2022 Annual Address to the USC Dornsife Community

Dean Amber D. Miller, PhD
Oct. 19, 2022


Welcome, and happy fall! It is great to see so many familiar faces. And, I would like to give a special welcome to all of our new faculty and staff here at USC Dornsife.

Two weeks ago I was standing at a similar podium speaking with our Dornsife parents at Trojan Family Weekend. For the most part, they are a deliriously happy bunch this year. But two things really jumped out at me that have evolved enormously over the past six years — both are directly focused on the work that all of you are doing:

First, USC Dornsife parents are truly in awe of the quality of the education their kids are getting — and I’m fielding much less skepticism about the value of a liberal arts education.

Second, they are beginning to understand and appreciate the importance of the research that all of you are doing. This is a huge leap forward.

I will never forget the parent I spoke to at a picnic during my first couple of weeks here at USC. She said her daughter was studying psychology and loved it; and she wanted to ask me how long she could let her stay in Dornsife before transferring to the business school for her degree.

I literally did not understand what she was asking me, until she explained that her kid obviously had to graduate with an undergraduate degree in business to get a job. It’s hard for us to understand that mentality, but it was real. And this parent was not alone.


Undergraduate Education

The USC Dornsife parents who our team have been speaking with recently are understanding the value of our version of a liberal arts education. They are seeing that our students are not just getting those first jobs, but are better-prepared for a changing job market than they could have imagined. And when they tell us about the incredible things they see our students are doing here at USC, you get the sense that these parents aren’t just proud … they’re also a little bit jealous.

For example, we are hearing rave reviews of classes taught by: Sarah Portnoy, Chi Mak, Kate Flint, Nayan Shah, Karen Tongson, Lindsay O’Neill, Vahe Peroomian, David Roman, and so many others. And parents are proudly talking about co-curricular learning, as well. We hear about the Prison Education Project, co-directed by Nik De Dominic and Kate Levin in the Writing Program, where undergraduates help teach university-level coursework to California prisoners. And we hear about field research with archaeologist Lynn Dodd on Catalina Island, where students are using GPS and GIS to discover ancient Native American sites.

At a research university like USC, experiential learning takes place inside the classroom as well. When students are engaging with cutting edge research that may not yet be published; when they’re learning directly from the authors of their textbooks and novels, experiential learning is inevitable.

USC Dornsife is also a special place for students thanks to so many of our dedicated staff — those of you who advise students, administer programs, produce events, work in labs, raise money, tell our stories, and help us provide a welcoming environment. Some of you don’t hear this often enough: Thank you!

This impressive student experience is also impacting the desirability of a Dornsife education. During the past 6 years, our yield rate has come up nearly 40%. This has happened while a stronger pool of applicants has also made us more selective. And the number of students migrating out of Dornsife to the professional schools has dropped precipitously.

Our incoming classes today are both diverse by every measure and absolutely outstanding. It is routine now for me to hear parents name-dropping the Ivy League school that their kid turned down for a Dornsife education. And at a picnic just the other day, a parent asked me if their kid should apply to another school at USC with the hope of transferring to Dornsife. You are all knocking it out of the park!


Graduate Education

And not just on the undergraduate side. One of my goals when I arrived here was to help PhD programs grow and thrive. Despite significant financial constraints, together we have been able to find resources to increase the total number of slots across our PhD programs by more than 20%. And the rankings and placements are reflecting our growing strength. For example:

  • A number of our science PhD programs came up significantly in the US news rankings.
  • Our Philosophy program was recently ranked #1 in the field for PhD placements in academic positions.
  • And the American Studies and Ethnicity program recently placed graduates at institutions including Duke, Vanderbilt, and UC Santa Barbara, among others.

Dornsife alumni are not just getting outstanding academic jobs. Recent PhD grads have also landed jobs at Genentech, Google, Facebook, Eli Lilly, and the U.S. State Department, just to name a few high-profile placements.

We also rolled out two new Master’s programs this year — one in Developmental Origins of Health and Disease and one in Global Security Studies. And Economics is now generating enough Master’s revenue for us to not only hire outstanding RTPC faculty, but also generate new tenure lines in the department.


Administration and Finance

This brings me to the inevitable discussion of the Dornsife budget.

I would be lying if I said we have the resources to do all that we know is necessary to meet our goals and aspirations. The good news is that the central administration has promised to address some of the systemic issues at the university level that have placed Dornsife in a difficult financial position. But the reality remains that university costs are going up more quickly than revenue. And we must continue to raise salaries. This means that we will need to be creative and look for new revenue sources.

You have heard me say before that we only want to build Master’s and certificate programs when they make intellectual sense, and I stand by that statement 100%. But there are great such programs that serve students well. If you have a good idea for a new one, please reach out to George Ingersoll for a conversation.

And while we’re talking about challenges, I am well aware that the Workday system and other transitions have been tough. No one is able to “magic” these challenges away, but please know that Renee Perez and her team are killing themselves to minimize the impact that all of these issues have on all of you.



If you have heard me speak before, you know it never takes long for me to start talking about the importance of research. What most gets me out of bed in the morning is being part of the pursuit of new knowledge and new ideas. Yes, I do understand that this makes me a nerd.

But seriously, the opportunity to speak with so many of you about your research brings me back to that moment in college when I first started to understand what general relativity was about. That sense of being at the bottom of a steep learning curve on a new idea — if only for a few minutes — makes me happy. And though it frustrates me as much as it frustrates all of you that we don’t have the resources to grow our research enterprise as quickly as we had hoped, there’s still a lot here to make me happy.

The level of research excellence that we are reaching is truly impressive. Our Dornsife faculty are the recipients of some of the most prestigious honors and awards out there. So many of you have recently received accolades from professional societies or published in prestigious journals and presses. And our junior faculty are terrific. This past year alone, five of you received NSF CAREER awards, and three were named Sloan Fellows. And we recently recruited a new diverse cohort of world-class faculty who will be joining us soon.

Your research contributions are also being recognized by new funding sources. For example, Aaron Lauda of mathematics is the P.I. on a multi-university study of low-dimensional topology that recently received an $8M grant from the Simons Foundation. It positions USC at the head of a group that includes Stanford, Columbia, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Caltech, and UCLA. And USC Dornsife just received a $15M endowment gift from Elizabeth Van Hunnick for the History Department to establish several new endowed chairs, as well as funding for research and fellowships. This is one of — if not the largest — gifts ever given to a history department. This extraordinary vote of confidence in outstanding scholarship also shows what engagement with a grateful department alumna and a dedicated fundraising team can accomplish.

Awards and major gifts reflect our growing reputation in specific disciplines. We also have a number of school-wide strengths that we continue to build on — themes that we identified together through our Dornsife strategic planning effort. Sustainability is one of these cross-cutting areas — and I’ll give you a few examples of terrific work going on in this space:

Joe Arvai and his team at Wrigley recently made two Faculty Innovation Awards: To Melissa Guzman, who uses machine learning to explore migratory patterns of pollinators; and Sam Silva, who uses A.I. to analyze the chemical composition of the atmosphere above L.A.

Matt Kahn and Rob Metcalfe recently partnered with Redfin and First Street Foundation to find out how assigning a property with risk scores for environmental disasters could affect a homebuyer’s decision.

Will Berelson has an ambitious project that aims to remove all the CO2 emitted from major ocean shipping fleets.

And we were excited to learn that last month our center focused on the plastics problem and the circular economy led by Travis Williams, along with Barry Thompson and Megan Fieser from Chemistry, was awarded half a million dollars from NIST. This is a terrific example of how the seed funding from our Faculty-Led Research Initiatives program is paying off. This year, we provided seed funding for six new initiatives that we hope will be as successful.

Health research across the disciplines is another area that we identified as a Dornsife strength. You may have heard that the university is gearing up for a fundraising campaign in this area. It will be led by Keck but will include significant funding opportunities for Dornsife.

We will, of course, put forward our foundational biological sciences, psychology, neuroscience, biophysics, and biochemistry research. We will also make sure to foreground our other strengths that might be less obvious to someone in the clinical world — areas like narrative medicine and medical anthropology, where researchers are filling gaps in our knowledge about the ways that culture affects health outcomes and engagement with the medical system. And our experts at the Equity Research Institute and the Center for Economic and Social Research are helping identify socioeconomic and identity factors that affect human health.


The Academy in the Public Square

Health is something we all care about, and it’s an area where breakthroughs often grab headlines. But it’s not easy in some fields for university research to find a public audience. Our Academy in the Public Square initiative was designed specifically to help make connections beyond our walls and to communicate more of our research in ways that the public can digest. And a lot of your research is getting media attention these days.

Sheila Briggs of Religion and Gender Studies recently wrote an op-ed for the L.A. Times exploring consequences that could come from recent decisions by the Supreme Court. University Professor Jake Soll has been all over the news talking about his new book, Free Market: The History of an Idea. Distinguished Professor Steve Ross was featured on Rachel Maddow’s podcast recounting a story of pro-Nazi Americans who plotted to overthrow the government during World War II.

Our Dornsife Dialogues online series, featuring many of you, is pulling in nearly 500 live viewers per event. And our partnership with The Conversation has led to over 10 million views of USC Dornsife faculty articles during the past several years. If you would like to explore how to get involved in either of these, please reach out to Jim Key.

I was astonished at how many parents commented to me during Trojan Family Weekend that USC researchers working on problems they care about was one of the reasons they were excited for their kid to come to Dornsife. This is terrific, but our job is far from done.


Our Next Steps Together

On the national scale there are still far too many people who don’t know that universities do research at all. Or who think that what we do is irrelevant, navel- gazing, or worse, politically motivated. We are in the midst of an historical moment in which it is hard to remember that until the middle of the 20th century, more than one in four United States presidents served first as the president of a college or university; and that university professors were just as likely to be asked, “what do you work on?” as “what do you teach?

Universities today play no less important a role. But the research mission has been drowned out by much louder voices focused on the cost of education, campus climate, and political divisiveness. These conversations do have their place. But universities must reclaim the intellectual authority to put our research expertise back into the conversation on a national scale — especially on critical decisions that will determine our collective future.

I was reminded why this is so important just a few weeks ago while listening to a NY Times podcast on electric vehicle batteries. E.V.s hold tremendous potential for decarbonizing the economy. But this transition will require the production of an enormous number of high density batteries built with metals and other materials that need to come from somewhere.

The podcast focused on a source of metals more than two and a half miles deep on the ocean floor. One site in the Pacific alone is thought to contain enough metals for batteries to replace every gas-powered vehicle in America today. But getting these materials to the surface would require dredging thousands of square miles of ocean floor between Hawaii and Mexico. And no one knows what impact that would have on the ocean environment or the microbial communities that live at these extreme depths —  the vast majority of which have never been studied.

I grew up in the ocean. As a kid my dream was to become a marine biologist. My goal was to break through the language barrier between dolphins and humans. And still, one of my favorite things to do (and something that makes my daughter crazy) is to sit on the beach and watch for dolphins.

The more I listened to the podcast, the more horrified I became. I started thinking about how decisions get made about whether or not to greenlight a major mining operation like this. Can research inform better ways to extract these metals? Are there better technologies just around the corner that don’t even require those metals?

It turns out that there are experts on my leadership team who I talk with all the time working on just these things. I started thinking about the electric bacteria that Steve Finkel and Moh El-Naggar are studying, looking for ways to harness the electricity produced through a unique metabolic process — work that could lead to biological fuel cells. And I started thinking about the C-DEBI team. Jan Amend and his collaborators have spent years discovering new ocean microbes and exploring the critical role they play in keeping our planet habitable.

Right here at Dornsife we also have people like Professor Naomi Levine and a USC-led team that has demonstrated the outsized role that CO2-eating ocean microbes play in stabilizing the climate. And Professor Brent Melot’s lab develops new materials that enable higher battery capacity and faster charging than those that are commonly used today.

Before a mining company tears up the ocean floor, I would like to see these researchers and their colleagues brought into a real conversation about which E.V. battery technologies we should be investing in, and whether or not we are approaching this the right way. And we don’t just need the natural scientists in this conversation. We need environmental economists and experts in political science among other fields to make sure that we are able to address social as well as scientific angles.

Not only is climate change generating an almost limitless list of chaotic outcomes with weather, temperature, water, human migration, illness, and so much more. We are also navigating a toxic political climate with questions of legitimacy in our political institutions. And the world is grappling with turmoil in Ukraine and a return to Cold War posturing that is fueling both a humanitarian and a market crisis. The complexity of the challenges we as a society are facing requires nuance and the best experts we can find.

Again, here at Dornsife, we have a lot to add. Political scientist, Christian Grose, for example, explores how different voting systems in primary elections can have a moderating effect on candidates. And Robert English in I.R. provides insight into the foreign policy implications of the war in Ukraine.

And to make it easier for the public to get access to our university experts, we built Public Exchange, which is already helping us get in the room with more leaders and decision makers. Having demonstrated the impact that Public Exchange can have with projects like Urban Trees that have gained international attention, Kate Weber and her team are in position to scale up. If you haven’t checked out what Public Exchange can do, please have a look and reach out to Kate if you would like to learn more.

But even if you just want to focus on your own research, remember that your everyday interactions on the airplane, at the DMV, or in line for a Starbucks can change minds. The next time you say that you are a professor and someone asks you what you teach, make sure you also tell them what you work on.

You might just blow their mind.

And that is the point.

Staff voices are important here, too. Help people understand that what goes on here at USC isn’t just classes and football. You have a unique view that can help people rethink what research universities are all about.

We all need to do this because we are living in a society that runs a great risk in pursuing solutions to our biggest problems when there’s a good chance that we haven’t even asked the right questions. And we need to be asking the right questions right now. We are out of time to solve so many of these pressing challenges, and we need our experts in the room if we are going to have any hope of getting there fast enough.

Helping the public re-engage with university expertise won’t just lead to better solutions to today’s problems. It will also secure our future.

Universities are where the best of humanity shines. Where curiosity and the search for truth provide the antidote to a society that seems to have lost the will — or ability — to grapple with complexity. Universities are where human ingenuity and creativity enables us to produce culture, art, and literature that changes the way that we see each other; to deepen our understanding of the natural world and push the collective boundaries of human understanding; and to lay the foundation for discoveries hundreds of years from now.

We will keep doing all of this together. Thank you for coming out today, and thank you once again for all that you do to make USC Dornsife such a special place.