2023 Annual Address to the USC Dornsife Community

Dean Amber D. Miller, PhD
Oct. 10, 2023


I don’t know about all of you, but I hadn’t had a real break since before COVID. And by last spring my batteries were really pretty low.

I finally got a little downtime over the summer. I read a few detective novels, took a couple of short trips, and binge-watched all three seasons of Ted Lasso – again.

I came back with a new energy and perspective on how much we are accomplishing across Dornsife. But as I talked with parents, alumni, and members of the broader community, I realized that Dornsife’s scope and scale is still a mystery to most people. They see some of the constituent parts, but they don’t understand how they fit together.

It hit me that to see the whole picture, you have to zoom out to a distance, like looking at a giant mosaic. Only when you see how all the parts fit together into a coherent story does it become clear how much forward momentum Dornsife is driving and how much impact we are having.

Building and telling this coherent story is important for two reasons:

The most prosaic is that we need to raise support for everything we are doing — and to do that, we need to get people excited to be a part of it.

But there is a more important reason.

As many of you have heard me say before, I believe that research universities are the crown jewels of our national heritage. Today, more than ever, society needs the full range of intellectual heft that they can bring to bear on the complex societal issues we’re up against.

I also believe that we, here at Dornsife, are innovating in important ways that could ultimately help reshape the way that the public views research universities.

But for that to happen, we need people to see the whole Dornsife picture; we need to build a coherent narrative.

I’ll be honest, I really struggled with trying to put into words the big-picture narrative that has been in my head. It turns out that’s harder than I thought. But I’ve had help. And we have a lot of good storytellers here. I want this speech to start a real conversation with you about how we can articulate this even better — and how we can, using all of our voices, get this narrative out there more clearly.

So, why is telling our story challenging?

Let’s start with a little context. You might not have thought about it this way, but if Dornsife were a research university all on our own, our number of academic departments, the overall size and breadth of our faculty, our 10,000 students, and our living alumni base would place us roughly on par with Brown, Dartmouth, and Princeton.

But not with their colleges … with their entire universities.

And — get this — if Dornsife were a research university all on its own, our $100M in annual research expenditures would place us in the top 19% of all entire universities.

We contain the size, breadth, and complexity of a whole research university. And we are embedded in USC, serving 12,500 non-Dornsife undergraduates and collaborating with 20 professional schools.

This presents a unique challenge in telling our collective story.

Remember — unlike Ivy League institutions oriented around their colleges, USC is most often thought of as a constellation of professional schools. So to many, the notion of USC as a global research university is still a new and somewhat unfamiliar concept.

So, in my mind, our story has to start with research and scholarship.

I have no doubt that every faculty member could eloquently explain why their field is important.

But how do we explain the common thread that connects our scholarly approach and distinguishes us from other universities?

As part of our school-wide planning process several years ago, each of our departments developed a strategy to project where the most exciting research areas would be in a decade or so and to leapfrog our scholarship ahead.

Now, several years later, so many of those emerging areas are taking center stage.

For example, we’ve been out ahead in the field of quantum information for some time, hiring outstanding faculty before most physics departments realized this was a good idea. These investments have now set us up to play a key role in the university-wide Frontiers of Computing initiative. Over the coming years our faculty will be on the forefront of solving the most exciting problems in quantum computing — work that will help expand our understanding of a wide range of phenomena from black holes, to quantum materials, cryptography, and seismic simulations.

Less than a year ago, ChatGPT made the A.I. revolution impossible to ignore, raising questions of privacy, security, and the future of work — and demonstrating almost immediately that conversations with chatbots can get really weird really fast.

Fortunately, our cognitive scientists and psychologists are way out ahead exploring the lines between human and machine intelligence. And this A.I. revolution is going to prove us right to have continued investing in the humanities. It is our philosophers and scholars of history, literature, language, and culture who bring the creativity and nuance to formulate the right questions and grapple with ethical challenges.

We have also been building the research strength to combat climate change and support the clean energy transition. Our chemists and biophysicists play an outsized role in developing new energy materials; our marine and environmental biologists and Earth scientists help to sustain the health and biodiversity of the planet. And we are among the first universities to have built a whole initiative around the human factors of sustainability, including our economists and behavioral and political scientists, who are finding new ways to incentivize a just and equitable energy transition.

The $50M Sherwin gift commitment that we received in the spring largely to support faculty chairs, is an incredible vote of confidence in our future.

So, I see our collective research narrative as an unusually future-oriented one. It’s a story of brilliant scholars who are actively shaping a better world, while building the foundational knowledge that future generations will need.

As our dean of social sciences remarked the other day, “every research question is rooted in hope.”

It goes without saying that any hopeful, future-oriented research story has to include a diverse educational pipeline.

Without robust PhD programs, the knowledge base and methods cultivated over time will be lost to future scholars. But the sad reality is that there is a growing fraction of the public who are OK with that.

What too many people don’t understand is that if the pipeline of researchers dries up, the future of innovation does, too. It is not widely enough appreciated that everyone’s favorite gadgets — not to mention solar technology, frameworks for economic decisions, and life-saving medical treatments — all came from research universities.

Making this connection real for people is critical right now, as universities across the country are responding to the rising cost of PhD education by cutting programs.

The loss of PhD programs is a tragedy that goes far beyond self-preservation, because PhD programs aren’t just for training future scholars. We need more highly educated people across all sectors  with the capacity to navigate nuance and generate fundamentally new ideas.

This is why our PhD programs have been updating and shaping their programs to best prepare students for leadership in the most exciting future research directions.

At the Dornsife level, we have created the first-of-its-kind PhD Academy to supplement disciplinary training with monthly workshops for our entire PhD cohorts across all programs. Here, students learn communication, leadership, and other cross-cutting skills that are giving them an advantage both inside and outside of academia. They are also building communities and collaborations across fields and divisions.

Of course we all think rankings are useless — unless they make us look good. Then we think they are brilliant.

For us right now, they’re brilliant.

Nearly all of our PhD programs ranked by US News improved between five and ten spots over the most recent six-year period.

Not only does this reflect well on our PhD education, but importantly, graduate program rankings correlate very strongly with research reputation in the related fields.

Which ties these pieces together.

Our PhD programs, like our tenure-line faculty ranks, are smaller than our competitive peers. But by leapfrogging to the forefront of the most exciting scholarly directions and by proactively orienting our PhD programs to address not only our own pipeline needs but those of society as well, we are punching further and further above our weight.

So, how does undergraduate education fit into this coherent, future-oriented story?

The good news is that the word is definitely out that we are doing a good job with our undergraduates.

Over 1,500 first-year students joined Dornsife this year. And the class is more brilliant and diverse than ever. Our first-year students come from 45 states and 38 countries; 27% of them are first-generation; and a third are from historically underrepresented groups.

Today’s Dornsife education stacks up against anyone’s. But it is still challenging to explain — not only because we offer almost 200 majors and minors, but also because research universities comprise only 3% of America’s institutions of higher education. This means that most national conversations about the college experience do not foreground what is special about a Dornsife education.

To help explain this distinction, I tell our parents and students that there are three high-level attributes that institutions offer their undergraduates:

1)   A curated educational experience with attentive professors and advisors.

2)   School spirit, a wide range of student activities, and a diverse and welcoming culture.

3)   The opportunity to learn from and work directly with the experts who are writing their novels and textbooks and making the discoveries that will change the world.

There are plenty of places across the country where students can get one or two. But I can count on one hand the number of places that offer all three.

Not only do we offer all three, we do it in a signature, future-focused way that responds to a moment when rapid and unpredictable changes are transforming both society and our natural world. A moment in which career-specific skills can rapidly become obsolete.

A Dornsife education combines the best aspects of a traditional liberal arts education with skills-based training, robust career advising, and an unparalleled set of hands-on learning experiences. Our students shape their own educational path in a diverse environment that helps them learn to listen and share ideas with respect and civility.

The popularity of our programs says it all. Parents, alumni, prospective students and their families are all very excited about our undergraduate programs. Our challenge is to do a better job capturing that infectious excitement to help everyone understand that this is all only possible because our educational programs are of and from this uncommonly forward-thinking research enterprise.

This brings me to The Academy in the Public Square and Public Exchange.

Especially for our new folks, I want to spend a few minutes explaining what  these initiatives are about.

According to an article in The New York Times last week, the percentage of Americans with confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interest is down 17% over just the last three years. This is deeply troubling for all the reasons that I don’t need to explain to this audience.

But it’s not surprising. The public’s trust in experts of all kinds has been declining over the last several decades, and it is reaching truly dangerous levels.

I have been watching many university leaders respond to this trend with an increasing focus on translational and practical research. As an experimental cosmologist, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I don’t think this is the right approach.

But I do think that pressures to demonstrate relevance are real.

Rather than minimize foundational scholarship, we need to step back and take a really hard look at why public trust in university experts, in particular, is declining — and what we can do to build that trust back.

It is clear to all of us how research improves lives and communities, but much of our scholarly expertise and research products are not visible to the general public. Which is why the Academy in the Public Square initiative has been designed to encourage, support, and celebrate those of you who want to engage a public audience.

For example, through our partnership with The Conversation, Dornsife scholars have contributed more than 250 articles that have been read by 12.5 million people and counting. That’s a larger number than most entire universities have contributed.  And we have more than a dozen diverse podcasts, including those led by individual faculty members, research centers and institutes, and our Dornsife Dialogues series.

We are reaching larger non-academic audiences around the world, and this is terrific.

Under the Academy in the Public Square umbrella, we also celebrate work many of you are doing to provide expertise and advice directly to civic and business leaders. Right now, for example, we have faculty helping the LAPD improve officer interactions during traffic stops; and we are supporting Latinx-led nonprofit organizations in developing a better economic model for the Inland Empire.

But universities don’t typically make this kind of work particularly easy. Faculty have to develop their own relationships and collaborations on an ad hoc basis — generally without credit or recognition from the university. Which makes this very hard to scale.

This explains why, in my five years as dean of science at Columbia, I never fielded a single call asking for help finding expertise — and why, as we asked leaders in the city, county, business and philanthropic organizations here in Los Angeles where they get their expertise, universities were not at the top of anyone’s list.

Here in L.A., with three world-class research universities, our city and county offices did not see us as the go-to resource. Nor did businesses, foundations, or anyone else we talked to.

This points to a real gap.

However much we push our ideas and research findings out, if universities don’t make it easy for civic and business leaders to come to us for the specific expertise they need at a given moment, it shouldn’t surprise us that they have a hard time appreciating how valuable our experts are.

Public Exchange was designed to solve this problem.

Civic and business leaders today can come to Public Exchange seeking help with challenging problems and find a simple, easy-to-navigate place that helps them to scope out the problem and identify the appropriate academic experts. The Public Exchange team manages projects from start to finish, allowing faculty to provide the expertise without dealing with administrative overhead. And our partners get exactly the help they need.

This approach simultaneously supports our researchers to continue generating their own foundational ideas and discoveries, and creates a new avenue through which an interested subset of these scholars can have immediate and tangible impact on social impact problems.

In less than three years since we formally launched Public Exchange, we’ve seen how powerful this model can be. Across a wide range of projects, Public Exchange has worked with 55 faculty across 26 disciplines, 8 USC schools, and 5 other universities.  We’ve partnered on projects spanning urban greening, water conservation, climate communication, food insecurity, and clinician burnout — just to name a few.

These projects are generating significant attention in the mainstream media. They are also leading to new funding and research avenues for participating faculty, as well as project financing and philanthropic contributions from new sources.

In fact, Public Exchange has attracted enough project support over the past year, that we have been able to establish two dedicated sub-practices:  One in Sustainability and the other in Health and Wellbeing, both of which are rapidly expanding. It’s also starting to generate buzz across the research university landscape, including with other universities that are exploring the possibility of adopting our model and becoming part of a Public Exchange network.

This is something that has always been part of the long-term vision. Because if universities can find new ways to demonstrate that they can be the go-to resource for expertise in a way that our cities, counties, and business communities can readily access, not only will we accelerate our capacity to have impact, but we might also start to close that trust gap between universities and the public.

That will have an impact that goes far beyond ourselves.

So, the coherent Dornsife story that I believe we can tell is that we are the academic heart of USC, whose continued, steep ascent is due to our laser focus on having an impact that improves lives and communities today, tomorrow, and into the future.

This rapid ascent is due to: a world class community of researchers with an uncommon eye to the future of scholarship, leapfrogging our peers to develop the ideas and breakthroughs that will underpin generations of progress.

It’s due to a diverse community of teachers and mentors who bring this cutting-edge scholarship to bear in the design and delivery of educational programs at all levels, combining the best of elements of liberal arts and apprenticeship education with future-oriented training and skills.

And it’s due to an ambitious community of experts and professional staff, dedicated to making academic expertise immediately accessible to address pressing societal problems and renewing the public’s trust in our experts.

Our forward momentum is not due to each of these communities separately, but the fact that they are made up of the same people — and that these pieces are all part of the same Dornsife story.