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A World of Ideas

Howard Gillman's 2008 Address to the Faculty.

September 9, 2008

It is always a very special occasion when we can all come together as a community - across our many departments, centers, institutes, programs; come together as one faculty, the collective faculty of the most important and foundational academic unit at USC.

Unfortunately, the opportunities are all too rare. We are large, diverse and dispersed. We have not yet developed a common space for us to congregate as a College community. And of course, as our careers progressed, it has been entirely natural and appropriate for us to develop attachments with our professional disciplines, and to focus much of our everyday energies on building communities within particular disciplines and programs - which means that if you were going to order a t-shirt or a cap in honor of your community at USC, it would most likely say "economics" or "chemistry" or "classics" rather than "USC College."

(My favorite example was offered to me a few years ago by Steve Lamy, when he was director of the School of International Relations and I was chair of political science. It was a t-shirt and the slogan was: "I Think, Therefore, I R.")

It is a shame that the opportunities have been so rare. We have so much to offer each other, and we have so much in common. Beneath our disciplinary divisions, beneath the sometimes narrow, technical and insular focus of our latest scholarly endeavors, we share a love of ideas, of exchange, of discovery. We yearn for great conversation.

I said that we share a love of ideas. In fact, the real point is deeper and more substantial: Collectively we as College faculty embody a world of ideas. USC is a big place, and a lot happens in our 17 professional schools and art schools. But what happens in each of those schools cannot compare to the scope of inquiry represented by the faculty in USC College - not just because of our size, but because of the sweep of our vision. We explore the origins of the universe, the evolution of the planet, the development of human civilizations, the great philosophical conversations of humankind, the triumphs of cultural expression, the dynamics of social life, the nature of social justice, the mysteries of the mind, the cutting edge of scientific discovery - the list can go on and on.

All of this happens within one Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences because all of this reflects one common belief system, a belief in the importance and pleasure of scholarly inquiry across the spectrum of knowledge, a belief that our world of ideas enriches the human mind and spirit and is foundational for any other contribution a person may want to make in life, a belief that what we do is central to human enlightenment and progress - whether you are interrogating the structure and motion of molecules using laser pulses, or interrogating the logic and aesthetic sensibilities that animate James Wood's recently published treatise on How Fiction Works.

It is our collective responsibility not just to keep this culture alive, but to make it ever more engaging, more conspicuous, more impactful.

We do this for ourselves, as faculty, for indulgent reasons - because we are nurtured by fascinating, provocative, innovative, disruptive, impetuous ideas.

We do this for our students because we know we are giving them a gift when we enflame their curiosity, engage their minds, empower them to think with clarity and rigor, motivate them to do the hard work that is necessary to better understand challenging and important questions.

We do this for our alumni to remind them how much better off they are - not as professionals but as human beings - because they made the choice to be educated in a Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

And we do this for our broader community, because we live in a world where our values, our scholarly values, are too often under siege and undefended by other institutions.

And so, mindful of this responsibility, I want to introduce you to College Commons.

What is College Commons? College Commons is designed to engage all of you in the creation of a special set of signature programs that will, with some regularity, bring us together as a community around compelling conversations that have broad appeal across the disciplines, and that highlight the excitement of our world of ideas and the importance of our distinctive mission.

College Commons events should translate the intensity and curiosity we bring to our own research and scholarship into a shared dialogue that inspires and delights our faculty, students and supporters - and, if we are really successful, may have a broader impact on the cultural life of Los Angeles.

For this effort to work it is vital that it be driven by faculty, and so I am so very pleased to announce that Professor Hilary Schor has agreed to oversee College Commons.

Working with Hilary on the Common Commons steering committee are seven of our colleagues: Michael Arbib (University Professor, Fletcher Jones Chair in Computer Science, and professor of computer science, biology and psychology), David Bottjer (earth sciences and biology, and chair of earth sciences), Jo Ann Farver (psychology), Karen Halttunen (history, and American studies and ethnicity), Clifford Johnson (physics and astronomy), Karen Pinkus (French and Italian, and comparative literature), and Greg Thalmann (classics and comparative literature). I am very grateful for their commitment to helping us bring this idea to life.

I know these are broad strokes. The committee is already working on elaborating the vision, clarifying what will count as a College Commons event, and preparing to engage all of you with a request for proposals. I hope you will let your imaginations run wild, and that you will join us in thinking big about the possibilities.

College Commons may begin as a series of signature or interrelated workshops, lectures, debates or colloquia that have broader appeal than what we may normally find within a department or institute. However, if we are successful, College Commons should weave its way into the fabric of our community, build new relationships, spark new ideas, enrich the classroom experience, drive learning communities, inspire new programs, revive our passion for ideas, and attract new people to our community - students, faculty, supporters.

I hope this is so, because we are at a time in the history of USC College when new advances in undergraduate education, graduate programs, and distinctive research and scholarship will depend, in large measure, on our willingness to think in bold and creative ways across existing departments, programs and disciplines.

In terms of the experience of our undergraduate students, this will mean exploring the advantages of coordinated interdepartmental majors, along the lines of our new major in philosophy, politics and law, or the discussions that are taking place among geography, earth sciences and marine environmental biology toward an enhanced environmental studies program. We also want to make it easy and exciting for all students to embrace the Renaissance ideal, and that might mean developing minors that pair very well with particular majors - whether this means IR for business majors or literature for science majors or science for journalism majors.

Innovative strategies are especially important for humanities disciplines, which are seeing declining enrollments. And let me be clear: This is not just an issue for humanities departments to worry about. We are one community, and we all agree that vibrant humanities programs benefit our entire community. This means that we must all work together to ensure that we are developing programs that will attract more students to humanities majors and minors.

I also want to encourage each and every one of you to consider how we might make more progress in freeing ourselves from the tyranny of the four-unit lecture experience. Some of you are already bringing your students into your labs, or taking them into the field, or sending them into the community, or constructing teams that go to other countries to address real-life problems. We are poised to rethink the very idea of what it means to earn credit toward a degree in USC College - as well as what it means for faculty to be given credit toward teaching - and I invite you to continue pushing that envelope.

This same spirit of College-wide collaboration and innovation must be applied to the development and enhancement of graduate education, not just in areas such as progressive degrees and distance learning (where we must be more successful), but also in Ph.D. programs.

It is a very high priority for us to have truly outstanding Ph.D. programs. You may know that the latest NRC rankings will be revealed very soon. We will see what progress we have made, especially in light of the unprecedented increase in the size of our faculty over the last eight years.

Whatever the result, it would be a mistake for us to think that we should focus all of our strategic planning around success in NRC rankings. In some cases that will be the most appropriate metric. In other cases we will have the best results by blazing new trails, rather than by elbowing our way through an already crowded terrain. American studies and ethnicity is a recent example where we found a distinctive mark. The fabulous and innovative Ph.D. in literature and creative writing is another amazing success story, and we need to build on that strength and take inspiration from that example.

I don't know where the next great innovations will be in Ph.D. education, but I would like to encourage bold thinking and new ideas.

If, 10 years from now, USC College has a reputation for world-class Ph.D. training in fields that have not yet been developed or are not yet fully formed - perhaps integrated environmental studies, or visual and material culture, or global health, or early modern studies, or complex systems science - then those would be real accomplishments even if it takes a while for the NRC to catch up.

Fundamentally, Ph.D. programs are a success when they have a record of high-quality admissions and high-quality placement, and those metrics should guide us as we assess existing programs and consider new ideas.

There are other important issues that we will be working on, together, in the coming year.

GE review will provide us an opportunity to refresh, and perhaps even reinvent, USC's core curriculum - a responsibility that must serve our larger community, but that is appropriately, and proudly, ours.

We will continue to focus on improving undergraduate retention.

Also, I have asked each of the departments to spend time this fall reflecting on what diversity means in your corner of the College, how attention to considerations of diversity will enhance your corner of the College, and what specifically can be done to advance diversity in your corner of the College. Even a conservative U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that institutions of higher education have a compelling interest to promote a diverse learning and research environment. I have made this issue a priority and so thank you all in advance for taking some time this semester to discuss, in a focused way, what your department will do this year to promote this compelling interest. We all have a stake in each of those decisions, and by taking collective responsibility we will enhance our community and enrich our world of ideas.

One College: A World of Ideas. By the end of the year we will be meeting regularly at College Commons. The work that you will all do to prepare those grounds will serve us all very well, in expected ways, and in ways that we can barely imagine. We will be a stronger community on that common ground.

For now, please accept my very best wishes for an exciting, enlightening and productive year.