighborhood," he said. Since then it has cut incoming class sizes and increased the selectivity of its admissions process. Now, he said, with 13 applicants for every spot in the freshman class, "our high academic standards have contributed to a sense of pride and momentum."
In addition, he said, "The whole concept of the Trojan family is so powerful. We have very low turnover. People wait forever to get a job at USC."
Mr. Sample, 69, who has Parkinson's disease, said he had devoted most of his waking hours to the university for nearly two decades. Now he looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Kathryn. "It's been incredibly satisfying," he said, "but it's time."
Despite the economic turmoil that has forced widespread cuts at public universities statewide, the University of Southern California has been able to avoid layoffs in recent years, the president said. Although the university's endowment dropped from about $3.7-billion in 2007 to $3-billion this spring, USC is far less endowment-dependent than many other universities. As a result, it can afford to continue treating its employees well.
While the recession has forced many colleges to cut back on their contributions to employees' retirement accounts, Southern California still contributes 10 percent for every 5 percent an employee saves. A flexible-benefit plan allows an employee whose spouse already has medical coverage to opt for dental and vision coverage.
Employees also cite the university's family-friendly policies. Dorian E. Traube, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, says the campus day-care center, where she drops off her six-month-old daughter each day, encourages her to stop by any time. Ms. Traube also appreciated a maternity policy that excuses pregnant women from teaching in the semester that their babies are due, allows 10 weeks of paid leave, and adds a year to their tenure clock.
"I feel like there's better work-life balance here. I'm not in my office 16 hours a day," she says. "The university also makes an effort to allow people to telecommute when possible."
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But what struck her most, when she arrived in 2006 from earning her doctorate at Columbia University, was "the level of collegiality" on the campus. It "was evident the minute I walked in," says Ms. Traube, whose work focuses on adolescent mental health, drug abuse, and HIV risk factors. "At so many universities, people can't even be in the same room with a colleague—and here, people really like each other."
She was assigned a three-person "development committee" of senior faculty members who helped her begin navigating the tenure process, decide which classes to teach, and establish professional contacts. They introduced her to a hospital researcher who mentored her, shared research data, and helped her secure a major grant last year from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Yang Chai, a professor in the School of Dentistry, has benefited from a strong commitment to interdisciplinary research. He researches craniofacial development, including mutations that cause cleft palate. A craniofacial center that drew him to Southern California as a faculty member in 1996 is located at the medical school.
He and some medical-school colleagues received a $50,000 university research grant to kick-start a project that was in its early stages. As a result of that research, which involved the study of gene mutations related to birth defects, they later secured a $3-million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
"I've found it to be a very dynamic and collaborative research environment," says Mr. Chai.
Southern California's physical environment is also a big selling point.
"We're one of the few urban universities that, instead of cannibalizing green spaces, have added much more," Mr. Sample says of the picturesque campus, which has 22 fountains and rows of purple jacaranda lining pedestrian boulevards between red-brick buildings.
Employees describe the setting as an urban oasis, and they appreciate the university's being more concerned with building bridges to the surrounding community than with sheltering itself behind walls.
For Mr. Aguilar, it has been a welcoming place to bring his family over the years for picnics and sporting events. But the biggest perk has been the education it has provided for four members of his family so far. "It's everything I've worked and hoped for," he says.