2021 Annual Address to the USC Dornsife Community

Dean Amber D. Miller, PhD
Oct. 19, 2021


Welcome! It’s so nice to see so many of you in person after far too long.

I want to start today by saying thank you to every member of our USC Dornsife faculty and staff. We’ve returned to some sense of normalcy this fall only because of the impossibly heavy lift you have all made. I know it hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t always been smooth. And I know that many of you have grappled with some very difficult situations over the past couple of years.

Still, you stepped up through it all. And it is thanks to you that our doors are open, our students are back in classrooms, and we are here having lunch together again.

So — thank you, thank you, thank you.

I would also like to take a moment to formally welcome all of the new members of our Dornsife community. Over the past two years, we have brought on board 144 new faculty and 131 new staff. Whether you’re new this fall or just newly liberated from Zoom squares, it’s great to have you here on campus.


First 5 years

As most of you are probably aware, I recently began my second five-year term as your dean.

It has been quite a five years.

In 2016, the U.S. had just signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement. Pandemics, armed insurrections in the U.S. Capitol, and “Varsity Blues” were all subjects just for Hollywood. The L.A. Times reporting on USC’s medical center was about a potential new Alzheimer’s cure. And the Trojan football team beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

We are living in a different world now.

Nearly 5 million people across the globe have died of COVID-19. We have faced devastating wildfires and hurricane seasons that have run out of names. We have seen social unrest as the effects of inequality and injustice were laid bare. USC has faced a series of bruising scandals, two presidential transitions, and a nearly annual budget crisis that has left us with very limited resources.

We are all tired. And if I’m honest, I am a less optimistic person today than I was five years ago.

I suspect that many of us are. But I can’t afford to give up.

Five years ago, I moved to L.A. with my husband and four-year-old daughter. I thought that was as big as our family would get. We now have a little boy who just turned three.

I recently caught him with a marker crafting a large piece of artwork on a nice piece of furniture in our family room.

I said, “Jesse, no no no, we don’t draw on furniture.” He looked at me and said, “Mommy, are you happy?” I said, “No, Jesse. I am not happy. You know that you’re supposed to draw on paper, not furniture.”

He pulls me close and says, “Mommy … I going kiss you, then you going be happy.” He gives me a big hug and a kiss. Then he pulls back and looks at me and says,

“There, now you happy mommy?”

Someone who can muster that much manipulation before the age of three deserves a future with possibilities. A future in which our computer chips and toilet paper aren’t stuck on cargo ships, and where American democracy doesn’t feel like The Lord of the Flies.

All of our kids and all of our students deserve a future that is sustainable, equitable, and just.

I am less optimistic today than I was five years ago, but I am more determined. I am more determined to work on what matters, and to make that work count.

Here at a leading research university, every one of us has the great privilege to be paid to work on things that really matter.

It matters that we are creating foundational knowledge that transforms our understanding of the world.

It matters that we are educating the next generation of students, preparing them to be creative and innovative leaders who understand the importance of fighting for the greater good.

It matters that we are finding new ways to bring faculty expertise to bear on today’s immediate problems.

During the past five years, despite all the chaos and the noise, our Dornsife community has accomplished an awful lot that really matters. And we have developed a lot of infrastructure that is going to help us do even more.

Let me give you a few examples:


Faculty and Research

We estimate that our faculty have together published over 200 books and over 8,000 articles and chapters during the past five years with new insights into real-time economic modeling; social justice; the nature of gravity; the role of arts and humanities in environment and sustainability; genome organization and cellular function; monitoring and sequestering carbon; materials for alternative energy and energy storage; more effective ways to stop the spread of misinformation; and so much more.

Our research enterprise has grown in strength and reputation. There has been a 33% increase in Dornsife PIs holding active grants and a 16% increase in research expenditures even through the COVID period.

Three of you have been named MacArthur Geniuses, seven of you have been named Guggenheim Fellows. We have a new Pulitzer Prize winner, two new Pulitzer finalists, and 32 newly elected fellows or members of the most prestigious national academies. Many of you have received disciplinary-specific honors, NSF CAREER awards, Sloan awards, Simons awards, and many more. And so many of you are presidents of associations, editors of journals, celebrated authors, expert commentators, conference headliners, and awardees of major grants.

This productivity will continue to grow in the years ahead. We’ve recruited 136 new tenure-line faculty, more than double the rate of hiring in the previous several years, while increasing opportunities for RTPC faculty.

And comparing 2016 with the past academic year, our faculty have become significantly more diverse. The percentage of new tenure track hires from underrepresented groups has nearly tripled. And the percentage of new STEM hires and department chairs that are women has significantly increased. We have more to do, but progress is being made.

We’ve launched three new departments, and with Dornsife support, several faculty have launched new centers and institutes through our Faculty-Led Research initiatives.

We’ve also built fruitful partnerships with the private sector that have brought in advanced research equipment worth tens of millions of dollars, along with postdoctoral fellowships, and internship opportunities for our students.


Undergraduate Education

Our message about the value of Dornsife’s liberal arts education is also getting through. More outstanding undergraduates are choosing us in preference to both other universities and USC’s professional schools.

Applications and enrollment this year were among our highest ever — while our acceptance rate has dropped significantly over the past five years. Our yield, now at over 35%, has increased by almost 50%. Migration of undergraduate students from Dornsife to other units has decreased by more than 20%.

And thanks to the work of so many of you, we successfully launched the Center for Applied Learning and Life Beyond College, bringing together experiential and applied learning, internship experiences, Dornsife Toolkit courses, and career services. I can tell you that we are hearing rave reviews from both students and parents.


Graduate Education

Our world today also needs highly trained thinkers with advanced analytical skills, so we don’t buy into the notion that we should be shrinking Ph.D. programs. We just need to make sure that our Ph.D. students get the best possible training to hit the job market running. So, to complement their program-specific training, we launched the first-of-its-kind Ph.D. Academy to help all of our students build networks across fields and communicate their ideas more broadly.

A few metrics show that we are making real progress on Ph.D. education, too. Since 2016, we’ve increased the annual number of entering Ph.D. students by nearly 20%, and have added two new Ph.D. programs. This year, we welcomed the largest Ph.D. cohort ever at Dornsife. Compared to five years ago, our numbers of both Black and Latinx Ph.D. students have gone up by more than 75%. We have seen a steady increase in the yields of our graduate programs across all three divisions, and our time to degree is steadily decreasing.

We have also seen a steady increase in the success of our master’s programs. Both the number of programs and the number of enrolled students have increased by more than 50% during the past five years.



Our intellectual priorities are supported by the “Own Tomorrow” fundraising campaign that we launched in 2019, reflecting the USC Dornsife Strategic Plan that every one of our departments helped us put together.

As I’m sure you know, the reputational damage that USC has suffered (outside Dornsife) over the past five years has hit fundraising hard. But our steady Dornsife message of the importance of our research and educational programs has paid off. In fact, last year our numbers came up by 20% from the previous year, while university-level fundraising continued to drop.

Donors clearly recognize that what we do in Dornsife matters. And that is because we have your incredible research and educational advances to share with them.

Over the past five years, we have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Dornsife priorities. 78% of this has gone to research support for faculty including seven endowed chairs, funding for laboratories, research equipment, faculty-led centers and institutes, and other research activities. 20% has come in for support of educational programs including student scholarships, experiential learning opportunities, and internships.

And while only 2% of our donor support has gone to the Academy in the Public Square, this public-facing initiative really helps bring donors in the door. When they are able to engage with aspects of our research mission that affect their lives in a direct way, they stop to listen. Once they are listening, we are able to tell them about the more foundational work that we are doing.


Public-Facing Initiatives

So, I would like to give you a few examples of the “Academy in the Public Square” work, and invite you to participate if you aren’t already.

Our partnership with “The Conversation” has resulted in 175 articles written by Dornsife faculty being republished by more than 370 news organizations and read by more than 8.5 million people.

Our Dornsife Dialogues Series, launched online in the spring of 2020, features panels of faculty experts and other luminaries discussing topics covering everything from COVID to folklore. This series has garnered almost 40,000 views.

Our Center for the Political Futurebrings together our faculty experts with journalists, politicians, and community leaders to seek bipartisan solutions to pressing societal challenges and to model respectful debate across the aisle. The Election R&D series alone received over 26,000 views. And the USC Dornsife 2020 Daybreak Poll generated more than 400 stories in major media outlets.

The centerpiece to the Academy in the Public Square, Public Exchange™, was formally launched in the fall of 2020. Under Kate Weber’s steady leadership and with the participation of many of you, this new first-of-its-kind hub for matchmaking and A to Z project management has been built to leverage academic expertise to solve problems faced by our community partners.

To give you a flavor of the work that some of our faculty have done through Public Exchange™:

  • John Wilson’s spatial science team and Will Berelson’s Carbon Census network are key elements of the USC Urban Trees Project. They are providing the city of L.A. with a research-informed roadmap to maximize the impact of planting thousands of trees that will help combat the effects of increased heat in the neighborhoods that need it most.
  • Wändi Bruine de Bruin is leading a team to help climate experts better communicate with the public about climate change, in collaboration with the U.N. Foundation and the IPCC.
  • Kayla de la Haye, John Wilson, and members of our CESR team have been working with L.A. County to understand and combat food insecurity throughout the pandemic.

Our long-term goal is for Public Exchange™ to provide a new way for all research universities to bring expertise to bear on current problems in ways that complement and maintain the emphasis on the production of foundational knowledge — in much the same way that the first Office of Technology Licensing at Stanford provided a model for increasing access to innovations coming out of research laboratories.

Kate and her team would love to hear from you if you would like to be considered for future projects.


Equity and Inclusion

In all that we do, we are striving to ensure that Dornsife is a place where everyone’s voice is heard, a place that is welcoming and supportive, and a place where people of different backgrounds and experiences truly enrich our culture.

To this end, we brought on our first Chief Diversity Officer, Kimberly Freeman, in 2018, and she has worked with many of you on developing and implementing a DEI strategic plan.

As part of this effort, with Dornsife support, members of our faculty have recently launched a new Latinx and Latin American Studies Center and are working toward the creation of a new Black Studies Center that we hope will involve schools across the university. We’ve also developed leadership training programs for faculty and staff, and this past year, Dornsife collaborated with other units at USC on a series of well-being webinars. Several of you are also playing important roles in university-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.


Long-Range Vision

This is only scratching the surface of what we’ve done together over the past 5 years. None of it would have happened without the leadership of so many of you. So, I would like to take a moment to thank the leaders who have been instrumental in accomplishing all of this and so much more.

Department chairs, directors of programs, centers and institutes, members of the Dornsife faculty council, dean’s fellows, staff team leaders, departmental administrators, and so many others — thank you all for your leadership!

I would also like to give a special thanks to the current and former members of our Dornsife leadership team. Our divisional deans, college deans, and senior staff leaders have worked tirelessly to support all of you in your goals.

If you don’t know who these leaders are, you can find them on our website. You’ll need to know them because we have a lot of work to do together over the next few years to realize our goal of becoming a top-10 school of letters, arts and sciences — and they are here to help.

The key element to this goal, as I have shared with the president and the provost, is that we need to deepen and expand our expertise by growing our tenure-line faculty by roughly another 30%. And we need to increase our faculty and staff compensation to more competitive levels across the board.

We also need to work toward some large collective initiatives. I will mention just a few of these:

First, under the leadership of Steve Bradforth, we are seeking to develop the resources to replace two badly outdated chemistry buildings with a new and larger sustainability and advanced materials buildingto house research programs focused on accelerating the transition to a new energy economy.

Second, we are proposing a gut renovation of the PED building in the heart of campus. At the moment, our Dornsife students do not have a physical home. This renovation would create a Dornsife student center and hub for advising, experiential and applied learning, internship experiences, and career services — as well as some of our public-facing and student-intensive research initiatives.

These two projects would not only create central hubs of activity in key areas, but would also allow decompression and improvement of space in our other buildings.

But it isn’t just about space.

One example of a big-picture intellectual activity that we need to expand is our Human Factors in Sustainability initiative. By leveraging strengths in the social sciences and humanities we can accelerate adoption of the solutions already available. Key components of this initiative include the reimagined Wrigley Institute led by Joe Arvai, and a growing group of environmental economists, behavioral and political scientists, historians, writers, and others engaged in this work. I believe that if USC is going to be a leader in sustainability, this is the focus that will set us apart.

It is also important for us to engage with the fundraising focus that the university is developing for the health sciences. We recently pulled together a list of our major research programs in this area across our divisions. The list of titles of these programs alone filled three pages. We hope to partner with university-level fundraising to help us expand our work in social medicine, medical ethics, medical economics, and other areas in social sciences and humanities, as well as in our biological and behavioral sciences.

I should also say clearly that I understand very well that not all research is “big” or interdisciplinary. There are exciting and innovative programs that fit squarely into a discipline, an individual laboratory, or your writer’s room. And your research needs proper support, too.

Of course, we need to find ways to pay for all of these ambitious plans, and I’m not going to gloss over the fact that this is going to be very challenging. It will take investment from the central university to be sure — and at a time when there are increased demands for resources at the central level. So, we will need to continue to articulate our case clearly and convincingly.

And we need to be taking steps ourselves to raise resources.

Coming out of the pandemic, the advancement team and I are spending a lot more time on the road again fundraising. If we come across donors who are interested in your research areas, we will be reaching you for help.

New and expanded master’s and professional degree programs can also provide revenue where they make intellectual sense and provide a clear advantage to students in the job market. If you have ideas for exciting programs, please share them with our team.

And we’ve received encouraging results of a market research study for a new professional B.A. program for returning and non-traditional students. We will be exploring the possibility of both residential and online tracks similar to successful programs at top universities including Penn and Columbia.

If these plans sound really ambitious, it’s because they are. Great ambition is needed today more than ever.

I say this knowing full well that we are all exhausted, frayed, and sick of a constant diet of bad news. It seems like everywhere we look, there are petty disputes, partisan bickering, ego battles, and people who only care about having the last word.

To be clear, I am not asking you to pretend that this is a sunny new day and return to business as usual. I’m not asking you to yell, “Fight On.”

But I am saying that given the enormous challenges that society is facing, we in particular can’t afford to descend into nihilism and chaos.

It’s time for us, at the center of a great research university, to draw from the kindness and support that has helped us navigate these challenging years to build each other up stronger and to repair our collective optimism.

Because it has to be us — the creators of new knowledge, the authors of new ideas, the educators of the next generation — who must navigate humanity through these challenging times.

The world may not know it yet, but the future of our planet and our society depends on us.

And we may not know it yet, but we’re up to the task if we do it together.

But nothing great ever happens on an empty stomach. So let’s start with some lunch.

Thank you.