The Future School of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Recent changes at USC Dornsife aim to imbue tomorrow’s leaders with the timeless values of the liberal arts. (Illustration: Dennis Lan.)

The Future School of Letters, Arts and Sciences

A revamped curriculum, a reimagined first-year experience and the creation of the Dornsife Toolkit are some of the ways that USC Dornsife is forging an innovative new model for an education in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences — one that will best prepare the students of today to be the leaders of tomorrow.
ByMeredith McGroarty

Today’s college student may look nothing like the typical undergrad of 50 years ago. A member of the class of 2024 is more likely to be a woman, to be a person of color, to be a first-generation college student and to be relying more heavily on scholarships and student loans to pay the tuition bill. Despite the changes in student demographics, not to mention shifts in the curriculum, career paths and preferred fields of study, the goal of a liberal arts education has remained the same — to provide timeless values and skills so that the student of today can be a leader tomorrow.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, which is exactly what USC Dornsife is out to do.

The College has recently implemented major changes to overhaul the undergraduate experience. These changes will ensure that today’s student body is educated in the way that best meets their needs and that of today’s job market while holding true to the core facets of a liberal arts education, which at USC Dornsife encompasses the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

“We live in an environment in which the liberal arts are not as appreciated as they should be. Our argument is that a liberal arts degree is a professional degree that not only grants you tools for citizenship but is also something that can be translated in a variety of professional settings,” says USC Dornsife’s College Dean of Undergraduate Education and Academic Affairs Andrew Stott.

No matter a student’s major, the skills that come with an education in the humanities, social sciences or natural sciences — critical thinking, analytical reasoning and the ability to clearly communicate one’s goals, expectations, findings and opinions — will prepare them to be a leader in virtually any profession, from journalism and diplomacy to medicine, law and business leadership. The values are not simply career-focused: Having a strong education in these areas helps individuals build confidence, self-awareness and decisiveness, allowing them to be more effective problem-solvers and organizers.

“The liberal arts provide essential skills — the ability to write, the ability to speak and the ability to tell stories — that empower people to realize they have a strong measure of control over their own lives,” argues Divisional Dean for the Humanities Peter Mancall. Having this control, and the confidence to exert it, are essential to becoming a leader, he says.

The interdisciplinary nature of such an education, where students are taught to view issues from various angles — looking at climate change from a philosophical and economic angle, for example — allows people with this education a greater “freedom to pivot” that makes them more prepared for a wider variety of career paths, explains USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller. Weaving programs and opportunities together and setting them against the vibrant cultural and entrepreneurial background of Los Angeles give USC Dornsife an edge over its peer institutions, Miller adds.

“The secret sauce of a USC Dornsife education is that it isn’t what our students study with us that matters,” she says. “It’s the way that they learn to think, to explore, to analyze, and to take problems apart that gives them a leg up on the competition.”

Changing Needs

The values of the liberal arts may be timeless, but student needs have shifted dramatically over the past several decades, and USC Dornsife has been making some big changes to ensure students have the proper information and support to navigate its broad, interdisciplinary curriculum.

“We have a lot more evidence that suggests that young students and those transitioning to USC’s academic rigor need more help than they did 10 or 20 years ago,” says Stott. “They have more social needs and social anxieties, and we want to support them.”

To meet the needs of today’s — and tomorrow’s — students, USC Dornsife is redesigning the way it approaches higher education. New initiatives include providing better guidance for undergraduates,particularly first-year students; linking courses that examine one topic from different angles; and supplementing purely academic content with classes that teach students career-oriented skills, such as how to establish work-life balance or write a grant.

“The wonderful thing about USC Dornsife is it’s full of opportunity. With all of that complexity, the College is too big to embrace sometimes,” Stott notes. “Part of our project is developing ways to better communicate to all our students — whether they are studying East Asian languages or organic chemistry — that they are part of a community of scholars who are all being trained to be thinkers and doers.” 

Stott and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs Richard Fliegel worked together with these goals in mind to develop “The Dornsife Idea.” This reimagining of the undergraduate experience focuses on making students aware of the diverse array of courses USC Dornsife offers, provides more comprehensive advising services for first-year students and offers guidance and instruction on how an undergraduate degree from USC Dornsife can translate into a career.

The Right Tools

An undergraduate student concerned about how her degree in economics or biological sciences will help her get a job at an international NGO, or another student seeking advice on presenting himself more professionally in job interviews, can now find guidance through the new Dornsife Toolkit, a collection of classes teaching valuable life and career skills such as grant writing, personal finance management, work-life  balance, self-presentation and advocacy.

“When they are being most candid, business leaders emphasize the need for critical thinking and communicative skills among their employees — both of which are central to a Dornsife education,” Fliegel notes. “USC Dornsife is committed to student learning in those areas, but also to their practical application in an interconnected world. These Dornsife Toolkit classes help our students transition to jobs and graduate programs that lead ultimately to rewarding personal lives and successful careers.”

Gabrielle Fabrikant-Abzug, a senior majoring in psychology with a minor in public health, took several Toolkit courses during her time at USC Dornsife. She notes that the classes helped her feel more prepared for her future. Fabrikant-Abzug, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, says the Toolkit courses taught her about managing personal finances, writing a cover letter and interviewing for jobs.

“These classes are different from more traditional college courses because they focus on teaching students basic, real-life skills that we may not have learned in any other setting,” Fabrikant-Abzug notes. “I have a much greater sense of confidence in my ability to lead a balanced, comfortable and successful life after college than I did before taking these courses.”

Navigating the Path

Today’s students may feel compelled to stick to subjects and courses they consider to be “practical,” thereby missing out on the range of exciting learning opportunities available to them. Providing students — especially first-year students — with better guidance that allows them to confidently explore the full extent of the College’s curriculum is the other main goal of the new USC Dornsife project, Stott explains.

“We heard a lot of people felt disappointed they didn’t take certain classes sooner,” he says.

Now, students will be exposed to a wide range of everything USC Dornsife has to offer earlier in the structure of the curriculum. Special advising services, courses and programs that encourage first-year students to interact and explore different subjects are just a few ways USC Dornsife will work to broaden students’ engagement across the College.

Interdisciplinary courses are also a vital element of greater integration, and USC Dornsife will be offering more linked courses, in which two classes related to one topic are taught together. For example, a class looking at the economic impact of climate change might be linked to a course exploring the ethical problems of an ecosystem in crisis, which leads to crises like mass migration and food scarcity. For political science, one course might focus on rhetoric and another on polling and data sampling. Each of the classes would satisfy at least one general education requirement, Stott says.

Another approach involves expanded advising services for undergraduates, particularly new ones. A first-year student who wants to go into marketing as a career, but also thinks she might like to know more about the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza and baroque art, could meet with her core adviser to discuss how to map out a curriculum that will get her to a major while still allowing time for plenty of learning in other areas. 

The Road Ahead

Like many in their field, Stott and Mancall are concerned that there is a misunderstanding about the core values of the liberal arts — curiosity, exposure to a broad spectrum of disciplines and the ability to analyze and translate knowledge into behaviors that are both individually and socially beneficial — at a time when students and parents are understandably looking for a return on investment.

Miller agrees, citing a 2018 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in which executives listed the top six skills they valued in employees: communication, critical thinking and analytic reasoning, teamwork, information literacy, complex problem-solving skills and creativity. All of these, she notes, are the very foundational blocks of a liberal arts education. Moreover, they are important for leadership: Nearly 60 percent of American CEOs hold a bachelor’s degree in a humanities field.

“If you look at the United States census for the undergraduate degrees of today’s top 1 percent of salary earners, the top dozen or so fields are all in the liberal arts and sciences,” Miller says. “Yet, still I get questions about the value of a liberal arts education.”

Stott agrees that the liberal arts are valuable for nearly every career, adding that faculty and administrators also aim to help students “develop a rich interior life” that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.  

Looking Beyond the Doctorate

Undergraduates are not the only ones who need help charting a course for life outside the university.

Today’s doctoral candidates, faced with a hyper-competitive academic job market, need to acquire skills in areas such as leadership and management. USC Dornsife’s Ph.D. Academy focuses on honing those skills through a structured series of workshops and discussions, offered over the five years of a graduate program and covering such topics as professional budgeting, grant writing and public speaking.  It is the first such program to train Ph.D. students across an entire school of letters, arts and sciences.

Steven Finkel, college dean of graduate and professional education and one of the creators of the Ph.D. Academy, says that the skills the program aims to enhance, such as leadership and communication, will be useful for employment in both academic and nonacademic environments.

“No matter the sector — academic, nonprofit, private — we want our doctoral students to be comfortable being leaders and managing groups of people effectively,” he says. “We also want them to be able to address a diverse audience, not just audiences of experts.”

USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller agrees.

“We need to make sure that we’re giving our students a competitive  edge and preparing them for the full range of job opportunities both inside and outside academia,” she says. “The Ph.D. Academy is designed to help our students land the very best faculty positions or find rewarding careers in other sectors. The choice should be up to them.”

Defining a New Future for Research Universities

by Stephen Koenig

When the New York City Police Department engaged an experimental astrophysicist at Columbia University to serve for two years as its chief science adviser, it wasn’t interested in finding out what set off the Big Bang. However, the NYPD did need help calibrating and implementing new technological equipment such as cameras and sensors designed to detect chemical and biological weapons.

Piloting new sensors and instrumentation was something that Amber D. Miller, now dean of USC Dornsife, did routinely in her laboratory. Her role advising the NYPD caused Miller to wonder why the full range of creativity and expertise in research universities wasn’t being tapped by civic and business leaders all the time.

“Today’s problems like sustainability and economic inequality are tremendously complex,” Miller says. “Universities have not only natural scientists, but also economists, psychologists, political scientists and many other experts who can help tackle these issues from any angle.” 

When Miller arrived at USC Dornsife in 2016, she announced her ambitious vision to change the way that research universities and the public work together. Her signature initiative, the Academy in the Public Square, encourages USC Dornsife scholars to expand their scholarly interaction with local, national and global communities. By demonstrating that faculty can spend part of their time helping to solve tangible problems while continuing to work on their highly specialized research and teaching commitments, Miller believes that universities will increasingly become go-to sources for expertise.

“People need to know they can count on us to work on big, thorny problems.”

“We need to reach out to the business community and to our governments and ask, ‘If you could call on an expert of any type, what problems could they help you solve?’” says Miller. “People need to know they can count on us to work on big, thorny problems.”

A cornerstone of the Academy in the Public Square is the newly launched Public Exchange, an office that facilitates and streamlines partnerships. After matching leaders with the right experts at USC Dornsife, Public Exchange, led by Executive Director Kate Weber, provides the researchers with tailored project management support from start to finish.

“Our partners in the public and private sectors are facing so many complex questions,” Weber notes, “from how to design cities to lower greenhouse gas emissions and make public transit more accessible to how to gauge the spread of infectious diseases in real time. Our researchers have the deep expertise to dig into these problems and provide the data, analysis and ideas that lead to real solutions.”

Miller hopes that Public Exchange will help define the future of research universities and that the model will be adopted at other top institutions throughout the nation. “Just imagine how much collective impact can be made when every other university adopts our model,” she says. “Tens of thousands of faculty experts around the country engaged in the same way, helping to solve problems and driving progress.” 

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Spring/Summer 2020 issue >>