2018 Annual Address to the USC Dornsife Community

Dean Amber D. Miller, PhD
Oct. 23, 2018


This is the annual event when our USC Dornsife community celebrates achievements and lays out ambitious plans for the coming years. While we will do that today, it is a little hard to dive right in this time.

We have been processing some very difficult news at this university. I think we all, in our own ways, have been taking stock in a larger context. I have personally been doing a lot of that.

When I was invited to join USC two and a half years ago, I saw a university with a proud tradition rapidly on the rise. One with outstanding faculty that wanted to be even better. One with unusually close ties to the community, and that cared about doing good. And one with the potential to become an academic powerhouse, while doing something truly new. Despite the events of the past year-and-a-half, I still see that university.

During my first year here, I had the chance to get to know so many of you. You welcomed me into a community that is dedicated to research, scholarship, and teaching. One that cares about each other and looks after each other. One that was a little frustrated with not having the resources to do everything that we wanted to do, but optimistic about what we can do together.

There is no question that we have made some real progress. We were in the midst of building momentum and developing our plans, when the series of scandals at USC took the wind out of all of us. But our USC Dornsife community is still strong.

USC is now at a pivotal moment. Like all such moments, there’s a way up and a way down. The difference is all about culture. And we in USC Dornsife know something about culture.

I believe the path up relies on getting three things right: First, we have to bring in the right president; second, we have to make sure our governance model makes sense; and third, we need a compelling vision for the future of the institution. If we get these three elements right, USC will not only move forward, it could be the place that demonstrates a new model for top-tier research universities. This is something that has not been done in half a century.

First, the search for a new president requires us to think beyond this moment. We need a leader who can articulate where we should be 10 years from now and develop a roadmap for getting there.

The job of a president is not only to raise money and represent the institution. The president also has to be a model and champion for the university’s culture. That means he or she needs to really understand our academic culture. Someone with stellar academic credentials, who values the highest standards of academic excellence. Someone who is an accessible and active listener. Someone who understands the university’s responsibility to our community. And someone who wants to see USC become a model for sustainability.

We need a president who believes that the heart of the university does not live in a building or a ranking. It lives in the mindset of a scholar.

We as an institution have done sports, we have done outstanding professional education, we have done first-rate undergraduate teaching. The next major step for USC is to solidify our position as a powerhouse of research and scholarship. This is what we should be all about in the next decade. This is what we in USC Dornsife are all about today. Our community should be making ourselves heard during the search process.

The presidential search committee, which includes two USC Dornsife faculty, recently hosted a number of feedback sessions. If you were unable to go, there is a website you can visit to express the leadership qualities you are looking for or to nominate a specific individual: http://presidentialsearch.usc.edu. I strongly encourage you to express your opinions. Together, we can make the point that the next USC president should bring the skills and values that we in the arts and sciences exemplify.

Once we have a new president, I assure you that I’ll become a regular fixture in their office pushing the importance of our research and scholarly mission.

That brings me to my second point: governance.

We need a president who knows how to create highly effective administrative structures that work in the university context. Someone who understands the difference between leadership and management — and is capable of both. We also need someone who understands how to work with all of the constituencies unique to a university.

Faculty governance is key. Nobody knows how to create this culture better than faculty themselves. Now is the time to re-think faculty leadership at the university level. We in USC Dornsife have to make sure we get this right as well. To this end, I will be hosting a series of forums to get your thoughts on what is working and what can be improved.

When we get governance right, our best ideas rise to the top. And we will need the very best ideas to succeed with the third element: defining a vision.

USC has all the right attributes to take its place among the world’s top research universities. We live at the heart of a dynamic city — one that thrives on diverse ideas and backgrounds, and where we are often first to recognize the urgency of global challenges. We have the resources, flexibility, and wherewithal to take on these challenges. Now we need to figure out how to leverage these strengths in ways that make the most impact.

I believe that we in USC Dornsife have already articulated just such a vision. One that is not only capable of transforming this university, but also capable of defining a new model for top research universities across the nation.

Our model is one in which our research mission is front and center and we build in scholarly areas where we can leapfrog our competitive peers. It is one in which the most innovative undergraduate programs are supported and our Ph.D. students are trained for success in and out of the academy. And it is one in which our scholarship is informed by and serves the needs of our community.

If we get this last part right, we will accomplish something that hasn’t been done since Stanford changed the research university landscape in the second half of the 20th century. Almost every top research university now does tech transfer and intellectual property licensing; but 100 years ago, no one had thought of this.

Today, we have big problems that could benefit from economic expertise, philosophical and ethical inquiry, and a better understanding of human motivation. We can provide research and scholarship that helps civic leaders understand the underlying causes of homelessness or how the cultural dynamic is changing in our city.

We — as humanists, social scientists, and natural scientists — are not just experts in our own fields. We are trained to be problem solvers.

Our model enables the public to tap the expertise at USC Dornsife at a scale never done before. Leaders could come to us for help with almost any problem imaginable — from business decisions to government policy. This can change the game for research universities.

We have taken the first steps in building this new model, working from the inside out with our academic planning process, and from the outside in with the Academy in the Public Square initiative. 

Your ideas have guided each step of our academic process, and we will continue to rely on you in the months ahead. As I hope you remember, we incorporated your ideas from a series of surveys, meetings with department chairs, and your feedback to drafts of the plan. We ended up last spring with eight high-level themes: two related to fundamental inquiry and six with clear reach outside the academy.

A formatted version of this summary will be sent to you soon, along with two other documents:

  1. Thanks to a great deal of work done by our communications and advancement teams, and with help from our Board of Councilors, the planning work has led to a compelling fundraising strategy and associated materials that will help us bring in funds for our academic priorities.
  2. We will send out a request for proposals to help define our future initiatives under each theme. A number of the proposals will receive seed funding for working groups to propose creative ideas for new centers, institutes, and projects. We will do this annually (at least for the next two years), so please bring your best ideas when they are fleshed-out and ready.

Another piece of our strategic plan is to refine the USC Dornsife undergraduate experience. Your expertise as educators has made us a first choice for many of the most talented students in the world, but too many of them still do not understand what we as a school are about.

Our goal is for USC Dornsife to become the most selective of the undergraduate schools — because there is no better education than one in the liberal arts.

Your ideas will get us there. Some of you have already been working closely with Andy Stott on this, and I thank you for your contributions. He will be holding focus groups and other opportunities to contribute over the coming months, so please get involved.

Another pedagogical initiative we are excited about is the Ph.D. Academy. Existing Ph.D. programs do a great job preparing students for careers in a specific subfield. However, many of our Ph.D. students are exploring job opportunities outside of the academy, and jobs within the academy are getting more competitive. We want to give our Ph.D. students an edge no matter where they end up. 

Through a series of monthly seminars, we are providing training in a range of practical skills including: Writing and communicating ideas to a wide range of audiences; developing ethical leadership and management skills; budgeting and quantitative analysis; and building professional relationships. At the end of the 5-year program, our students will be prepared to give the most persuasive job talk for an academic position or pitch themselves convincingly for another industry. To my knowledge, no one has ever done this across a school like USC Dornsife.

This year’s pilot has roughly 65 first-year Ph.D. students from six departments. Steve Finkel and his team plan to expand this initiative to all departments beginning next year.

Other pieces of our overall strategic plan are also falling into place. We know that in everything we do, a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment is one that leads to the greatest success. USC Dornsife is moving in the right direction.

We recruited more under-represented minority faculty in my first year here than in the previous six years combined. During the past year, our faculty, students, and staff have worked together on a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan built around three pillars:Recruitment and retention, climate, and engagement.

The process was led by our new Chief Diversity Officer Kimberly Freeman, who is now putting your ideas into action. Kimberly is committed to working with you to create not only a more diverse environment, but an environment where everyone always feels welcome. 

We have also started to build the infrastructure around our Academy in the Public Square initiative. Many of you are already collaborating with partners in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Our next step is to make it easier for you to establish these connections.

We have had some great success already in this initiative: 

  • A new private sector collaboration between Agilent and the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience is making state-of-the art instruments accessible to researchers, and expanding pipelines in STEM.
  • The Center for the Political Futurebrings together scholars, community leaders, and politicians from across the aisle to engage in civil debate and work together on fact-based solutions.
  • In April this center and the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies will be jointly hosting a climate change policy summit, with John Kerry providing the keynote.
  • And the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity just released a report on rent stabilization that was commissioned by the California Community Foundation.

These are just a few of the many new partnerships we are excited about. Now that Kate Weber has joined us as our first executive director of The Academy in the Public Square, we’re ramping up our outreach. 

In addition to Kimberly and Kate, we welcomed four more leaders in the dean’s office this year:

  • Dennis Hedgecock, Interim Divisional Dean for the Natural Sciences
  • George Ingersoll, Associate Dean for Masters and Professional Degree Programs
  • Rob Cooper, Interim Chief Financial Officer
  • Renee Perez, Senior Associate Dean and Chief Operating Officer

You may have heard that there were difficulties associated with our budget, and I would like to share the progress we have made to correct this. When I arrived, we had to negotiate a subvention each year with the Provost’s Office. This led to a lot of uncertainty from year to year, and every initiative had to be individually approved by the provost. I am pleased to let you know that, in partnership with the provost, we have finally been able negotiate a stable, 4-year budget. It is still tight, but we now have the ability to plan ahead.

That said, we cannot take the next big jump without fundraising. Our new campaign will launch in the spring. This time, we are not focused on a financial target. We are focused on the programmatic goals of hiring more tenure line faculty, improving and expanding Ph.D. programs, launching new centers and institutes, and seeding new intellectual projects.

All of these activities will take a tremendous amount of work and energy. While our plans are ambitious, I have been proud of what we have already accomplished together over the past two years. We will continue to rely on our outstanding faculty and staff to take the next leap as a school.

I have to confess that there were times this summer when stress was causing me to lose sleep, and I felt pretty beaten down. But then I would speak with some of you, and I would remember that this is a special place.

And then on September 10th, our son, Jesse, was born. Lack of sleep was put in perspective a bit. I was reminded again of the importance of the work that we are all doing to build a better future for him, for his sister, and for all our kids.

USC Dornsife is about discovery, knowledge, and truth. We revolutionize fields of study and empower students to make sense of the world. To those on the outside, this might sound like navel-gazing. But the reality is that this charge is more critical now than ever. We exist to parse through the complexity of today’s thorny problems. We exist to inform decisions for the greater good of society. And we exist to hold power accountable.

The coming months will be challenging.  But approaching problems with confidence, creativity, and reason is what we do better than anyone else. I am proud to be your colleague, and I look forward to achieving our goals together.