For the former Republican governor of California, the symposium marked a sudden public re-emergence after leaving office nearly two years ago with a mixed record that he suggested accomplished about half of what he had set out to do.
With a $20 million commitment from Schwarzenegger and others, he hopes the institute can accomplish the rest, tackling issues such as hunger, health care and global warming, collaborating with innovators of all political backgrounds.
Overall, however, Schwarzenegger painted a bright picture of his time as governor. During his welcoming remarks, he said his administration took the lead in pushing to stem global warming, provide health care to its citizens, and rebuild the state's infrastructure while the federal government was gridlocked on those issues.
Officials say he'll also take an active role in teaching at USC. The institute's academic director referred to him several times as "professor Schwarzenegger."
No questions were taken during the symposium's first panel, which was attended by about 700 people and featured Schwarzenegger in an hour-long discussion of partisan politics that was moderated by ABC News' Cokie Roberts and featured Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and others.
During the second panel, Schwarzenegger was joined by recording industry executive Jimmy Iovine in a Bruce Springsteen shirt. Other panelists included studio executives Brian Grazer and Ron Meyer, and director James Cameron, who helmed Schwarzenegger's first two "Terminator" films.
Schwarzenegger steered clear of his soon-to-be published autobiography detailing the affair he had with his maid that resulted in a son out of wedlock and destroyed his marriage to Maria Shriver.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.