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Dean Steve Kay's Installation Remarks

The Journey We All Share

Remarks by Steve Kay at his installation as the 21st dean of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

November 7, 2012

Thank you, President Nikias.

It is a great honor to have been asked by you to lead the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. I know that the excellence of this university is directly tied to the excellence of USC Dornsife, so I am both humbled and eager to seize the promising opportunities that lie before us. Thank you for the trust and confidence you have invested in me by giving me the privilege to serve as the 21st dean of our College.

On this day, I commit to you, without equivocation that I will draw on every ounce of my being to champion our journey forward.

Two people were instrumental in my decision to join the Trojan Family: President C. L. Max Nikias and Provost Elizabeth Garrett. Together they are leading us on an exceptional journey of discovery. They are building on USC’s great edifice of traditions to shape a university that entrusts faculty and students with creative freedom to generate fresh ideas and then execute them with vigor. Indeed, I have always viewed myself as the young maverick in most organizations in which I served, and now I find myself reporting to a provost who is one.

President Nikias recognized many of our guests, but I’d like to again add my voice to thanking Dana and David Dornsife. It is my honor to preside over a school that bears the Dornsife name and all that it represents.

I look forward to partnering with our USC Board of Trustees and especially our USC Dornsife Board of Councilors to actualize our collective goals. Many of you have already provided invaluable advice to me during these first few months of my journey here and for that I am most grateful.

I also want to recognize a very talented group of people, who everyday remind me ‘none of us is as smart as all of us.’ I am speaking about my senior leadership team:  Dani Byrd, Charles McKenna, Peter Mancall, Wendy Wood, George Sanchez, Steve Lamy, Donal Manahan, and Ted Budge. And my most recent addition, Neil Macready, our new chief development officer. You are the A team. Thank you.

A special welcome to all faculty and staff. The palpable excitement present in every USC Dornsife classroom, laboratory and office begins and ends with this creative and caring group of professionals.

And of course, I want to thank our alumni community. Your support and warm welcome have rung out from hundreds of cities across the nation.

It is my honor to share a piece of my heart and welcome my family here today. My daughter Sophie, and sister-in-law and Trojan Maureen. My two young sons Julian and Alex. We have all been blessed beyond measure by this opportunity.

My other family is also here: members of the Kay laboratory who came with me from San Diego to become a part of USC. They personify the ideal that every successful leader knows how to hire smarter people than themselves.

And thank you to all of the students who have joined us. Their glittering constellation of talents and ambitions are what make this university so very special.

Together we are the Trojan Family, and together we share a voyage defined by a lifetime of learning and pursuit of discovery. Today I wish to speak of a journey, a journey of discovery that we all share. That is why I am so excited to be your dean.

My Personal Journey

One of my favorite authors Loren Eiseley wrote in The Unexpected Universe, ‘Every time we walk along a beach, some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers, like the homesick refugees of a long war.’

USC Dornsife is a beachcomber’s utopia. You never know what you may uncover here.

Whether it’s sitting with Alice Echols and discussing the history and impact of disco; being captivated by Greg Thalmann’s descriptions of Greek epic drama; listening to Scott Fraser describe groundbreaking imaging technologies; or talking with Dan Schnur on voter behavior — and yes, Dan, you got it right last night — I have found USC Dornsife to be a sea of wonderment.

My affinity for discovery actually began more than 5,000 miles from Los Angeles on the small island of Jersey, off the coast of Normandy. My grandfather was the son of a French opera singer, who spent five years caring for his wife and three young daughters under Nazi occupation. He was a brave soul, who taught me all a boy needs to know to make a living from the howling seas. I remember steering boats through 10-foot swells, slotting through the rocky outcrops of perilous reefs to retrieve handmade willow traps that were filled to the brim with lobsters.

There I was fortunate to benefit from dedicated teachers who visited the island from the English ‘mainland.’ When I first peered through a microscope, I was astonished to find the unseen world that unfolds within a drop of seawater. It was every bit as interesting as that found in the cold, green oceans beyond the shores.

It was those moments of childhood discovery when I realized there was so much more to uncover in life than what you see at the ends of your hands and feet. That’s all it took to set me on the path of becoming a scientist.

But it wasn’t just science that moved me. As an undergraduate at the University of Bristol, I would, only on the odd occasion of course, find myself bored with thermodynamics classes. Hard to imagine for some of us, I know.

To counter this, I would wander across the hall and slip into lectures being conducted by Stephan Körner, a philosophy professor from whom no student could hide. Indeed, Körner loved nothing more than to welcome and then terrorize us physics refugees by debating quantum mechanics and our ability to measure anything in the physical universe.

It was in his classes and office that I took to heart the words of Immanuel Kant: ‘Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another.’ My first glimmer of what it would take to truly be an intellectually courageous scholar came from a course for which I would never sit for an exam, nor seek a grade.

Throughout my subsequent path as a scholar, teacher and leader, I have been most inspired by the eureka moments alongside students as they not only grasp a concept, but run with it, synthesize it, and extend it in their own way. That passage into discovery
is often life changing and always unforgettable.

What is so great about USC Dornsife is that every moment has the potential to be life changing and unforgettable. Whether it’s in the library, whether it’s in the lab, whether it’s in the community, there are incredible opportunities for all of us — students, faculty, staff, alumni, the entire Trojan Family — to make big, bold, imaginative differences right now.

A look back at our history reveals USC has always done this.

Our Origins, Our Future

You may know the story about the three men who made the original gift of land to establish USC. They were as diverse as 19th-century Los Angeles. They came from three different countries. Practiced three different religions, but the civic mindedness they shared helped direct the course of their young city and this university for decades to come. They were intellectually courageous people whose desire to transform the world in which they lived subdued their own fears.

Today the modern culture of USC Dornsife reflects the foundational pluralism that first defined us. We draw a diverse student body that exhibits outstanding academic, artistic and athletic accomplishment. Our faculty members are diverse in their disciplines and viewpoints, yet they collaborate and find commonalities on our shared journey to create knowledge. You still feel the mutual respect, tolerance of difference, and collective commitment to civil discourse in your interactions with others on campus.

And at 132 years young, USC Dornsife’s work remains foundational to the university, just as it was when the College of Liberal Arts’ official color of cardinal, was joined with the university’s official color of gold. This colorful marriage not only ended the Trojan’s monochromatic era, which made us infinitely more stylish, it also symbolized the centrality a college education would hold for generations of USC graduates.

“Fas Regnae Trojae”

Now USC is at yet another historic juncture, marked by the launch of a $6 billion campaign named by our president as, “Fas Regnae Trojae”: the Destined Reign of Troy. Beginning then with Virgil’s words, part of our new journey together will be to bring a bold vision for the role of USC Dornsife in this campaign.

There are several flagship programs and initiatives that, with your help, I will advance as dean.

The first is qBio. If you’ll indulge the scientist in me for a moment, I would like us to look backward to the time when the sciences first converged.

It began more than four centuries ago, when mathematics was established as the language of science. Johannes Kepler applied mathematical physics to the field of astronomy, transforming a discipline from the descriptive to the predictive, and forever changing our view of ourselves and the cosmos. This laid a foundation for physics, chemistry, engineering and technology that transformed our modern world in many ways.

We are at a similar inflection point today. Now is the time to advance biology and all life sciences to a similar quantitative level, making genetic engineering as predictive as computer engineering.
qBio, or quantitative biology, will enable us to be leaders in what is becoming known as P4 medicine: Predictive, Preventive, Personalized and Participatory. qBio in other words, is where cures begin.

In close collaboration with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, I envision us making this great campus a preeminent destination for emerging themes in science and technology. The convergence of the life sciences, physical sciences and engineering will generate a wealth of new ideas. And we will translate those ideas into solutions for the grand challenges that face our planet.

Population growth, combined in a perfect storm with climate change, present challenges in health, the environment and energy use, unlike any we have faced before. Our new initiatives in the Convergence of Molecular Sciences and Engineering will be the foundry where solutions to these complex problems are forged.

It is not just the revolution in the sciences that forms our armada of ideas in the campaign for the University of Southern California.

This Fall, USC broke ground on the Verna and Peter Dauterive Hall — USC’s first interdisciplinary social sciences building being championed by Provost Garrett. It will be a place where faculty and students from across the university come together to tackle the most pressing social problems affecting our region and our global community. This physical environment joins economists, political scientists and policy experts under the same roof.

Imagine, for example, the synergies that will result as we expand upon qualitative social science in terms of big data synthesis and prediction. Imagine the possibilities when we combine this team of social scientists with experts who may be interested in studying how pandemics are transmitted and modeled, how healthcare can be delivered more efficiently, how inequities in wealth can be studied and managed.

In this regard I am delighted to announce today the recruitment of professor Arie Kapteyn, a leading economist in labor and population. Professor Kapteyn will establish the Center for Economic and Social Research at USC. Together, with efforts across several schools, this positions us as the leading institution in the world of health policy research.

This is but one example of how, as dean, I will aggressively seek new colleagues to join the ranks of excellent faculty, particularly in emerging areas where USC will be most competitive.

Making History in Health

This is our time to make history.

More specifically, this is our time to make history in how we train the next generation of healthcare professionals and innovators. Never has the need been greater to solve the many complexities associated with improving the health of all people on our planet, in an equitable, cost-effective way.

These solutions will only emerge through the development of the right human capital: a new Trojan army prepared to implement ideas not yet imagined. This calls for the creation of a Comprehensive School for Pre-health Education. This new effort will cross many disciplines and many schools on both our campuses. It will provide an internationally recognized paradigm shift in curriculum, discovery-based learning and fundamentally change how we train students.

Success will require both the classical role of the natural and biomedical sciences, and the skills of the social sciences. By melding the two we will make quantum leaps in understanding human behavior, which may include the application of economics for deployment at scale, and technology for wireless and IT healthcare. Equally as important, a strong vein of core humanities topics, to provide context, critical abilities, ethics and synthesis.

If we can arrive at this place in our journey, we might benefit humankind in indelible ways. It’s these fresh approaches to education that will prepare our students, not only to be outstanding doctors, but also leaders in health care policy and economics. It will prepare them to become entrepreneurs who launch new ventures in fields like wireless health and other areas we have yet to define.

Intellectual Courage in the Data Revolution

This is a pivotal moment in our journey. The world around us is changing so rapidly that it is incumbent upon us to launch new innovative programs like the ones I just discussed.

The roar of ‘Big Data’ is driving this change.

There are dizzying amounts of consumer records, music, satellite imagery, and of course, Facebook content, that have to be stored, retrieved and understood in their proper context. This stored information is growing by 23 percent a year and shows no signs of retreating. The mountain of data we now face will be but 1 percent of that in 2020.

What does this mean? This sea of data influences how we contribute to society as academics. It shifts how we acquire and share knowledge. It changes how we teach our students to be leaders. It shapes how we inspire a passion for discovery deep within their being.

Amidst this cacophony of information, we must give our students a high rate of digital literacy. This means teaching them how to quantitatively analyze data and interpret its full meaning and impact. That is why the role of USC Dornsife is so important in this environment. We have the academic disciplines here to ensure that our students are not just inherently familiar with technology and quantitative analysis, but also prepared to navigate data, analyze it, synthesize from it, and bring to life the 1s and 0s of the digital revolution for the good of society.

It is only by drawing upon the full breadth of USC Dornsife that we can reimagine how we educate students in a Google-searched, Wikipedia-driven world, where streams of information are literally at their fingertips.

Discovery-Based Learning

As educators on a journey in this age of endless data, it is our responsibility to incite in students a love for learning, an allure for discovery and a passion for knowledge. This can only come from being deeply exposed to other cultures, languages and forms of artistic expression. This comes from getting up close and touching the richness and beauty of life.

Our mantra must be to educate, enrich and empower. What do I mean by this?

We must educate our students to think critically and immerse them in their subject matter so they can become the renaissance scholars of their time, who move effortlessly between subjects and are prepared to succeed in any career.

We must enrich their classroom experience with discovery-based learning experiences, through exposure to research, internships and international engagement.

We must empower them to succeed in a competitive job market, or move quickly to an advanced degree, by instilling communication skills, leadership training and networking tactics.

We want to give our students a sense of curiosity and drive so indestructible it will empower them to make their own journey, to lay down their individual legacies.

Along our journey, we must expose our students to as many of the disparate viewpoints of the modern world as possible. The study of culture, the natural world, values, religion, history, political systems, and economic models, both our own, and of those on the other side of the globe, leads to the education of a fully informed individual. I want our students to feel the richness and diversity of the world deep in their hearts, and see firsthand how they can elicit positive change, both locally and globally.

Our culture of service continues to gain strength through programs like the Joint Educational Project — where students, faculty and staff generously give their time and means to our community — embracing the words of Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, that’s the only thing that ever has.’

And USC Dornsife is a group of thoughtful, committed citizens who are on a shared mission to change the world.

Our students journey to the Arctic to make recommendations to diplomats, energy experts  and environmental organizations on how to sort out pressing ecological and political issues. They journey to southern Spain, to understand how bedrock and geological structures can become a looking glass into the past.

USC Dornsife is not only giving our students this wonderful space for global scholarship, research and service, we are also mindful of giving them tools for the job market. Yet we must resist our culture’s increasing fixation on a practical, utilitarian education.

Employers value graduates who arrive on the job with a broad skill set and the ability to think creatively, analytically. Evolutionary biology has taught us that it’s not only the strongest and most intelligent of species that survive. Ultimately it’s the most adaptable. We are not just preparing our students for a job. We are preparing them for any job. That is the fundamental value proposition of USC Dornsife; we foster a liberal arts ethos within a great research university.

Studying humanities familiarizes students with the language of emotion. The social sciences enable us to understand the underlying principle of individual decision-making, and its evolution into collective action. The natural sciences allow us to understand the mechanistic features of the world.

Many of our Board of Councilors members are mentoring USC Dornsife students through our Gateway Internship Program. Board members like Leslie Berger, Michael Reilly and Samuel King, are opening students’ eyes to the value skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, deep comprehension and team building can have in the workplace. Employers in our knowledge economy value these skill sets.

On my journey as a scientist, I have always been struck by a need to balance our ability to quantify the nature of the universe, with a richer narrative for how we quantify what it is to be human. What our humanities program at USC Dornsife
demands is a fresh articulation of the need for deep scholarship, along with our ability to convey the role such scholarship has in preparing our students for success in almost any walk of life.

I propose we embrace what some have called critical vocationalism. This position has its roots in British social science pedagogy, but is relevant to explaining the value of all that is learned in liberal arts classes, and also the pure joy of deep immersion in the context and interpretation of the human condition.

Addressing (and Solving) Epic Challenges

Yet we are, at our core, a community of humanist and scientific scholars, here to serve society. There is a reason, I believe, why the university created a seal with three torches, representing the arts, the sciences and philosophy. Our prowess as a research university lies in our fluency across all these fields. That is how we arrive at a clear view of the world as it really is.

We know the issues that vex humanity do not fall neatly into a single discipline. Debilitating diseases, ethnic conflict, endemic poverty and alternative energy sources, are complex. Their solutions lie at the intersections of fields. This is where interdisciplinary moves from platitudes to application.

At USC Dornsife, this is simply a part of our DNA. There are examples of this fluency all around the College.

Take Glenn Fox, a neuroscience Ph.D. student studying under University Professor Antonio Damasio. He conducted the first study on the emotion of gratitude using functional brain imaging and videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors. His research on ‘good human conduct’ essentially coupled the work of the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education with that of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute.

That could only happen in the unique environment that is USC Dornsife.

Our collaborative culture is evident when professors like Mark Thompson work with engineers to improve the efficiency of solar cells and light sources.

We see our ethos of our journey shine when the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute holds a symposium about the Glorious Revolution and partners with the early music program in the USC Thornton School of Music to play scores on instruments indigenous to the time period.

Given the broad swaths of data we now have at our fingertips, we are on a journey of discovery in a time when there have never been so many fascinating questions to explore and so many marvelous things to build, whether our faculty and students are probing the circuitry of the human brain or the origins of the universe itself.

You see this happening with the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. David Hutchins and Doug Capone are partnering with Los Angeles institutions to examine how climate change exacerbates problems like ocean acidification and the economic development of our local fisheries.

We create collaborations like this because USC Dornsife has a responsibility in this era of big data, to be predictive and to form partnerships that leverage our expertise — so our work can have a lasting societal benefit.

The Journey We All Share

As we move forward in this journey we all share, let us be sure to support one another’s capacity to imagine, to discover, to dream. For not all who travel are lost. Indeed often it is the wandering that makes the journey.

As Heraclitus once said, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ That is the beauty of the journey we share at USC Dornsife. Because the world is changing so quickly, we have the never-ending capacity to evolve in our roles as educators, researchers, scientists and knowledge creators.

The world is filled with magical things, patiently waiting for us to uncover their potential, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said ‘to see the miraculous in the common,’ just as I did as a young boy on Jersey when that first drop of seawater inspired me.

Let us serve the world and provide solutions to societal problems and grand challenges, whether we’re doing it in Los Angeles, São Paulo or Shanghai. Let us capture the talent of our faculty colleagues and develop new types of fields and modes of exploration that have yet to be uncovered. Let us create discovery environments for students that will enable them to make a difference in the world, to succeed in great careers and to navigate our data-rich world.

USC Dornsife will not rest on its laurels. Our journey will advance with the ingenuity, speed and grace that have defined USC and our College for more than a century.

I look forward to partnering with each of you along this ‘Journey We All Share.’

Thank you again for entrusting me with the responsibility to serve as your dean.


Fight on.