Skip to main content

A Trojan Farewell

USC community thanks Dean Joseph Aoun for contributions and wishes him success at next post

A Trojan Farewell

A few hundred people packed Town and Gown Monday to honor and bid farewell to Joseph Aoun, the 19th dean of the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences whose career at USC spanned a quarter century.

“I look at our life here at USC as the best part of our existence,” said Aoun, who attended the event with his wife, Zeina, and their sons, Adrian Marwane and Joseph Karim, both USC students. “And I mean it. This has been a special moment, a small 25-year moment in our lives.”

USC President Steven B. Sample told the standing-room-only crowd that he clearly understood why Northeastern University had hired Aoun as president of the 28,000-student campus in Boston.

“It’s his uncompromisingly high standards,” Sample said.

Aoun takes office as the seventh president of Northeastern in August. Peter Starr, professor of French and comparative literature and currently dean of undergraduate programs in the College, will act as interim dean, effective July 1. A search committee is being formed to recruit a permanent successor.

“The second thing was that Joseph was interdisciplinary in his approach,” Sample continued. “He really believed in bringing people together across disciplines. Not just across disciplines with the College, but across disciplines between one school and another professional school.

“Another thing was his fund-raising ability,” Sample said. “They loved that.”

USC Trustee Pat Haden, chair of the Tradition & Innovation Initiative launched in September 2005, said that under Aoun’s leadership the College reached the half-way mark in the fund-raising effort and has raised $200 million.

During Aoun’s tenure, College fund-raising skyrocketed from an average of $18 million per year to $40 million in 2005, a sum already surpassed in 2006.

Aoun, the Anna H. Bing Dean’s Chair and professor of linguistics, has written seven books and earned two USC Phi Kappa Phi Faculty Recognition awards. He also won the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Research and Scholarship, the university’s highest honor for research.

“Heaven knows the man has energy,” said Beth Meyerowitz, professor of psychology and preventive medicine, and former College dean of faculty. “The qualities he brings to Northeastern will assure his success there.”

Among the many honors Aoun received this week was a citation by the USC Board of Trustees, which named Aoun’s Senior Faculty Hiring Initiative as one of his major accomplishments. Since the initiative launched in 2002, the College faculty has increased from 350 to nearly 500.

The citation also credited Aoun with the addition of 11 endowed chairs and professorships. He oversaw an unprecedented 51 percent increase in the College’s sponsored research funding and the construction of two state-of-the-art buildings, the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Molecular and Computational Biology Building.

Important partnerships also were formed under Aoun’s leadership. These include the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the USC-Huntington Institute for Early Modern Studies, and two collaborations with the Getty Research Institute.

Aoun was extremely supportive of the Joint Educational Project, one of the nation’s oldest and largest service-learning programs.

“He’s been one of the only deans in our history to completely understand and be a strong advocate of our program,” JEP Director Tammy Anderson later said. “I told one of our community partners that he was leaving and she said, ‘No! He can’t go!’ ”

Aoun also launched the Korean Studies and Armenian Studies institutes.

“Joseph, we are in your debt,” Sample told Aoun. “We wish you and Zeina Godspeed and every possible success in your new assignment.”

While celebrating Aoun’s sweeping accomplishments, many expressed sadness at the departure of a cherished friend.

“We’re going to miss him for many, many reasons,” said Delta Murphy, a USC alumna and chair of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies Advisory Board. “But mainly we’ll miss him because he is a dear, dear man.”

University Professor Leo Braudy was one of several speakers at the event, hosted by Haden, an alumnus and member of the College Board of Councilors.

Braudy, the Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature, called Aoun, “an immensely cultured person.”

“And cultured in what I think of as more European than American,” Braudy told the audience. “Let me explain. When we say in America that people are cultured, we tend to mean they are like some species of artificial pearl. They go to the opera or the ballet, they read Schopenhauer before breakfast or can’t shut up about the Albigensian Crusade.”

For the European, culture is everything, Braudy said. “It grows naturally from the ground. It includes wine as much as movies, good food as much as Greek drama.

“Joseph’s own intellectual heritage puts him many steps further along the road, as anyone who has sat down with him at dinner can attest, when he demonstrates his almost terrifyingly detailed knowledge of wine.”

George Boone, USC Life Trustee and member of the College Board of Councilors, called Aoun a Renaissance man, but said he’ll miss the man who was also kind and considerate. He recalled the day his grandson was graduating from USC College, when Aoun gave him an unexpected gift.

“The [graduation] program was just about to begin,” recalled Boone, a key supporter of the USC Wrigley Institute. “Suddenly, Joseph asked me if I wanted to give my grandson his diploma. Then I found myself on the platform with a lot of distinguished professors.

“I have that photograph on my desk,” Boone said. “It’s one of the happiest things that my grandson and I have every done.”

Others who spoke included Selma Holo, Fisher Gallery director; Antonio Damasio, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and director of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute; USC Trustee Alan Casden; and Robert Erburu, chair of the USC College Board of Councilors.

At the event’s close, Haden shared the adjectives and other words that the day’s speakers used to describe Aoun.

“Relentless, entrepreneurial, loyal, cool, passionate, friend, feared, respect, scholar, leader, integrity,” Haden said. “Accomplished, brilliant, valued, considerate, risk taker, experimental, energy, two BlackBerries, new possibilities, bold, innovative, scholarship, curiosity, cultured, engaging.”

Then he added, “And I heard many times the word ‘loved.’ ”