Keynote Address at The Future of USC Dornsife Gala: Own Tomorrow

Dean Amber D. Miller, PhD
April 2, 2019


I left Columbia for USC Dornsife in 2016, because I was convinced that this was the place to pioneer a new way for research universities to address society’s thorniest problems. I was convinced that USC, a dynamic university embedded in the heart of one of the most enterprising and diverse cities in the world, was the perfect place for an ambitious new approach. And I saw a way for USC Dornsife to rise above its peers.

I won’t pretend it has been the easiest time to come to USC. It has been a rough couple of years.

We postponed this gala twice, hoping for a better time. And then, three weeks ago —  more troubling news. To be honest, I started worrying that this might not be the right time to launch something new. But thinking about the work that our community has done over the past two years, I realized that the new initiative I will be telling you about tonight is not a distraction from the issues we are facing.

It is a way forward.

We’ve been fortunate to have the outstanding leadership and support of President Austin. And now, with a terrific new president getting up to speed, I believe that this initiative can pave the way not only for USC Dornsife, but also the University of Southern California as a whole, to take its permanent place as a preeminent global research university.

This is our new Dornsife story.

The story starts with the last time a university changed the game and rose to the top. It starts in the early 1970s when Stanford, a middleweight university at the time, took tech transfer to a new level.

By forming the first Office of Technology Licensing, Stanford secured valuable patents that led to hundreds of companies including Genentech, Sun Microsystems, and Google. It enabled them to become the beating heart of Silicon Valley. It also helped them attract the world’s most innovative faculty, who wanted to be at the center of the action. And Stanford became one of the best universities in the world.

Quickly, every other major university built their own tech transfer offices. These enabled research from laboratories around the world to underpin the most important health and technology innovations of the past few decades.

But universities do a lot more than laboratory research. And our global problems today will not be solved by technology alone.

It’s time for a new approach. One that mobilizes the full range of university expertise, while working with civic and business leaders to address today’s most complex problems.

This is not the first time someone has recognized that it would be helpful for civic and business leaders to have access to academic expertise. The challenge is that they speak different languages and work on different problems.

Our faculty spend all day pushing the frontiers of knowledge. The questions they ask build the foundation for breakthroughs of tomorrow. But it’s unlikely these questions directly relate to the problems that policymakers and business leaders around the world are grappling with at any given moment. And even grand-challenge type initiatives, which call upon faculty across disciplines to work on today’s pressing problems, rely on researchers to define the questions.

Our new initiative flips this around. It’s called The Academy in the Public Square. We are going to our civic and business leaders and asking them what kind of problems they need help with.

As you might guess, they aren’t saying, “we’d really like to detect gravitational waves.”  They’re dealing with difficult issues affecting their constituencies, their customers, or their bottom line.

We can help by tapping the expertise of our economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, and many others who know how to find answers to their specific questions.

Universities do have faculty working as advisors, consultants, and expert witnesses. But these connections are made on an ad hoc basis. To bring these collaborations to scale and to ensure that academic expertise is leveraged effectively and efficiently, we need matchmakers, interpreters, and project managers. We need to do for these kinds of consulting relationships what Stanford did for tech transfer.

That is why we are building a hub to streamline this process, take care of the red tape, and make USC Dornsife the place where leaders in the community can turn for expert input.

With this approach, we can tackle questions such as:

What are the most pressing concerns of LA residents, zip code by zip code?

Or, what kind of social interactions help kids from different backgrounds develop empathy and mutual respect that transcends borders?

It might not sound revolutionary for a university to reach out into the world in this way. It seems obvious that we should be asking, “What problems can we help you solve?” But no one is doing this. Not at this scale.

And let’s see how this helps us:

We all know that too much emphasis on rankings isn’t healthy. But they can be illuminating. USC saw a meteoric rise in the rankings during the ’90s and 2000s. In 2011 we received a ranking of #23 from U.S. News and World Report. But by the same measure, we’ve been stuck in the low 20s ever since.

What’s going on here?

If you compare our undergraduate metrics today to those of the top institutions, there is virtually no difference. But the research metrics tell a very different story. Institutions ranked in the top10 have an average Ph.D. program ranking in or near the top 10. Ours is in the mid 40s.

This is not because we don’t have outstanding faculty. Our faculty are superb. We just don’t have enough of them doing research. A whopping half of our USC Dornsife faculty were hired only to teach — way out of line with the very best research universities.

USC Dornsife is the heart of USC’s research mission.  To compete with the very best, we need to invest in 150 more research-active, tenure-track faculty, strategically chosen in the right areas.

So what does it take to attract the best faculty in today’s competitive landscape?

Of course you need the resources. But you also need to be smart.

You play it smart by investing in exciting research areas of the future, leapfrogging your peers and owning these spaces before someone else can.

That’s exactly what we are going to do. Together with our faculty, we have identified six broad research areas that represent the future of scholarship and also have the potential for great impact outside the university. Let me give you an example:

One of the most pressing problems of our day is the need to safeguard our planet for future generations. Many universities are working on scientific and technical approaches to sustainability. We have great strength there, too.

But we’re focused on a unique approach. We’re building a new department that includes our economists, political scientists, spatial scientists, sociologists, and others to make sure that we are not only developing the scientific solutions, but also making sense of how they should be implemented.

You also play it smart by providing unmatched opportunities for scholars to put their work into practice right here in the most dynamic city in the world. Just as engineers and computer scientists flocked to Stanford to take advantage of the new tech transfer opportunities, USC Dornsife will attract the best faculty excited about the new opportunities to work within our Academy In the Public Square initiative.

USC Dornsife’s bread and butter will always be foundational scholarship. No one will be compelled to step outside the traditional roles of research and education. But even those whose research has no practical application will still be drawn to a place that is doing something new and exciting; a place where their colleagues are world-class.

Our faculty are not the only ones who will benefit from The Academy in the Public Square initiative. Our students will be right alongside them — solving problems, connecting with the community, and making a tangible impact.

For example, over the past couple of years, undergraduates at our Spatial Sciences Institute have worked with faculty mentors, a local software company, and the city of Los Angeles to create digital maps of crime patterns. This collaborative project can help the L.A.P.D. deploy its officers more effectively.

By the time these students enter the workforce, they will have not one, but several of these applied learning projects under their belts. They will have worked directly with experts in their fields. They will have developed contacts with civic officials and business leaders. And they will have practiced making convincing arguments and presentations to decision makers. They will enter the job market as pros.

Tonight we are launching our new campaign: Own Tomorrow.

Our goal is to raise the funds for 150 new endowed faculty chairs, permanently increasing the number of research-active tenure-line faculty. These chairs will enable us to bring in scholars with the resources to guide our students with them as they approach today’s challenges with a long-term perspective and historically framed arguments. These chairs will ensure that our researchers can be fearless in their scientific pursuits, through which tomorrow’s innovations are born.

And tonight USC Dornsife is launching The Academy in the Public Square — an open gateway for the public to access our faculty experts in the right way at the right time to drive progress forward.

USC has done big sports. We have done outstanding professional schools and top-level undergraduate education. But this new approach, centered on our core missions of research and education, is what we need to complete our rise into the top 10.

This is what we need to win.

And just imagine how much collective impact can be made when every other university copies our model: Tens of thousands of faculty experts around the country engaged in the same way, helping to solve problems and driving progress.

Our vision is ambitious, maybe even audacious. But that’s the key to innovation.

With your support, we will write our new USC Dornsife story.

Now more than ever, it’s time to Fight On.