Herb Klein Lecture

Dean Amber D. Miller, PhD
Feb. 8, 2017
San Diego, California


Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight. The Herbert Klein Lecture’s theme of civic engagement is something I have been thinking about a lot over the past couple of years, specifically with regard to engagement between universities and the community. In fact, the opportunity to develop a model at USC Dornsife of a more effective partnership between our university and the Southern California community was a big draw for me in choosing to come to USC.

To begin a conversation about the relationship between universities and the community, we must remember that the nation’s top research universities have two primary missions:

  • The first, to prepare new generations of thinkers and leaders, is widely understood. Our role of educating students is a central one, and community engagement is an important part of our students’ education. But I’m not going to address that tonight.
  • What I am going to talk about instead is the second mission: the research mission; the great endeavor that sets us apart from liberal arts colleges. It is our mandate to lead the way in generating new knowledge and to offer discoveries, technologies and cures to society. This is what has made our American universities the envy of the world.

But the tremendous value of scholarly experimentation has become obscured in recent decades. I believe this is a precarious trend, and one that needs to be reversed. I also believe that figuring out how to renew the nation’s engagement with the amazing work that our faculty researchers are doing can be key in charting the future of our cities, our environment and our national health, as well as for the renewal of civil discourse in our political landscape.

Past and Present

I would like to show you some headlines focused on American universities from two different eras. I don’t suggest that these headlines capture the whole story, but I do think they offer a glimpse into an evolution of the public perception.

The kind of headlines we see today reflect a public focused on the financial return of an undergraduate education and questioning the value of the liberal arts tradition. There is very little attention paid to university innovation in most of the writing about higher education today.

In contrast, the kinds of headlines typical of the World War II era show something very different. These headlines reveal a nation excited about the power of our universities to advance our National mission. They indicate a public concerned with maintaining America’s scientific and technological superiority.

This clear shift in perception raises challenging questions. What is responsible for this shift? Are universities finished as the key resource for new ideas and solutions? I will try to tackle these questions this evening.

When we think of the most critical problems facing society, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. Where do we start with issues as complex as climate change, immigration and refugee status, the global economy, cyber security, and health care? These problems can’t be legislated away. They can’t be solved with a “quick-fix” approach. We need our historians, environmental scientists, foreign policy experts, political scientists, and others to help make sense of complex problems.

It seems like an obvious statement. But if it is obvious, then why as the dean of science at Columbia for five years — overseeing nine of the best science departments in the world, in the heart of New York City — can’t I remember a single phone call from a city official or a business asking if I could introduce them to experts who could help solve a complex problem?

And here, as the dean of USC Dornsife for the last six months, overseeing 37 departments and programs and over 40 cutting-edge research centers and institutes? Still, no calls.

Historical Context

A couple of years ago, I started thinking about why this might be. I was trying to understand the various changes that have taken place in the United States during this time period and to make sense of how they have affected the role of the university in society. I think offering just a little bit of this background can give us an interesting historical perspective and illuminate what I believe is a very promising path forward.

My friend Jonathan Cole, the former provost at Columbia, is one of the leading experts on the history of higher education. He has helped me understand the founding of our American research universities.

Johns Hopkins University is agreed by most to have set the model in 1876. Hopkins combined elements of the British system, focused on training young students, with the German emphasis on research and experimentation. This created a system that would lift the American university above its European counterparts. The system was competitive from the beginning — and that is very important. As Cole puts it: “Even in its neonatal state, it represented the beginning of academic free agency; it was always competing with other institutions to be the best.”

And our universities did become the best. As the century pressed on and we entered World War II, the research and scholarship they produced became vital to our national security. With the collective ingenuity to create knowledge in ways our rivals could not, the intellectual heft located within American research universities became a powerful resource in the wartime effort.

The Manhattan Project is the most well-known research enterprise of the time. But think of advances in radar and navigation equipment. Atomic clocks that aided in precision weapons. Vaccines and food supplements. All of these were based on university discoveries.

Universities and the American public were bound together in a dynamic social contract. The public offered staunch support and federal financial resources for research. Universities offered intellectual leadership and scientific innovation. As a result, the academic was held in high public esteem, celebrated not only at a “eureka” moment or breakthrough, but as part of a vital team lifting our nation to excellence. We were all united in protecting America’s security, leadership and values from a tangible and well-defined threat.

This is what I call our Central National Project.

We passed the G.I. Bill in 1944, and doors opened to America’s universities for thousands of returning soldiers. The nation’s educated workforce began a period of significant growth.

As we celebrated the end of World War II, sustaining our intellectual leadership in the world was part of what it meant to be an American. The National Science Foundation was established in 1950, leading to major growth of both faculty and students in scientific fields. In 1953, Eisenhower, a university president, became the President of the United States (a career today significantly less likely than a reality TV star to yield a U.S. president).

As the Cold War set in and the space race took off, belief in the American research university as integral to the nation’s well-being was central to the national conversation. At this time, federal funding for research represented the largest fraction of gross domestic product in the nation’s history. Research was key to our national security, and it was a matter of public pride.

The Soviets launched the first satellite into space. But America’s scientists played a leading role in putting the first men on the moon. It should come as no surprise, then, that in 1960, Time magazine would name “The American Scientist” as its man of the year. Can you imagine that today?

The perception of our universities began to shift in the 1960s. There were a number of political, social and economic forces at work as public discussion became dominated by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Universities were ground zero in the ’60s for fervent political demonstrations. Anti-war protests and the fight for social justice found new expression in student voices on college campuses: in the free speech movements at Berkeley and Columbia; in support for civil rights; and in the second-wave feminist movements.

Until this point in history, universities were not identified predominantly with one political party or the other. University faculty and administrators continued to be mostly members of the political establishment. But in the 1960s, student movements marked the beginning of the perception of universities being associated with the political left.

In the latter years of the 20th century, the end of the Cold War led to a shift in the public’s national anxiety. We became less fixated on our collective role in deterring imminent security threats. Instead, we became more focused on our personal economic security. Self-realization, entrepreneurship and the American corporation became prevailing values of a robust market economy.

We saw the rise of individual business moguls to celebrity status. T. Boone Pickens and Lee Iacocca were featured in magazines. This was a reversal from the 1970s, when big business was often portrayed as stepping on the little guys.

The individualist focus appeared in other sectors, as well. Incentive programs were established for civil service workers, pitting mailman against mailman in competition to outperform one another. In higher education, we saw psychology — the study of the individual mind — become the fastest growing major in the nation. Ivy League graduates battled for jobs at investment banks.

Of course, the technology sector was primed to be a major player. The incredibly deep scientific knowledge base we had built over previous decades enabled a technology boom in the latter part of the 20th century. Partnerships between the emerging Silicon Valley and two nearby research universities, Stanford and UC Berkeley, fueled much of this innovation. Stanford, in particular, became famous for developing a new model of spinning off companies directly from university collaborations.

This has become a familiar pipeline and a key driver in our nation’s economy for many years. Foundational research — the kind done simply for the sake of understanding how the world works — forms the base on which translational research — or work done with an application in mind — is able to experiment. Practical applications can then be tested and marketed by the private sector.

Most technology entrepreneurs are well aware that their success is made possible by foundational research. I have yet to meet one of them who does not strongly support continuing to build this knowledge base in our universities.

Unfortunately, the way this story is told in the media today highlights only the most visible and easy to understand portion of the pipeline. The piece that is captured in the spirit of today’s cult of personality: the lone genius with a great idea; the college dropout who creates something that everyone wants and becomes a billionaire. This enticing perspective is, of course, too simplistic. It dismisses the reality that every one of these great technological innovations has been built on the giant shoulders of those who made scientific discoveries in the past.

Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg. Brilliant minds in their own right, built their companies upon computing theory developed in universities prior to World War II. This early work was not done with anything like today’s computing in mind. Scientific American commented on the development of the first computers: “This was 1937. Just a theoretical physicist trying to solve problems in quantum mechanics.”

It is not only the celebration of the individual entrepreneur that makes this easy to forget. More academic specialization and the shift to today’s sound bite-driven media landscape challenges our scholars’ ability communicate. This intensifies the perception that universities are inward-looking and focused on esoteric ideas. It has led to fundamental science being under-appreciated, and sometimes even derided as wasteful.

To be sure, scholarly results do get out in front today in a positive light, though usually as pieces of interesting trivia. We hear of an advance in cosmology, the discovery of an ancient fossil, or the latest pet to be cloned. It is not that these discoveries have no value. The foundational work underlying the discovery could be tremendously important. But, with the exception of discoveries in medicine, the value of the research to society as a whole is rarely discussed.

Other changes have taken place as well. Geopolitical and economic shifts in the latter portion of the 20th and early 21st centuries have diffused our national focus. We no longer have a “Central National Project” like World War II and the Cold War. We have a war on drugs, a war on terror and a war on cancer. We have ongoing wars in the Middle East, a refugee crisis and pressing issues of climate change.

Furthermore, higher education has become increasingly democratized. The percentage of adults age 25 or over having completed at least four years of college has increased from just over 10 percent in 1970 to more than 30 percent today. There is plenty to be said in favor of this trend. Yet we must acknowledge that the shift from trade schools to universities increases the focus on career training. It fuels a debate about the value of a liberal arts education in economic terms. Couple this with the rising costs of undergraduate degree programs, and we find public discourse on higher education dominated by one central metric: How much more money can be earned over one’s career with a college degree?

Today’s Public Perception

Put all of this together and one can see how a trust gap has opened between our research universities and the American public. From the outside, one can understand the perception of an Ivory Tower, in which esoteric and specialized research is being conducted — only a portion of which is of any comprehensible value. One can understand concerns of the rising costs of an undergraduate education. One can understand suspicion in a politically polarized world of a liberal bent to emerging ideas.

From within the academy, too, one can understand how trust has eroded. Funding for the foundational research that our scholars have trained for decades to deliver is being challenged. Their hard work done for little external reward is dismissed and accusations cast of political bias where scholars are engaged in a rigorous search to uncover scientific facts.

University leaders are aware that their research mission has become misunderstood. They have redoubled efforts to tell their institution’s stories. They have hired additional communication staff and are working hard to get their scholarly results out to the press. This is not just an issue of communication.

We need to re-establish trust.

A New Social Contract

We need a new social contract, and we need it for some very pressing reasons.

First, we are not done building the scientific base. Research in basic biology today will build the foundational tools needed to transform our treatment of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, viruses and much more tomorrow. Research on new materials in physics, chemistry and engineering will form the basis for our energy future.

Think about this in terms of sustainability and the environment — something I have always cared deeply about. 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.

This pipeline is essential not only in science, but also in social science, the humanities and the arts. A historical perspective on today’s events, for example, can help us navigate out of foreign policy quagmires and inform policy decisions. Sophisticated economic thinkers can help us understand implications of proposed policies, and inform decision making. Sociological, psychological and literary perspectives can help us think more effectively about situations that pique our emotional response or create incendiary public reaction.

How do we in the universities reaffirm our commitment to being a resource for society as a whole? How do we contribute directly to the pressing problems of today without a “Central National Project” calling upon us to provide support?

We need to write a new social contract. We need a social contract in which direct, invested relationships between the university and the public provide a similar unifying force as the “Central National Project” did in the previous century.

I see two effective pathways for making these kinds of connections. The first is to conduct research that itself has a translational path. For example, our faculty at the Bridge Institute at the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience are already deeply involved in connecting cancer research with clinical trials. This has long been effective, and most research universities continue to build centers and institutes that bring solutions from the lab to the startup.

We can do more, though. While this path is well-worn for science and technology, there are ample opportunities to expand these activities into other areas. For example, we at USC Dornsife are in the process of expanding the reach of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, under the new directorship of renowned political strategist Robert Shrum. Professor Shrum has worked for decades in the D.C. trenches and in high-level roles for presidential campaigns and administrations. Through his “Academy and the Public Square” initiative, our faculty and students and the public engage in intellectual, nonpartisan discussions. Bringing legislators, strategists and leaders to campus gives faculty and students unprecedented access to major decision makers. Just as important, it gives the legislators access to the research and analysis we create at USC Dornsife — work that can give them new perspectives. This might serve as a model that we can apply to other social science issues.

But I am also looking down a second path, one that I don’t see other universities charting in an institutionalized way. This will take a little work to set up. But if we get it right, I think this new path could be a game changer.

We have a faculty that holds extraordinary intellectual capacity at USC Dornsife. Many of them are among the most renowned scholars in their fields, working on cutting-edge questions with no obvious practical purpose — yet. We do not want to ask them to change their intellectual focus. We need them to push these boundaries so that we have the knowledge they are creating to draw on in the future. But, we can tap their expertise today. I have been thinking about new ways to do that.

An example developed for me seven 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 his chief science advisor. I am an experimental cosmologist. What could my ability to study the early universe have to do with protecting the city?

It turns out that, as the largest counterterrorism division in the nation, the NYPD is constantly acquiring new devices such as chemical detectors and radiation sensors. 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.

I worked with them on this for two years, and I believe I was able to make a difference. My ability to contribute did not come from translational scholarship. It came from 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.

I think we can do this kind of work in a more systematic way. Rather than relying on individual faculty to go out on their own and build connections, we can develop institutional relationships that facilitate collaboration between policy makers, community leaders and our faculty.

Just two weeks ago, I was talking to a Los Angeles city council member about this very idea. He has agreed to share a list of problems that they are grappling with as a first step in a two-way dialogue between USC Dornsife and city leadership. Working with the USC Dornsife vice deans and department chairs, I will identify faculty who are able to contribute their expertise to these problems. We will get these groups together and begin to figure out how our faculty can help.

It requires we take a methodical approach, identifying the faculty who not only have the relevant expertise, but also those who are good at collaborating and working beyond their specific disciplines. We will try a number of similar pilot programs until we get the model right, and then we will expand it.

I really think we can do this. I really think this can change the paradigm. Why am I so confident?

Southern California.

Our region is the most vibrant archetype for a global society of tomorrow. The challenges we must approach reflect and often portend the challenges of the world. We can easily list a number of big-picture problems that need our attention: the environment; water and drought; resilience; immigration; energy; homelessness; health care; infrastructure. At their core, every one of these issues requires us to ask the kind of questions that our University of Southern California faculty think about every day. Questions like:

  • What is the demographic, sociological and psychological makeup of our homeless population, and how does that knowledge help inform approaches for developing aid strategies that will succeed?
  • How will traffic patterns change with the advent of self-driving cars, aging infrastructure and new analysis of big data — and what does that mean for city planning?

We at USC might not have faculty conducting specific research on each of these far-reaching issues. But we do have faculty with the background, expertise and evidence-based modeling capabilities necessary to address almost any question. And sometimes, they are advising graduate students looking for thesis data.

The challenges we face today are complex and they continue to evolve. Our research universities must evolve to meet them, and I believe we are the only institutions that can. To achieve this, though, we need to develop a new type of partnership between the public and our universities – one in which we work together to define and tackle the problems that matter most.

We need a new model. And we need a university bold enough, nimble enough and entrepreneurial enough to go out there and develop one. That is why I came to USC.

It is an ambitious vision and, I’ll admit, a provocative experiment. What I see here lays the groundwork for one university to pave the way for the development of a new social contract. It lays the groundwork for renewed public support of university research and scholarship across the country because it invites the public to play an integral role.