2017 Dean’s Faculty Address

Dean Amber D. Miller, PhD
Sept. 12, 2017
Town & Gown on the USC University Park campus


I would like to start by saying a few words about what our team has been working on over the past year.  And then I would like to talk with you about plans for the coming year.

My goal in year one was to meet as many of you as possible, to understand the Dornsife culture, to get a better grasp of our strengths and opportunities, and to try not to break anything. It has been a pleasure to get to know all of our department chairs, directors of institutes, centers and programs, and so many of our faculty and staff. You have given me an amazing welcome, one that was much warmer than I could have imagined. It is incredible to me that just a year later, I am in a room filled with friends who I feel like I have known forever.

My ongoing goal is to figure out how we together can build on the considerable talent we have across Dornsife in ways that make us stronger as a school. We will significantly expand our scholarly footprint and make sure that our students leave here as the best on the market.

To get serious about moving things forward in a number of different ways at the same time, we needed a new cabinet structure. And I am really excited about the team I have pulled together.

We have three divisional deans, whose focus is on maintaining and improving academic excellence across Dornsife. They will be working closely with you on creating our academic plan this year. Steve Bradforth, professor and former chair of chemistry is our is Divisional Dean for Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Andy Lakoff, professor of sociology, is our new Divisional Dean for Social Sciences. And Sherry Velasco, professor and former chair of Spanish and Portuguese, and professor of gender studies, is our interim Divisional Dean for the Humanities. I appreciate her taking on this role until Peter Mancall returns from sabbatical.

We also re-organized our faculty leadership on the pedagogical side. In place of three vice deans, we now have two College Deans. Steve Finkel, professor of biological sciences, is our inaugural College Dean of Graduate and Professional Education. This position will enable us to grow and strengthen our PhD programs and evaluate MA and certificate opportunities. We also welcome Andy Stott, professor of English, as our inaugural College Dean of Undergraduate Education. He is responsible for improving our undergraduate experience to set us apart both from our professional schools and from our liberal arts competitors.

Finally, we have three non-academic leaders. Eddie Sartin is our Senior Associate Dean for Advancement. He has done a great job over the past couple of years re-structuring the advancement office and building an outstanding team. Lance Ignon is our inaugural Senior Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Communication. He will be working closely with all of us to frame what we are doing in a way that can be understood by our supporters. And Steve Mackey has recently become Vice Dean for Administration and Finance. I would like to call out his tremendous work since the time I arrived last year. We are making huge headway on improving our financials, facilities, research administration, and other services. We understand that this remains a work in progress, and he really does want to hear from you about how to continue to make improvements.

In addition to building our leadership team, we also started to address some of the issues that you have brought to our attention. In faculty affairs, for example, Renee Perez, the divisional deans, and I have worked hard to find ways to streamline the faculty merit review processes and improve the Dornsife-level developmental and tenure reviews. We will keep working on faculty affairs, so please keep Renee and your divisional deans in the loop if you see additional ways to improve.

We have also strengthened our faculty recruitment packages to reflect today’s competitive market. And the chairs and divisional deans have done a fantastic job reeling in the most impressive and diverse group of new scholars in our history. Almost 50% of our new hires this year across Dornsife and almost a third in STEM fields are women. Almost a quarter of our new hires this year are African American. These all represent significant diversity gains compared to past years. As we continue to make progress, we will work on developing pipelines to faculty leadership positions with a particular emphasis on expanding diversity.

We have also fended off attempts from certain East Coast universities to lure our faculty away. I think we are getting better at being a place where our faculty thrive. And with your help, we will keep working on that.

I want to acknowledge Karen Rowan-Badger, Donal Manahan, Lorena Sanchez and our entire admissions staff for the terrific job they did enrolling a record-setting class of undergraduates. Nearly 1,300 freshmen join us this year, the largest number in more than a decade.

Finally, we have identified a number of ways to raise our Dornsife public profile. To give you just one example of something many of you have been involved with, our communication team developed a partnership with “The Conversation.” This is a news distribution service that places faculty-written articles in mainstream news outlets. In this first year, we had roughly 30 articles published, with over 800,000 reads on outlets including The Washington PostTIME, and The New Republic.

As I move on to plans for this year, I would like to go back to my installation address, in which I mentioned some reasons why I think we are at a defining moment for higher education. While we understand very well the value of our contributions to society, it seems that beyond our walls, our role as innovators is being ignored — or even denigrated. A poll released in June showed that more than half of Republicans and nearly a third of democrats believe that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country. This is unacceptable.

USC Dornsife, can and should take on this issue.  We can define a new model.  A 21st-century model for a school of letters, arts, and sciences.

We can do more to engage our students and faculty in contributing solutions to problems facing the world. And we can do this without sacrificing our primary focus on research, scholarship, and education. We can build this model here because no one else has our combination of strengths: Our intellectual capacity; our cultural willingness to take risks; the fact that we are embedded in Los Angeles — the most interesting, vibrant, and forward-thinking city in the country; and the fact that you are the kind of scholars who have the vision and drive to think about new ways of being the best. This is an ambitious endeavor, but I came here precisely because this is an ambitious place.

Our goal is to leapfrog ahead of those who have traditionally been at the top.

Working together this year, we will identify the direction or directions in which scholarship is moving in each of our fields and develop a strategy to get there first.

The most important piece of this is figuring out how to make each individual department, program, center, and institute the very best it can be. I realize that you regularly participate in UCAR and undergraduate program reviews, and have all been asked to generate self-studies and strategic plans. I am not going to ask you to reproduce all of that effort. If your unit is already at the level of international preeminence, or if you have already developed a detailed roadmap to get there, this will be easy.

My goal this year is twofold: First, we will help those departments without a clear path forward to develop one. Second, we will identify common threads leading us to a small number of signature Dornsife initiatives that play to our collective strengths and have clear impact outside our walls.

I am well aware that any time we try to identify a small number of high-level initiatives, there is always a well-placed concern that there will be an attempt to drive scholarship from the top down. Or to steer resources only in the direction of attention-grabbing work. That is not what this is about. As a cosmologist whose work is about as far from either convergent or translational as it gets, I understand very well the value of disciplinary research done for the sake of inquiry alone. I will make sure that foundational scholarship is not compromised.

At the same time, there is value in identifying a few key areas where we, together, believe that we can have an impact that is greater than what any of us can do on our own. A few candidates for high-level initiatives have already started to emerge, and they will be tested by the academic planning process we are about to launch. Others will come into focus as we go. The ones that survive should play to our strengths, leverage our location in Los Angeles, and build in an area that someone else does not already dominate.

For example, it may be that we can combine our scholarly strengths with our unusual capacity for engagement with practical politics to become the place on the West Coast — and perhaps in the United States — to drive a return to civility in political discourse and help define the future of global governance. Bob Shrum, the director of the Unruh Institute, has laid important groundwork by bringing together policy experts and academics this past year to debate ideas in a series of nationally recognized conferences.

If this were to become a Dornsife signature initiative, it would involve more than our political scientists, historians, economists, and policy institutes. I see roles for experts from the Wrigley institute, the Shoah Foundation, the Brain and Creativity Institute, and many others. Steve Lamy has kindly agreed to reach out to many of you to begin exploring how the development of an institute with a broader mandate could support scholarship and help recruit outstanding new faculty.

Sustainability is another area in which we have obvious strengths, and where Los Angeles (not to mention the world) can clearly use some help. Just a few of the research areas that I know about where we already have great strength include oceans and marine science, environmental economics, geo-design, and sustainability policy. And nearly 50% of the faculty in our Department of Chemistry alone are working on sustainability in some way or another.  There are a lot of players in sustainability. That is a good thing. But it means that if we are going to make an impact, we need to identify the pieces we can own.

In terms of pedagogy, I see interesting opportunities both on the graduate and undergraduate side.

An idea that I have gotten excited about is the creation of a Dornsife PhD Academy. This grew out of a conversation I had with Susan Forsburg. Many PhD programs, including some of ours, have been shrinking because of the fear that there are too few jobs in academia. I vehemently disagree with this line of thinking. Nearly every field or industry outside the academy can benefit from the skills and mindset of PhDs. As you know, my goal is to grow the size of our PhD programs. But we do need to recognize how competitive the academic job market has become.

The PhD Academy idea is focused on making our PhD’s the most competitive on the market for both academic and non-academic jobs by supplementing their departmental programs with a series of enrichment seminars at the Dornsife level. These might include training in areas such as leadership, media, and speaking; financial and organizational skills; quantitative skills for humanists; writing skill for scientists; and other good things that will emerge as we work on this program. Steve Finkel will be speaking with many of you about these ideas in the coming months.

On the undergraduate side, Andy Stott will be laying the groundwork this year to be able to think in more detail about our Signature Dornsife Undergraduate Experience next year.

When I look at our undergraduate curriculum, there are a zillion different options. Students have more than 160 majors and minors to choose from. They can conduct research, study abroad, and work directly on issues they care about. While it is great that our students have so many options, it is very difficult to articulate what a Dornsife degree is really about. We need to make it easier for students to navigate their options and to understand why what they are getting is special.

We need to figure out what is good, what is stale, and where we can do things that are even more exciting.  Andy and I are both enthusiastic about exploring new ideas that could be part of an overhauled curriculum. This might include a common set of block courses for freshmen or a set of signature competencies shared by all of our undergraduates. I am sure that that new ideas that will come out of discussions with all of you.

Our goal here is to not only to distinguish Dornsife from the professional schools or even from our most competitive peers.  Our goal is to define the future of a 21st century liberal arts education.

Having been here for a year now, I am even more convinced that USC Dornsife is a special place. A place where we are transforming lives through education, discovery, and service. I see ingenuity and empathy and commitment here every day.  Your enthusiasm for where we have been and where we are going make it clear that we can and should push the limits of our ambition.

I look forward to continuing to do that together this year.  And in a couple of years, I am convinced that there will be a bunch of East Coast universities looking at us and saying, “Hold on … look at what they’re doing. Let’s try that.”