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The Wonder of It All

Remarks by Howard Gillman at his installation as the 20th dean of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.


September 24, 2007


Howard Gillman, Dean of the College


Thank you, President Sample. I started my career at USC 17 years ago, just a few months before you arrived, and so I have seen firsthand the extraordinary impact you have had on this remarkable institution. It is a great honor to have been asked by you to lead USC College at such an exciting and promising time. I know that the greatness of this university is inextricably tied to the greatness of this College, and I could not be more enthusiastic about the opportunities before us. And so, again, thank you for giving me the privilege of serving as the 20th dean of USC’s Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

President Sample recognized some of our distinguished guests. I trust you will also indulge me if I also recognize my family. I could not do this without their love and support, and I would not want to do this without their love and support.

I would also like to add my voice to those honoring Peter Starr. The entire College community owes him a debt of gratitude for doing such a spectacular job as interim dean.

I would like to acknowledge the members of the Board of Trustees and also the members of the College Board of Councilors and our eight other advisory boards, who have provided invaluable council over these early months of my term. We are all going to do some terrific work together.

Thanks to my fellow deans. We have a unique understanding of how much we rely on each other as partners and supportive colleagues.

I want to give special recognition to a very important group of people — an amazing and impressive collection of scholars and teachers who accepted my invitation to join my administration: Executive Vice Dean Michael Quick and Vice Deans Elinor Accampo, Dani Byrd, Steve Lamy, and Ed McCann.

I understand that if this were the Academy Awards the orchestra would have started playing a while ago, but if you will indulge me just a few more acknowledgments:

I want to thank the College staff who are here, and I want to sing the praises of the wonderful staff in the dean’s office — a remarkably talented, dedicated, professional group.

I am so pleased to see so many cherished faculty colleagues, especially those who have known me the best and the longest, my friends from political science, some of whom remember me as a bright-eyed new assistant professor.

Some people have known me even longer. Two of my best and closest friends are here, Alex Mizraji and Mike Karp. This past year we celebrated the fact that it had been 30 years since we all began as college freshmen; it’s been a long journey that has seemingly passed in the blink of an eye.

I’m grateful that many of our other friends could also join us.

My parents 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, and it is to their credit that I am here today.

As a scholar and a teacher I have devoted my life to the study of law and courts, especially the study of the American Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court. Why was I drawn to these topics? Maybe it was because the Watergate crisis unfolded when I was at the impressionable age of 14; maybe it was because of the dedication and good humor of my AP history teacher, Bob Sillman; or perhaps the keen intelligence and passion of my undergraduate professors who taught classes on the U.S. Supreme Court and constitutional law, and who first showed me, through their example, the sheer pleasure of thinking hard about challenging questions.

But at the most personal level, I know that I have been drawn to these topics 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. 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. I consider the very idea of a constitutional community to be one of the most important innovations in human history.

Our Mission

The idea of a Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences is 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.

A great college promotes enlightenment and progress by setting into motion and nurturing an endless loop of curiosity, inquiry, discovery, and skepticism. It is a loop that has played a fundamental role in human history, ushering in new ways of understanding the world, opening up new opportunities for creative expression, even transforming what it means to be a fully developed human being. Our mission is important, even fundamental, to the larger community and the world, now more than ever.

From our point of view, how do we cultivate and enrich the human mind and spirit? We wonder. We wonder about ourselves and our world; we wonder at ourselves and our world. The word “wonder” captures the nagging curiosity that drives us forward; it captures the healthy and necessary skepticism that prevents us from taking knowledge claims for granted; it captures the mystery and sense of awe that we experience in a community in which we are surrounded every day by new ideas, perspectives, and discoveries.

USC alumnus Neil Armstrong once wrote, “mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.”

It is when you wonder about the mysteries surrounding the origins of human life that you explore genomics or computational biology. It is when you wonder about the mysteries of the mind that you explore psychology or neuroscience. It is when you wonder about the vast diversity of social life that you explore history, anthropology, or sociology. It is when you wonder about the idea of justice, freedom, or equality that you explore philosophy, political science, or international relations.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge.”

Life is mysterious and awe-inspiring, and it rewards persistent and careful study, whether one’s object of inquiry is urban geography, or nanoscience, or the hidden layers of a novel by Nabokov.

If Socrates was right that the unexamined life is not worth living then to be devoted to such a place as this is to have a love affair with life.

At a recent reception for new College faculty I wandered over to a table where some of our English professors were talking to one of our astrophysicists. What were they discussing? Nothing. No, I don’t mean that they were struggling to find something to talk about; 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.” It will help you understand my excitement about my new position when I tell you that, at that moment, I thought how lucky I was to be able to spend my days in a community that is about these kinds of conversations.

I was tempted to summarize this experience for you by saying that USC College is a place where nothing is fascinating — but I was afraid that someone might take that remark out of context.

And so I will just say: USC College is a wonder-filled place.

Our Ambition

Needless to say, USC College plays a central role in the story of the University of Southern California. Under President Sample’s leadership, no university has climbed so far, so fast, as USC. There are many reasons for this. Credit must be given to faculty across the university, But I would not be a good dean of USC College if I didn’t draw attention to the efforts of my predecessors, who mobilized our faculty to create academic programs that now attract the best students in the world. Much of the university’s recent rise to prominence is associated with the extraordinary characteristics of these students — we even brag about them in the very moving and effective promotional video that we are running this season during football broadcasts. Since the College is home to many of these students we will take our fair share of the credit.

But we also know that the next step in the story of USC’s rise to prominence as a premier research university involves expanding the College’s already strong reputation in world-class research and scholarship. This in turn will raise the quality of our Ph.D programs. Given the breadth of the our research mission, and the fact that almost half of USC’s doctoral students are enrolled in the College, it is clear that the advancement of research, scholarship, and graduate training in USC College is central to the advancement of the university at this time in its history.

We wouldn’t have it any other way.

A college is about inquiry. At USC College, that inquiry plays out in four primary activities: undergraduate education, world class research, graduate training, and essential partnerships. In each of these areas, the road to the next level is clear, and requires us all to work together.

Undergraduate Education

USC College’s undergraduate mission is guided by the fundamental characteristic of what we are: 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.

The Liberal Arts Core. A great liberal arts college enables students to develop their full potential as human beings by teaching them to think critically and rigorously and express themselves with power and clarity. We want them to be exposed to the best that has ever been thought, discovered, or created; we want to nurture in them a passion for lifelong learning; and we want to help them find a path in life that is meaningful to them. We want to create minds that are nimble and can adapt in a rapidly changing world, and so we will continue to expect them to be Renaissance scholars — to explore innovative combinations of majors and minors so that they might experience what happens when two radically different fields of thought come together in a single extraordinary mind.

Above all, we should take to heart Rachel Carson’s challenge, when she wrote, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”

Student Scholars. But we are more than a stand-alone college; we are a great college within a great research university. This creates special opportunities and obligations. Our students have a chance to see firsthand what it is like to work through hard questions and satisfy a genuine curiosity. Thus, we have an obligation to give them exciting research experiences, and to establish relationships between faculty mentors and student scholars. Forget about four passive years in the classroom. Do you want to study geology? 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. Are you concerned about coastal pollution? Go to our Wrigley Institute on Catalina, collect a water sample, and bring it back to the lab.

Global experiences. Because our university has global ambitions, we also expect our students to leave the confines of this beautiful campus and explore the world. We live in a time when the price of ignorance of other cultures and ways of being is just too high. To put the point more positively: spending time in other parts of the world produces lifelong rewards. And so we will continue to expect our students to study abroad.

Community Engagement. Because we are in one of the world’s great cities, we will also proudly declare that liberal arts at USC College will never be an ivory tower experience. The metaphor of the ivory tower was initially meant as a compliment to the life of the mind as something that was separate from everyday concerns. That is one model, but it is not our model. Former USC President George Bovard believed there were two kinds of institutions: “One is the small college, placed by itself and sufficient to itself, with country surroundings and its campus remote from the city. The other is the city institution — the university which tries to solve the problems of the city.” We are a city institution, and Los Angeles is an amazing asset for us — a great center of culture, politics, and economics and a microcosm of a global community. Thus, through programs like our historic and pathbreaking Joint Educational Project, our students will continue to take the classroom into the community, and bring the community back into the classroom. Want to learn how our government really works and elections are really run? Become an intern through the Unruh Institute — and understand the real value of votes and the importance of political engagement.

New Media and New Knowledge. Los Angeles also represents for us the promise of new media, new ways of knowing the world — not just text-based knowledge but digital knowledge, visual knowledge. People are increasingly experiencing the world through new media and even establishing relationships through new media. Visual culture is transforming knowledge in traditional academic disciplines, especially in the humanities. Our students will understand how these new practices and resources are shaping the way we engage the persistent questions of human existence. And so rather than just learn to write traditional essays, they may use the extraordinary video testimonies of USC College’s Shoah Institute for Visual History and Education to compose visual essays on — to take one real life example — the possibilities of love in a concentration camp.

We are moving forward on all these fronts — the liberal arts core, research, global experiences, community engagement, and new media — but to give you one example of our efforts: last week I announced a new initiative in undergraduate research. It is called the “SOAR” initiative. The acronym stands for “Sophomore Opportunities for Academic Research.” In a nutshell, every qualified sophomore will receive $1,000 to act as a researcher on a faculty mentor’s project or to do their own non-course related research under the supervision of a faculty mentor. Providing a thousand dollar research account to support our undergraduates may be an innovation, but even Sophocles recognized the benefit when he said, “one must learn by doing the thing.” Our students must think of themselves, not just as recipients of received wisdom, but as instruments for the generation of new knowledge, and the SOAR initiative will help ensure that this happens.

World Class Research and Graduate Training

Still, if the College is the beating heart of the university, it is not just because of our outstanding undergraduate programs. It is also because of our commitment to outstanding scholarship and research, and to training the next generation of scholars and researchers.

How does one build on our existing strengths?

First, we must ensure that all of our faculty aspire to do work that makes an important impact — on traditional disciplines, on emerging fields, on our community, on our world.

Second, we must provide an environment that encourages innovative thinking so our faculty can do their best work.

And third, we must mobilize the resources that will support their best efforts and establish USC College’s reputation as a world leader in important areas of research and scholarship.

We are already a place that brings together people with different expertise to accomplish things they could only dream to do alone. We are a place where mathematicians and biologists and computer scientists come together to understand the cellular process of the gene, the protein, the individual molecule — and in the process unlock the secrets of the human genome. We are a place where neuroscientists join with musicians and filmmakers to understand, not just cognition, but the fundamentals of human creativity and emotion. We are a place where faculty from anthropology, history, art history, English, East Asian languages and cultures, and other disciplines work together to understand the fundamental impact that visual culture will have on humanities scholarship. We are a place that recruits faculty from a variety of disciplines so that we can more comprehensively understand marine science and biodiversity. We are a place where experts in political science, international relations, and religion explore the impact of religious organizations on civic engagement; where psychologists and historians explore the effects of genocide; where dozens of faculty from many departments explore the early modern period. It is a testament to all the exciting work being done in the College that I could go on and on.

Last week I announced a series of new initiatives designed to move our recruitment and mentoring of faculty to the “Next Level,” and to provide greater assistance to faculty who are working to secure the resources they need to support their scholarship. Toward that end I also announced our “Seedling” and “Seal-the-Deal” initiatives. These initiatives provide funds to expand the number of faculty who are seeking support from federal and foundation sources and provide support to faculty who are close to securing big grants. Over the last three years external support to College faculty has increased a remarkable 30 percent. We want to expand this trend. Our goal is to have increases every year in proposal submissions and total external support.

These steps are necessary, not just to enhance the impact of our scholarship, but also to accelerate improvements in our Ph.D. programs. Graduate students come to work with outstanding faculty in an exciting scholarly environment. Beyond this we also want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to recruit the very best students into our programs, and to place our new Ph.D.s at the most distinguished institutions. Toward that end I also announced last week what we call our “Catch” and “Release” initiatives. These initiatives channel substantial new resources into the development of improved practices of Ph.D. recruitment (Catch) and placement (Release).

We are still just a few short weeks into the first semester but, as you can see, we are eager to move forward quickly. The initiatives I have mentioned — SOAR, Next Level, Seedling and Seal-the-Deal, and Catch and Release — are important first steps, but they are merely the beginning of an ongoing effort to make USC College the exemplar of a great 21st century liberal arts research institution.

Essential Partnerships

The success of USC College has always depended on our ability to build strong partnerships: with our neighborhood, with other institutions in Southern California, with institutions around the world, and with the larger Trojan Family.

The College’s Joint Educational Project is successful because it started with neighborhood schools and now includes overburdened hospitals, social service agencies, and homeless shelters. Our scholarly excellence in Early Modern Studies and California and the West is dramatically enhanced by our two research institutes with the Huntington Library. Our Korean Studies Institute is a leading center because of its outreach to the local Korean community. Two weeks ago I spoke at a symposium on international genocide hosted by the College’s Armenian Studies institute, and the event drew hundreds of scholars from around the world and interested members of the local community.

We are a leader in neuroscience, but we did not have a cutting-edge neuroscience building until Dana and David Dornsife invested their family’s name, and shared a vision for what our neuroscience program could one day become. Not long after, world-class professors such as Antonio and Hanna Damasio joined the faculty.

USC College developed a world-class environmental science program when the Wrigley and Offield families shared not only their land, but their creativity and foresight. The new Boone Center will ensure that our Wrigley Institute will be a place where people from around the world can gather to address pressing global challenges.

USC College received a strong public vote of confidence in its flagship life science program when USC Trustee Ray Irani lent us his name. Now our faculty and students push the boundaries of human knowledge in a facility of incomparable quality.

We can fortify Los Angeles as the center of Jewish studies in the 21st century because of the USC Casden Institute for the Study of Jews in American Life and our expanding partnerships with Hebrew Union College and other centers of Jewish thought and culture. Outreach to the local Catholic community, through our Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, and to the local Muslim community, through our Center for Religion and Civic Culture, underscores the College’s commitment to serious scholarly engagement about the role of faith in the modern world.

Our students have fresh opportunities to think about the ethical dilemmas they will encounter in their lives because of USC’s newly created Norman Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics.

We have a world-class Hydrocarbon Research Institute because Katherine and Donald Loker believed in and supported the work of George Olah, our Nobel Laureate and holder of the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Chair in Organic Chemistry.

As we continue to move USC College forward, it will be my great pleasure as dean to forge exciting new partnerships. You see, I am an enthusiastic matchmaker, because I know that to be devoted to USC College is to have a love affair with life. If we coordinate our collective passions we will do great things together in the months and years to come.

Keeping Faith

You may have heard this story. When Dr. Benjamin Franklin was leaving Independence Hall on the final day of the Federal Convention, a lady eager to be the first to learn what the Philadelphia Convention produced in such secrecy asked: “Well, Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” The great Doctor replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Ninety-three years after Dr. Franklin made that comment, a group of Los Angelenos gathered in front of a white two-story frame building in a dusty frontier town. They gathered there to establish a university, and thereby to affirm their belief in the power of inquiry.

It would have been difficult for either group of founders to envision how their constitutional communities would develop over time. It was enough for them to know that they were committed to building institutions and practices that would perpetuate important core values. We are the inheritors of those acts of faith.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Although a republican government is slow to move, yet when once in motion, its momentum becomes irresistible.” We have our momentum. We have our mission. We have our ambitions. Let us now move forward together, with determination, confidence, joy, and a renewed appreciation of the wonder of it all.