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Dean Steve Kay's Faculty Address

September 3, 2013

Good afternoon everyone. I trust you have all returned from a productive and renewing summer. Incredibly, I am only one month away from completing my first year here, which demonstrates to me that I don’t need Stephen Hawking or our own Sol Golomb to explain time warps — I somehow seem to be living one!

I ended my very first address here last year by affirming my excitement at the privilege I enjoy by serving as your dean. On how I had come here to feed upon the intellectual feast that is proffered from the work you all do, and how I was ready to both lead you and learn from you. I explained how I came to USC Dornsife last fall because I have a predilection for high performing environments. Where, frankly, even overachievers must struggle to keep up.

And let me tell you, after nearly one year as dean, what I had calculated to be true at USC Dornsife, has come home in droves.

In just the past year, our students flocked to new majors such as environmental science and health; computational neuroscience; law, history and culture as well as geodesign. Our students dedicated more than 100,000 service hours to local community through USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project. An unprecedented 10 students were awarded Fulbright fellowships.

This past summer, through our Problems Without Passports program, our students were to be found in places like Rwanda, considering the complexities societies face in the aftermath of genocide; and in Oxford studying the biology of tropical diseases and challenges in global health.

Our hunt to add to you, our body of world-class faculty, is relentless, as evidenced by all of our new colleagues we are greeting here today. And let me be clear, no place is safe from our reach. Amongst our newer colleagues, we have recruited Scott Fraser, one of the world’s pioneering quantitative biologists and his entire team from Caltech.

We lured Arie Kapteyn, Rand Corporation’s leading labor and population economist, along with Hashem Pesaran from the University of Cambridge, an esteemed leader in financial economics.

We will soon be joined by Norbert Schwarz and Daphna Oyserman, two of the University of Michigan’s top social psychologists, and will lead the USC Dornsife Center Mind and Society Center in Dauterive Hall. And we are also fortunate to recruit leading lights in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. I am thrilled to be a member of a faculty body that can collectively attract senior colleagues such as these, as well as the many other new faculty we have joining us today.

Groundbreaking USC Dornsife faculty research in a wide range of fields has recently led to advancements such as a better understanding of how emotions develop in teens; and to identifying new protein targets that we can then use to develop small molecule therapeutics as well as designing strategies for better negotiating tactics with North Korea.

Our efforts are now being recognized on the worldwide stage of academic excellence. USC Dornsife’s School of Philosophy has rocketed to the No. 11 spot in national rankings, up from 46 just a few years ago. Make no mistake — USC Dornsife is on the move, and there is no sign of slowing down!

I am pleased to report on the significant progress we made in establishing my new administration, a mixture of both known and newer faces. The Magnificent Seven, our vice deans, have been working hard to innovate and serve the interests of our faculty and students. I have always been a proponent of hiring people both smarter and more able than myself at doing their job. And I could take up the entire afternoon with a litany of their accomplishments, but let me touch on just a few.

Dani Byrd provides leadership and legacy wisdom in all areas of College administration and resource allocation.

Steve Lamy has been busy leading the campus-wide efforts to overhaul our General Education program under the auspices of the Provost’s Office. His hard work will ultimately ensure that our University will give priority to learning outcomes that are key to the intellectual development of all students at USC.

Donal Manahan has been ensuring that his team continues to improve our approaches to student recruitment, advisement and professional development in a fiercely competitive landscape. These are critical elements for our ability to recruit, retain and advance the very best students.

George Sanchez acts as an internationally recognized leader in promoting diversity amongst our faculty and student body, something that I am deeply committed to as your dean. He continually innovates programs that are recognized as models by foundations and top universities alike.

Peter Mancall, Wendy Wood and Charles McKenna, our three domain vice deans, or DVDs, provide a continual and iterative discussion with our department chairs, center directors and faculty representatives in all issues surrounding scholarship and disciplinary excellence, but especially in the recruitment and advancement of faculty, strengthening the research enterprise, and in increasing the quality of our Ph.D. and postdoctoral training programs.

The fruits of their first year of work with departments are seen in the recent implementation of a three-year faculty recruitment planning cycle, as well as a new Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellowship program initiated by the Provost’s Office that will be rolled out this semester.

Other members of my cabinet include Ted Budge, our chief financial officer who has worked tirelessly to improve the service provided by the business office through a deep re-organization, and perhaps not unimportant to all of you today, it was Ted and his team’s hard work and negotiating skills that allowed us to provide the largest dollar pool for salary raises in the past five years of College history.

Neil Macready, our new head of advancement, is overhauling an organization charged with meeting our lofty campaign goal of $750 million. To that effect, I am pleased to announce we have reached the $325 million mark to date.

Taken together, my cabinet members are admirably serving the interests of the College faculty and students in every way possible. They even have a collective research grant portfolio of more than $20 million! While I ask them to all stand, please join me in a raucous round of applause for our USC Dornsife leadership team.

Now, while we are here today to mostly recognize the recruitment and promotion of our faculty, I would also like to share the joy of bathing in the reflected glory of several of our colleagues who have recently received recognition in the form of significant national awards and honors. Brilliantly, they are too numerous to mention everyone, but here are a few. Please listen to their names, but hold your applause until I have completed the citations.

Amongst them are Jed Fuhrman, for his election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Bettine Birge, for her election as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow; Arieh Warshel, who has just won the 2014 Biophysical Society Founders Award; Dave Bottjer, who will receive the Moore Medal of the Society of Sedimentary Geology; Megan Luke, for her election as a fellow in the American Council of Learned Societies; Doug Capone, for the upcoming American Society of Microbiology Dupont Award; and I am compelled to mention collectively our 13 faculty who were elected as fellows to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and our seven mathematics faculty elected fellows of the American Mathematical Society.

Please, give a well-deserved and warm shout out to these wonderful colleagues and the many I did not have time to mention!

So not only am I moved by my pride and respect for all the work that you do, but I am also continually inspired by the triumphs and successes of our own students — both their quantifiable achievements as well as their personal narratives.

One recent example struck me. After migrating to Los Angeles from Jalisco, Mexico, the parents of David Horacio Hernandez taught their son the value of hard work and sacrifice. A first-generation college student from Culver City, David arrived at USC Dornsife from Santa Monica College.

“I came to USC with nothing, and it has given me everything,” said David, who this past May earned his bachelor’s in political science and American studies and ethnicity.

Just one year after his arrival at USC, the Obama administration recognized David’s commitment to the country’s youth by naming him one of the White House’s Champions of Change and he participated in a roundtable discussion at the White House.

David found through his studies, field visits and talking with community members that he was deeply inspired. “It really lit the fire for me,” he said, “and after that, I became relentless in my pursuit of service.”

This past April, David spent a week in Dubai at an Education Without Borders conference, where he presented on L.A.’s Latino youth and their access to education. He also served as a delegate to the United Nations’ social commission for poverty eradication and youth unemployment.

David is now planning to earn a graduate degree, before pursuing elected office.

Our student body continues to thrive, thanks to the mentorship and discovery-based learning that you, as faculty, provide. As we prepare for the upcoming changes in the general education curriculum, I will be looking to each of you for fresh perspectives when you respond to the call for new courses that we expect will be announced soon. This will be critical to preserving the College’s financial stability and its overall goal of providing all of our students with a strong and deep foundation in the humanities and sciences.

Our graduate students are another source of pride. External validation of their success abounds.

In the last four years, the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity alone has won 12 Ford Fellowships — a record number for any Ph.D. program in the nation. Creative writing students have recently won two National Education Association grants for translation and poetry, and a Mellon postdoc at MIT. Numerous Ph.D.s in the natural sciences have earned postdoctoral placements at prestigious universities including Harvard, Princeton, Cal Tech and Stanford. Ph.D.s in the social sciences have been placed in 51 tenure track positions in the last four years.

Now, while we should certainly celebrate these achievements, we must also be committed to not resting on our laurels. A major goal for the coming year will be to put our heads together and decide how we can move forward in continuing to improve significantly the quality of our Ph.D. programs, including an expansion of postdoctoral training across the entire College.

Of course, we cannot expect to simply throw new resources at this challenge. We need to be creative, reflective and transparent about where we can be most effective in training, and leverage our significant collective expertise to expand the success stories I have just referred to across all of USC Dornsife.

I personally look forward to joining my past experiences of running top 10 Ph.D. programs with your own best practices to achieve this goal. The landscape for graduate and postdoctoral training is changing dramatically, and rather than merely react, we should be bold and implement new ideas to keep ahead of the curve. This will be my major focus for the coming academic year.

So, as I was catching up on reading over the course of this summer, I realized that as a scientist, I sometimes focus a little too much on data. My reading reminded me of why we really are here, why we love to indulge in research and teaching.

An op-ed article by a college professor, shared by a good friend and colleague, particularly struck me, as it illuminated why we all work so hard, and how aspirations for our students can sometimes get lost in the fog of our daily workload.

The writer states: “In a seminar to first-year honors students we read a wide range of wonderful texts, from Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov. We have lively discussions that require a thorough knowledge of the text, and the students write excellent papers that give close readings of particular passages. But the half-life of their detailed knowledge is probably far less than a year. The goal of the course is simply that they have had close encounters with some great writing.”

What the teacher is referring to, of course, is that it is not the information in itself that is always the most important, it’s also the ability to engage the ideas.

He goes on to say: “College education is a proliferation of possibilities: the beauty of mathematical discovery, the thrill of scientific understanding, the fascination of historical narrative, the mystery of theological speculation. We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls.”

My fellow faculty members, we are entrusted with the incredible duty and honor of lighting that fire of knowledge within our students like David Hernandez, and ensuring they have the tools they need to relentlessly pursue their passions, wherever they may lead.

Now as a biologist, I have often focused on “nature versus nurture” to help me understand how we form ourselves and become who we are. But it was a conversation with Varun Soni, our Dean of Religious Life, that made me realize that only focusing on nature and nurture denies something critical: narrative.

For it is through narrative that we learn to express our experiences, and place them in the context of what really makes us human. After all, narratives and the telling of stories may be the defining characteristics of humanity. As culture, tradition and worldview are dynamic, fluid processes, so are narratives. And the only place on this campus that can truly interface nature, nurture and narrative, is USC Dornsife, where we offer a liberal arts ethos combined with a world-class research enterprise.

So on this theme of the intersection between nature, nurture and narrative, I leave you with the words of one of the great beloved poets of Ireland, the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, who just passed away last week:

“My quest for precision and definition, while it may lead backward, is conducted in the living speech of a landscape and a language that I was born with. If you like, I began as a poet when my roots were crossed with my reading.”

As I continue my commitment to USC Dornsife to lead and to learn, I ask all of us to remind ourselves of our sacred task: the creation and dissemination of knowledge, in all its forms most beautiful.

Thank you and Fight on!