In an installation speech that was both soaring and down-to-earth, Dean Howard Gillman Monday set the tone for his administration, extolling the virtues of a liberal arts research college as “a wonder-filled place.”
Gillman also underscored a host of accomplishments and set goals for the future in his address on Sept. 24.
A choir began the ceremony with nostalgia and the USC alma mater: “Where the Western sky meets Western sea, our college stands in majesty.”
“So too stands USC College,” said USC President Steven B. Sample, adding a coda to the traditional song.
“The USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences is the beating heart of USC, the academic core of this great university,” Sample told the audience of 350 at the ceremony and reception at Town and Gown.
Sample introduced Gillman, professor of political science, history and law, holder of the Anna H. Bing Dean’s Chair, as “a distinguished colleague and gifted leader who will work with you … to shape USC College into a liberal arts college par excellence.”
To a standing ovation, Gillman then stood and warmly thanked Sample and his own family in the audience: Ellen Ruskin-Gillman, and their children, Arielle and Danny. He also recognized and praised interim Dean Peter Starr, the members of the College’s advisory boards, his fellow USC deans, and the vice deans of the College.
“I understand that if this were the Academy Awards the orchestra would have started playing a while ago,” he joked, before adding a few final acknowledgments, recognizing the College staff, faculty and two of his longtime and best friends, who were seated near the front.
The mood turned introspective as Gillman acknowledged his parents, Stan and Charlyne Gillman, who “passed away many years ago.”
“They never went to college, but they worked very hard to give their only child a chance to enter this magical world,” Gillman, 48, said of Stan, a construction worker, and Charlyne, a clerk at Van Nuys Elementary. “And it is to their credit that I am here today.”
During his 20-minute speech, Gillman, a constitutional scholar, drew a parallel between the creation of the United States in 1787 and the creation of USC 93 years later.
He called both USC and the United States constitutional communities and said he was drawn to study the Constitution because “I am enamored by the very idea of building a community around an agreed upon set of fundamental beliefs and practices.
“There is something about that aspiration that I find very moving, very hopeful,” he said. “To even attempt such a thing is a testament to our faith in reason, our commitment to core values, our capacity to work together and our determination to be the masters of our own destiny.”
He described the idea of a liberal arts college as “another one of the great advances in human history.”
“A college is a very special kind of constitutional community, because its touchstone values are foundational to human enlightenment and progress,” he said. “A great college promotes enlightenment and progress by setting into motion and nurturing an endless loop of curiosity, inquiry, discovery and skepticism.”
“How do we cultivate and enrich the human mind and spirit? We wonder,” he said, noting that the word ‘‘wonder” captures the “nagging curiosity,” the “healthy and necessary skepticism,” and the “sense of awe” that drives a great college.
Emphasizing his point that the College is “a wonder-filled place,” Gillman recounted a moment during a recent reception for new College faculty. At one table, English professors were talking with astrophysicists.
“What were they discussing?” Gillman mused. “Nothing.”
After the laughter subsided, Gillman explained: “They were actively engaged in a conversation about the idea of nothing – how the idea of nothing matters in the most cutting-edge theories of cosmology; the significance in the history of mathematics and the discovery of the idea of zero, the role of the concept of nothingness in ‘King Lear.’ ”
As Gillman listened to the professors discuss the concept of nothing, he realized “at that moment … how lucky I was to be able to spend my days in a community that is about these kinds of conversations.”
Gillman also discussed plans to build on the efforts of his predecessors in expanding the College’s research and scholarship.
He stressed the importance of supporting existing partnerships and institutions, such as the Joint Educational Project, the Korean Studies Institute, Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, the Institute of Armenian Studies, the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute and the Norman Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics.
Another part of Gillman’s plan is to boost student programs locally and globally. He said study-abroad opportunities and community engagement programs in Los Angeles are equally important in creating well-rounded graduates.
He also wants to move forward with new media, as well as hands-on research opportunities for students.
USC College is "a great college, at a great research university, with global ambitions, in one of the world’s great cities. Each of these elements structures our decisions" in advancing the undergraduate mission.
“Do you want to study geology?” Gillman asked. “Climb 11,000 feet to the high Sierra Nevada and explore the sediments. Are you interested in the history of California? Spend a day at the Huntington Library and feel the parchment of our past.”
He also detailed new major initiatives designed to advance research and instruction. The initiatives focus on faculty development and research, graduate programs and undergraduate research.
“We are still just a few short weeks into the first semester,” Gillman said, “but, as you can see, we are eager to move forward quickly … to make USC College the exemplar of a great 21st century liberal arts research institution.”
After Gillman spoke, Sample presented the College’s 20th dean with a miniature armchair set inside a glass case. It is symbolic of the Anna H. Bing Dean’s Chair that Gillman now holds.
The wooden chair created in 1918 by the Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld constituted a radical departure in armchair design, Sample said, and the chair became an icon of a design movement in Holland. Inscribed on the miniature chair’s base was “One serves mankind by enlightening it” — the mantra of the art movement.
“Serving mankind by enlightening it,” Sample said, lifting a wine-red velvet coverlet and revealing the glass-encased chair. “That is the goal of Howard and of all of us in higher education.”