Watch: Dean Amber Miller’s Installation Address

Dean Amber D. Miller’s Installation Remarks

Dean Amber D. Miller, PhD
Sept. 27, 2016

Remarks by Amber D. Miller at her installation as the 22nd dean of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Thank you, President Nikias, for the generous introduction. It is an honor to lead the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.

I think I speak for us all when I say that what you have done to drive progress at USC is nothing short of incredible. Your leadership and vision for this university is an inspiration, and I very much look forward to learning from you in the years to come.

Provost Quick — Michael — your no-nonsense, get-it-done approach is refreshing, and your deep knowledge of USC is invaluable. As you would say, all of the background, advice, and insight you have given me is responsible for any mistakes that I have made so far.

To my fellow deans and the senior administration: a heartfelt thanks for welcoming me to the Trojan Family and showing me the ropes.

I would like to personally thank Dana and David Dornsife. It is a privilege to become part of the legacy at this College that reflects your commitment to academic excellence. Your passion for environmental stewardship and for helping to improve lives is an inspiration to our faculty, our students, and to me.

I am grateful to the USC Board of Trustees and the USC Dornsife College Board of Councilors. Thank you for advising and supporting us in advancing our academic mission.

To my cabinet — I know it has been a whirlwind transition. Thank you for bringing me up to speed and for keeping the trains on the tracks. And to the impossibly awesome Sherri Sammon: your sound advice and patience has made USC feel like home. Thank you.

I am grateful to all of the staff members present and those who are stuck at their desks. This ship does not sail without your supreme talent.

I am grateful to all the students, postdocs, and alumni who constantly reinvent this dynamic academic community for the better.

I am even grateful to the folks who are only here for the wine and cheese. Hang in there.

It has been a great pleasure to begin to get to know so many of you on the faculty as I have visited departments and spoken with chairs, and program directors. It is your intellect, creativity and dedication that makes me confident in the success of the ambitious plan I will present today.

I would like to thank my friends and colleagues, old and new, for coming out this afternoon, and two of my former students for being here.

I would like to thank my mom and dad for the constant support; my dad and his wife, Sherry, for lending a hand in our transition back to L.A.; and my in-laws, Cookie and Ken, for going above and beyond to help us get settled.

Finally, I would like to thank my husband, Jonathan, and daughter, Brienne, for getting me through every single day with joy and humor and love and support.

On behalf of my immediate family, I sincerely thank the Trojan Family for the warm welcome all three of us have received.

It is great to be home.  But that is not why I am here.  I did not submit multiple applications for leadership jobs around the country. And, I have to confess (though I probably shouldn’t), that it was not the lure of a real football team, either. I have had my eye on USC for a while now.  Today, I would like to be very clear about why.

Since I was eighteen years old, I have had the great fortune to spend the majority of my waking hours studying, researching, teaching, and leading at five of our nation’s elite research universities.  I have witnessed firsthand how these institutions represent both the proudest traditions and the greatest promise of our shared humanity.  We are the producers of new knowledge in the world, the bold creators of fresh ideas, and the educators of the next generation. We are places that celebrate diversity, access, and inclusion.  We are institutions that endure over centuries, and that evolve with the times.

Given our proud tradition of excellence, it is easy to feel that what we do in our research universities is conspicuously relevant in the world.  However, as an invested leader in higher education, I have spent a great deal of time looking outside the walls of academia, and there I see something different.

I hear business leaders proclaim that, “innovation today happens in the private sector.”  I hear politicians dismiss basic research with phrases like, “shrimp on treadmills.”  And I have to explain to my seatmates on airplanes that as a professor at a major research university I do more than teach.

Just the other day, I was chatting with a former editor at the L.A. Times.  I asked her what sort of university stories she had featured.  It was hard for her to remember what makes it above the fold. Maybe something about a large gift, or campus climate, or the rising cost of tuition.  That’s it.  Every university is working overtime to tell stories of groundbreaking research and pedagogical success, but the public has largely stopped paying attention.

While I share with you my visionfor scholarship and teaching at Dornsife, I would like you to keep this question in mind: How did university scholarship lose its public audience?

I believe that the answer to this question reveals an opportunity for USC Dornsife to change the conversation about research universities.  We can be the place to renew the public’s understanding of why the arts and sciences matter to public life.  It is this opportunity, along with the capacity to help shape outstanding scholarship and produce the best graduates in the nation, that brought me here to USC.


All of this begins with scholarship.  This has always been the fundamental element of America’s great universities.  Today, research is increasingly conducted across disciplines and brings together scholars from different fields with complementary expertise.

Think about this in terms of sustainability and the environment, something I have always cared deeply about.  I spent my childhood way up a canyon in Malibu.  We did not have just your standard cat and dog; I played with lizards, salamanders, chickens, frogs, snakes, crickets, endangered stuff, invasive stuff … you name it.  My dad would say he felt like the resident Dr. Doolittle.

I grew up in a place of enormous beauty, and it pains me to see evidence of our human footprint taking its toll.  It will require not only ingenuity and collaboration to sustain the planet.  It will require expertise in almost every discipline we have at USC Dornsife.  From understanding the oceans, the atmosphere, and the adaptive capacities of life; to analyzing human motivation, social dynamics and empathy; to rewriting economic policy and the way we do politics.

At USC Dornsife, faculty and students are already tackling many of these challenges.  Professor Thompson is working on flexible organic materials with the potential to transform organic solar cells into widely available, inexpensive energy sources. Assistant Professor Longcore is studying the impact of light pollution on marine life.  Professor Oyserman is trying to better understand identity-based motivation, asking questions such as, “why do people plan to act but fail to do so?” and “why do we start too late and quit too soon?”  And Professor Deverell collaborates with the Natural History Museum and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West to explore Los Angeles’ historical relationship with water and drought — just to give a few examples.

This is groundbreaking work.  Yet thinking about the future of our planet still keeps me up at night, because what we are doing now is not enough.  We need to step back and build stronger connections within the USC Dornsife College and across the university.

For example, the USC Marshall School of Business can complement our understanding of sustainability with an entrepreneurial mindset.  The USC Gould School of Law and the USC Price School of Public Policy can help us navigate the web of national and international interests at play.  The USC School of Cinematic Arts and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism can help us tell stories that drive people to action.

Within the USC Dornsife College, we will do our part by strengthening our already world-class research enterprise with both scholarly and societal impact in mind.  Together as a faculty, we will develop a detailed plan for achieving international preeminence across the College.  This plan will identify existing strengths and strategic growth opportunities.  We will seek advisors from our strongest competitors to help us understand how our institutional agility, professional school partnerships, and rich urban environment can enable us to accomplish things difficult at their institutions.   The goal for us is not to keep pace, but to leapfrog ahead.

We have hired a number of transformative faculty in USC Dornsife.  And in collaboration with the provost, we will attract more.  But going forward, they will not all be senior superstars.  We will identify areas of scholarship in which clusters of outstanding junior faculty can lead us into emerging fields.  We will mentor and support our current faculty so they become internationally recognized leaders.  We will build postdoctoral fellow and visitor programs to make the USC Dornsife College a magnet for intellectual activity.

We will take the next step, and create transformative departments, programs, centers, and institutes, enabling us to strengthen our PhD programs and build critical mass.  Remember, PhD students are a savvy bunch. Of course they want outstanding mentors. But they also want to be part of outstanding departments that are defining the future of their fields.  We can look to our own internationally recognized Department of Philosophy, which climbed more than 35 spots in the graduate program rankings over the past 10 years, as an example that with the will, focus, and resources, we can get this done across the USC Dornsife College.


This brings me to undergraduate teaching.  Here, too, we will benefit from the research opportunities available as our departments continue their upward trajectory toward undisputed excellence.

Pedagogy is also responding to a barrage of external influences: evolving technology, global connectivity and social media, new and hybrid forms of democracy, and economic uncertainty.  USC Dornsife is at the leading edge of this evolving landscape, which is reflected in our immensely successful undergraduate programs.

As our reputation has grown, we are attracting many of the most talented students in the world.  This year, USC admitted only 17% of the more than 50,000 undergraduates who applied.  About a quarter of these students are underrepresented minorities, 13% are first-generation students, and 14% are international students.  We have one of the most diverse student bodies in a major research university.

Students who come to the USC Dornsife College have an undergraduate experience that rivals any of our peers. We have programs in GeoDesign, Gender Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Applied Mathematics, Nanoscience, Narrative Studies; an interdisciplinary major in Philosophy, Politics, and Law and a cross-school minor in Human Performance Optimization.  Just this summer, twelve students traveled to the Arctic with an international relations professor to learn about global warming as part of our Problems Without Passports program.  Now back in L.A., some of these same students are putting their new knowledge to work teaching local high school students as part of the Teaching International Relations Program.  We are doing a lot of things right.

And did you know that if you look at the U.S. Census for the undergraduate degrees of today’s top 1% salary earners, the top dozen or so fields are all in the liberal arts and sciences? Still, I get questions about the value of a liberal arts education.

What we must do now is weave these programs and opportunities together in a way that frames this vast, collective enterprise — for ourselves, and for our students and their families. A framing that helps them to understand that in the Dornsife College, we do not prepare students for a specific career, rather we give them the broad creative and analytical training and hands-on experience that prepares them to be leaders in any career they choose to pursue.  We will work together to define what I will call “The Signature Dornsife Undergraduate Experience,” a distinctive educational experience that engages all our undergraduates.

Integral to all we do in education is our commitment to expanding diversity, access, and inclusion.  It is the pipeline where the greatest difference can be made, so our educational programs must take this mission to heart. We will build on programs like the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative to enhance and grow our capacity to bring students from our diverse community into our educational pipeline.  And we will support first-generation and underserved minority students in transitioning from undergraduate programs into M.A. and PhD programs — and on to the faculty ranks — within USC or at other institutions across the country.

We will strengthen bridges within our own programs that already extend into Los Angeles.  USC Dornsife will do our part to ensure that USC is the leader in cultivating new generations of founders, creators, thinkers, and leaders from the greatest diversity of backgrounds and identities.

The Social Contract

Let us return now to the question I posed at the beginning: How did University scholarship lose its public audience?

To understand this piece, I ask you think with me about two pivotal moments in the history of higher education. In the 19th century, the Morrill Land-Grant Act provided a mandate for public universities to conduct research in agriculture and the mechanical arts to support our young nation’s rapid modernization.  In the 20th century, American industry and war, both hot and cold, called upon universities to provide linguistic, scientific, and engineering solutions in defense of our ideals and growing global interests.  At each of these moments, critical support for higher education was rooted in the challenges of systemic social transformation and the articulation of a clear public policy to meet those challenges — a “central national project.”

I believe that we have again arrived at a pivotal moment for higher education.  University research still has an immediate impact on our quest for a sustainable future, big data applications, and cures for disease, just to name a few.  But in the early 21st century, a moment of rapidly changing social dynamics, democratized and digital communication, and global challenges, it is difficult to identify that one, galvanizing central project.

This lack of a central national project is an important explanation for how we have lost our public audience.  Let me give you three more:

First, the heralded innovators of today have household names and give us what we never knew we wanted.  But the university research teams who develop the basic thought and science that make those innovations possible are too anonymous to take center stage.  This drives the perception that innovation takes place wholly in the private sector.

Second, increasing specialization and complexity in cutting-edge scholarship challenges our ability to communicate in today’s sound-bite-driven media landscape.  This drives the perception that we are solely inward-looking and focused on esoteric ideas.

Finally, increasing costs of university education and the rise of a service economy drive skepticism of the economic return of a liberal arts education.

These forces give us a way to understand how we have lost our public audience.   Regardless of how well we tell our stories, stories alone will not return universities to the place of centrality that they occupied in the public mindset in the second half of the 20th century.  We need a new social contract appropriate to today’s

complex, decentralized, and globally interconnected world.

We need a new social contract that relies not on a central national project, but on direct, invested relationships between the university and the public it serves.

The USC Dornsife College is already amplifying the impact of its translational scholarship. Our faculty at the USC Bridge Institute connect cancer research with clinical trials.  The USC Center for Economic and Social Research connects urban sociology to municipal social programs.  But to define a 21st century social contract, we need more than just our translational research.

Let me give you a personal example that has helped me to think about this.  Years ago, after a roundtable discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations, I was talking with the NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism.  I wish I could remember the arc of the conversation that led us down this path, but he asked me to serve as the NYPD’s chief science advisor.  I’m a cosmologist.  What could my ability to study the early universe have to do with protecting the city from bad actors?

It turns out that, as the largest counterterrorism division in the nation, the NYPD is constantly equipped with new devices such as chemical detectors, radiation sensors, cameras, and software. But the police did not have a way to evaluate the effectiveness of these devices or assess how best to deploy them.  Once I talked it through with the Deputy Commissioner, it was clear that what they needed — evaluation and optimization of sensitive equipment  — is something experimental cosmologists do every day.  It is almost all we do.  And he was right that I could contribute a new way of thinking. An objective and systems-based perspective.  Not one tied to a vendor’s desire to make a sale, or one subject to the chain-of-command.  I could help make a difference — a difference that was made all the more real and urgent in the context of the senseless attacks in New York just a week ago.

My ability to contribute did not come from translational scholarship.  It came from a liberal arts education and dedicating my professional life to the pursuit of basic research.  It came from years of being part of this incredible world that is a research university.  A place that values analytical thought and collaborative problem-solving.  A place that encourages our faculty and students to think about things in different ways, and to stretch our minds.

Every faculty member at a leading research university has the intellectual dexterity to contribute beyond the bounds of our own scholarship.  And many of us would like to.  But for the vast majority of us whose work is not translational, there has been no obvious path. At the USC Dornsife College, we can build those pathways.  We can develop connections to municipal government, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector.  We can identify opportunities for our faculty to make this kind of impact.

USC is situated in one of the most dynamic, most diverse, most forward-looking cities on the planet. It is home to influential art, culture, and technology; in one of the largest economies in the world; a proving ground upon which many of the grandest challenges first manifest and their solutions are first ventured.

Today I give you my word:  I will work with you to continue building our scholarly enterprise with the goal of raising all of our departments and programs to international preeminence over the next ten years.  I will work with you to support innovative teaching and new educational programs, and we will make the value of a liberal arts education clear.   And I will work to create opportunities for every one of us who wants to be part of defining this 21st century social contract to take part.

USC Dornsife: Where we show by example the value of the research institution to the community.

USC Dornsife: Where we demonstrate that direct engagement can play the role in the 21st century that the central national project played in the 19th and 20th.

USC Dornsife: The engaged institution that draws a new social contract.

We will do this together until this ambitious vision of the heart of a university, inside a thriving city, and serving society — has become reality.