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USC College Dean Peter Starr Gives Upbeat Assessment and Urges Stronger Academic Culture

State of the College Address highlights progress made in hiring, fundraising, College initiatives

USC College Dean Peter Starr Gives Upbeat Assessment and Urges Stronger Academic Culture

In his State of the College Address, Dean Peter Starr last week gave an upbeat assessment of USC College and also challenged faculty not to be complacent, noting that standing still amounts to falling behind.

At the Jan. 30 event, sponsored by the College Faculty Council, Starr recognized some of the College’s significant strides, pointing out that the size of the tenure-track faculty is at an all-time high of 494, and that progress has been made to improve the faculty’s diversity. He also noted that the College’s Tradition & Innovation Initiative, which aims to raise $400 million by 2010, has passed the halfway mark.

Speaking to 90 faculty and staff at the Davidson Conference Center, Starr discussed a variety of new initiatives and emphasized the importance of building a stronger academic culture.

"We’ve made astonishing progress in the College," Starr said. "But if we are to realize our goal of entering the ranks of the top ten colleges in American research universities, we must build upon what has gotten us to this point: the dialogue between deans and enterprising individuals on our faculty."

He added: "I see a need for stronger intermediary groups — departments, centers, institutes — and for a stronger academic culture grounded in forward-thinking academic values."

As an example of such values, Starr spoke of teaching as a form of mentorship. "It’s a way of initiating students deeply into the habits of inquiry that constitute our academic disciplines, so as to be capable of doing significant research in their own right earlier than we used to think possible."

A professor of French and comparative literature, Starr joined the College faculty in 1985. He was dean of undergraduate programs before being appointed College dean on an interim basis in July 2006.

During his talk, Starr acknowledged what was on the minds of many in the audience: the search for a permanent dean and the anxiety that strategic planning would be on hold in the meantime. Starr rejected the idea that the College would stand still during the interim period.

"Every time a decision is made in the dean’s office, planning is involved," he said. "Planning never stops, even in an interim year."

In discussing the past year’s major achievements, he highlighted the Senior Hiring Initiative’s goal of recruiting 100 world-class faculty members and noted that the target has nearly been met. In the past decade, the size of the tenure-track faculty has increased by 31 percent, from 376 to 494. They teach in 33 academic departments and programs.

In a tip of the hat to his predecessor, Joseph Aoun, Starr repeated a hiring mantra of Aoun’s, who left his deanship in June 2006 to become president of Northeastern University.

"Always hire someone who is better than you," Starr said

Although the size of the tenure-track faculty will likely stabilize around 500, hiring will continue, Starr said. He noted that there is broad faculty consensus that the hiring of junior faculty should be a College priority. He also pointed to improvement in faculty diversity, a key initiative shared by the College and the provost.

Last year, the College hired several exceptional minority scholars, Starr said, including Robin D.G. Kelley of history and American studies and ethnicity — from Columbia University; Manuel Pastor of geography — from UC-Santa Cruz, and Sergio Sañudo-Wilhelmy of biology — from Stony Brook University.

The College also added a total of six women to the physics and biology departments.

"It’s good news," Starr said. "But not good enough. We have made very significant progress over the past 10 years in increasing faculty diversity. But we still have a ways to go to realize our goal of a fully diverse College faculty."

In discussing finances, Starr noted that the College closed last fiscal year with a balanced budget and continues to make excellent progress on its Tradition & Innovation Initiative. In the first six months of the current fiscal year, the College received $26 million in donations, compared to $21 million the previous year — and is on track to exceed $49 million by June 30. To date, the initiative has raised $211 million.

"We’re well on our way toward our initiative’s goal," Starr said.

As part of the initiative, the George and MaryLou Boone Center for Science and Environmental Leadership broke ground in October at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. The new construction will allow the College to host more leadership and planning retreats at the Catalina campus.

Calling research "the wellspring from which nearly all good things in the College flow," he said that sponsored research funds — money gained through contracts and grants — remains robust at $59.8 million per annum in new awards. And since 2000, the percentage of private funding for research — from foundations, corporations and individuals — has increased by 11 percentage points and now makes up 28 percent of total research dollars.

As the quality of the College freshman class continues to rise, Starr said, so has the quality of undergraduate programs. He praised several new undergraduate programs, including a summer research program now in development, the College Honors Society, and Team Research Communities — courses in which students conduct yearlong research projects, led this year by professors in geology, history, archaeology, religion and political science.

And he cited several other examples:

  • Multimedia in the Core, launched this fall. In it, USC became the first university to incorporate multimedia curriculum in a wide variety of general education courses. The College built two new state-of-the-art labs for that enterprise, a joint effort with the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Institute of Multimedia Literacy.
  • The USC Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics, to be housed at the College, will teach undergraduates seeking careers in law, medicine, science, or public affairs about ethics and ask them to examine the challenges their professions face in the 21st century.

Starr also applauded innovations in graduate education:

  • The College Doctoral Fellows program, which recruits exceptional students and enlists them to organize events, participate in the new Inside the Academics Studio discussion series, and help recruit their successors.
  • The Master of Liberal Studies program, which targets non-traditional students, such as mid-career individuals seeking career advancement and intellectual stimulation.

After the talk, he invited the audience to ask questions, and the faculty entered into a half-hour dialogue with the five deans: Starr, Jennifer Wolch, dean of graduate programs; Wayne Raskind, dean of faculty; Hilary Schor, dean of undergraduate programs, and Michael Quick, dean of research.

Clifford Johnson, professor of physics, asked what the College was doing to more strongly encourage every department to diversify its faculty.

"Last week, I interviewed three African-Americans for faculty positions," Raskind said. "They were terrific. I know I have to wait for departments to vote. But if it were up to me, I’d hire them immediately."

When asked how the College can encourage all faculty members to become more enterprising, Starr emphasized the importance of "enterprising on behalf of a larger research vision."

"Do the deans have a role in fostering this?" Starr said. "Absolutely. It is important that we all work together in an enterprising way to do something of value, not just for individual research enterprises — though they must be furthered — but also for a stronger academic culture in the College."