Logo: University of Southern California

2009 State of the Viterbi School

Dean Yannis C. Yortsos reports on achievements and plans to a full house at Town and Gown
Yannis C. Yortsos
September 25, 2009 —

Dean 1I am very pleased to welcome you to our traditional fall luncheon and the “State of the School” address of the Viterbi School of Engineering.  

I am even more pleased that so many of you could be here today. As always, this forum gives us an opportunity to review the past, and set goals for the next year.

Before we begin, I wanted to introduce a very special guest and good friend, who happens to be on campus today and decided that there is no better entertainment around than coming to our event!

Rick Miller is the president and the first employee of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering on February 1, 1999, where he also holds an appointment as professor of mechanical engineering.

Before joining Olin College, Rick was Dean of Engineering at the University of Iowa from 1992-99.  And prior to that he was on our own faculty (where he also held the position of Associate Dean for Academic Affairs). Rick will deliver the Rechtin lecture tomorrow. It is a great pleasure to have him with us. Rick, could you please stand to be recognized?

Dean 6
Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering President Richard Miller

Academia is a union of people who share a mission: to advance the mind and the spirit. In the case of engineering, the mission also involves things very tangible and immediate: to provide solutions to various societal problems, from sustainability (energy and environment) to vulnerability (natural and manmade threats) to health to the joy of discovery and the joy of living (-as also summarized in the NAE engineering grand challenges).

Engineering is enabling: the other sciences, even the arts. It works across length scales, across intellectual domains, across disciplines. It is empowering and exhilarating! And we have coined this attribute as engineering+: we experience it in research and in innovation- and we make sure that we integrate it in engineering education.  

In my time as a dean of the school, I have marveled at your capacity- both faculty and staff- to moving forward this mission; at your ingenuity; the relentless quest for discovery; the dedication to excellence; and to the teaching and forming of the next generations. 

In the process, you have helped elevate the school to a remarkable level.

Last year, I paralleled these achievements to a symphony. This year, I would make another art metaphor: “painting a picture”. It is one painted with a palette of the four colors you have heard me enumerate before

  • To be first at USC
  • A leader in the nation
  • With constantly rising quality
  • And excellence in all our endeavors

I must tell you that you are using these color combination to make beautiful Viterbi art.

The canvas, the tools, the ideas and the inspiration all come from a single fabric: I have often mentioned the response of a well-known Nobel Prize winner to the question: “To what do you attribute your success?” He replied: “By being around smart people.”

I think that increasingly this is also our secret as well. Except that to characterize the ingredients of our faculty, students, and staff I would also add to “smart” the words “talented, ambitious, optimistic, volunteer, mentor.”

In the remaining of this talk, I will attempt to tell how successful we have been in assembling this material, of the portraits that emerge, and of what still remains to be done.

If I were to summarize last year, I would use one of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (mixed metaphors here): A threatening winter, of unprecedented global gloom and apprehension with impending expectations of disaster- but which, fortunately, did not materialize in our school.

And if I were to summarize the next year, I would use Vivaldi’s other season, the Primavera: A promising spring.  

It is not difficult to see why I am optimistic.   Our foundation is our students, and I will begin with them.

In a climate of national anxiety about enrollments, USC engineering experienced a 10% increase in the number of freshmen applicants- and of increasing academic quality:
    We exceeded by more than 10% our freshman enrollment target- again.
    The last several years the entering class average SAT scores have increased by an unprecedented 9 points per year (for a three-year total increase of 27 points).
    55% of our freshmen are from outside California- indicating strong national reach.
    1/3 of them are (again) women, with a total percentage of undergraduate women 27% and rising, well above the national average.
    And we have experienced steady increases in both underrepresented minority students (now roughly at 15% of the entering class) as well as in international students

Indeed, today’s Viterbi undergraduates are smart, diverse, and vibrant.  

I would like to salute the tremendous efforts and energy of LouDean 3ise Yates and her team in the Viterbi Admission & Student Affairs Office- and of all the academic departments that have helped make these gains possible. In a dark winter, they somehow crafted a masterfully bright class!   

Educating and retaining them in engineering is a high priority- and one of our most fundamental responsibilities to this important constituency. Again, the results are very satisfying:

The 2007 freshman cohort had a freshman return rate to engineering of 92% (this year’s data are yet to be announced- however, we know that the engineering freshman return rate to USC is now 97%). These marks reflect the many innovations introduced in the freshman year (from the freshman academies to outside-the-classroom service and leadership opportunities to the ownership in teaching math classes).  As you know, for some time now Viterbi faculty can teach the basic math courses: if anyone among you want to do this, contact Professor Sadhal of AME. 

Parallel efforts are being made to improve the retention of sophomores and of upper classmen. Innovative curricula, dedicated teaching, and new and proactive advising systems, supported by staff across all departments are constantly being deployed.

As a result, I am very pleased to tell you, that for the first time in the school’s history, the 6-year graduation rate (from USC overall) of Viterbi students is now at 88%, a 1% percentage point increase over last year, ahead of USC’s average of 87%- and the best ever in the school’s history! USC Engineering used to lag behind- now is ahead.

Our Division of Engineering Education, ably led by Sr. Associate Dean Raghu Raghavendra, contributes significantly to this success.  

Last year’s EE senior capstone design course was co-taught together with Business and Fine Arts students in a (probably unique nationally) combination that brings together to the senior design engineering, business and arts.   

We have introduced for the first time a common-based theme for the capstone senior design. This year’s theme: "Assisting People with Disabilities."

And we hope that soon will be able to announce the co-teaching of classes across the globe using technology-enhanced access to the classroom.

Let me summarize, then: Our undergraduate program is rapidly becoming a treasure – the painting of a Leonardo.
On the other news side, as you know, ABET is coming to town (all 18 of them) in less than two weeks - and we will find out if they also see the same Da Vinci painting! So, among our highest priorities this year, has been preparing for that visit with John O’Brien’s effective and calm leadership.

I now come to the Master’s program:
Dean 2I will start by stating that a high-quality professional MS program is key to the current structural model of the school. (I will emphasize again high-quality, and professional.) Whether one views it as a terminal professional degree or as the potential extension of the BS degree – through the PDP program– the MS degree is becoming a self-contained degree much more that the anteroom to the PhD.

It is certainly so viewed at the university level. 

Under the leadership of Associate Dean Kelly Goulis, the Office of Master’s and Professional Programs (MAPP) has embarked in a committed effort to move the program to the same level of excellence as the undergraduate one. New services, stringent advisement practices and the constant development of a culture of excellence are the drivers in this effort.   

Enlarging the applicant pool is a key to this strategy: MAPP has implemented an aggressive recruitment program. This now includes over-50 domestic recruiting visits, several recruiting trips globally, to the Pacific Rim, a permanent office in Bangalore, and a permanent office in Shanghai. To increase the domestic MS applicant pool, we have agreements for partnerships with strong undergraduate domestic feeder schools.  For example, we have signed agreements with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and last Spring with the Olin College of Engineering. The Progressive Degree Program leads USC by leaps and bounds. Since 2006 we have quadrupled the enrollments of 4+1 students: they now number more than 200.)  

These efforts are producing noticeable results: This Fall’s MS class exceeded expectations in both numbers and in improved quality- with a notable increase of new MS students from mainland China.

The MS program now offers 37 different master’s specializations. And responding to niche demand- roughly paralleling the Federal Stimulus and the shaping of a new economy- we also introduced last year 4 new MS programs: Green Technologies, Health Systems Engineering, Electrical Power (Smart Grids), Financial Engineering.

No less significant is that with the help of the DEE and under John’s and Raghu’s leadership, we are creating a professional MS degree, one that will decouple it from the PhD program. I am looking forward to report significant progress in this area in the coming year.

In parallel, we continue to aggressively build on Continuing Education and Professional Programs. Led by Candace House, our efforts in this area are also in the lead at the university level.

The Distance Education Network, a national leader for some time, must continue being at the forefront of the technology. Indeed, I see DEN as much more than an on-line tool: I call it Technology-Enhanced Access to the Classroom, which is really what DEN offers. I strongly believe that this will be an unavoidable part of the future. We are in this game as national leaders, and we must continue occupying and solidifying this position. 

So, the MS program although it often has the quizzical smile of the Mona Lisa, is still a tableau vivant of among others, American eagles, Indian tigers and Chinese dragons, in a post-modern technological setting. We are looking forward to shaping it into a striking painting.

While I have the opportunity, I would also like to thank Ashish Soni and the staff at ITP for all their great work. ITP provides Information Technology literacy to the university at large. ITP enrollments have not only stabilized, but also grown, and the program has been a source of continuous innovation.

I would like now to address the PhD program.:

Strong academic programs produce impactful numbers of PhD students, with strong impact on academic reputation. In this respect, the news for our PhD program, guided by Associate Dean Margie Berti and Sr. Associate Dean John O’Brien, is exciting. In the past year, we graduated 164 PhD students - more than 1/3 of USC’s total- the largest ever in the school’s history. This is an outstanding testament to the strength of our faculty and their research.This number on average represents a striking productivity of one-PhD graduate/per TT faculty/per year. Very few other schools (perhaps Stanford, Caltech and MIT) can boast a similar rate.

Funding the PhD students, however, is a great challenge: as you know, we have as target a 1+1+3 support model: one year more-or-less is school-Dean 4provided unrestricted support; one year also a school-supported TA-ship; three years, more or less, supported from external research contracts. We are certainly on target vis-a-vis the TA support; and about 80% vis-à-vis the others. With your help, I am looking forward to continue making this ambitious goal a reality.

With the support of the Provost, the Annenberg foundation, our own Viterbi resources and a number of other foundation and corporate gifts, the number of unrestricted first-year fellowships now easily exceeds 120, and we continue to aggressively fundraise in that direction. Just later this Fall, a series of workshops will be held to prepare our students to compete for NSF Fellowships. And I just learned that two USC students were just selected to be among 31 nationwide new INTEL fellows.

Placing our graduates to elite institutions is an important part of our efforts. A series of mentoring events and seminars organized by John, Maja Mataric, our Sr. Associate Dean for Research, and a number of faculty, helps to prepare them in that direction. 

A number of challenges remain, however. Last year, the total number of fellowship offers to first-year PhD students was 173. However, acceptances were only 63, or 36%.

The enrollment of women in the PhD program is 21%.... about the same as last year. However, we have much more to do to increase our diversity in the other fronts.   

So, we need to improve yield, increase diversity and retention, reduce attrition and improve placement. This year we will carefully review all these processes- so that we end up serving our PhD student constituency better; and to also better utilize and steward our resources.

As you know I have asked Timothy Pinkston to serve as a Senior Associate Dean of Engineering. His portfolio is the enhancement of faculty and student recruitment and retention across the school. The appointment reaffirms our commitment to building a strong and diverse body of outstanding faculty and students. So, we are in the process of making our Ph.D. program a Picasso: With the right geometry, the right inspiration, the right message.       

And now we come to our other true art.

The research enterprise, led by Maja Mataric' and Herb Schorr, is the prize of the school: research strength has always been a defining mark of the Viterbi School. In the past few years, we have ranked consistently among the top five in the nation in total research volume. And I am pleased to tell you that the school’s research volume-in-hand is now at an all-time high.  (Not to be overlooked is that Viterbi also accounts for about one-third of all of USC’s research.)

We are working very closely with the USC Washington DC Office for Research Advancement (which is a unique USC strength) to match funding opportunities with our faculty, provide strategic help with center proposals, and connect faculty to federal funders.

As part of this strategy we aggressively pursue national centers of excellence – last year we supported three Department of Energy Frontiers on Energy center proposals (led by Dan Dapkus, Martin Gundersen and Don Zhang, respectively) and an NSF STC proposal, led by Martin Gundersen. Dan’s proposal for Emerging Materials for Solar Energy Conversion and Solid State Lighting was selected as one of the about 31 new EFRCs awarded to universities. This makes now for eleven national research centers affiliated with the Viterbi School (I count two NSF ERCs, one DHS Center, one DoT center, four NIH centers, one DoE center, one Rehabilitation ERC, and one UARC- funded by the DoD, although centered at Stevens). I also note that Fokion Egolfopoulos and Hai Wang are key participants in another EFRC, for combustion, headquartered at Princeton.

Last March we co-sponsored, along with Duke and Olin College, the First NAE Engineering Grand Challenges Summit, held at Duke. The summit, conceived and convened on our own initiative and from our own resources, was a resounding success with the engineering community – over 50 engineering deans and a number of leading engineers participated. Important follow-ups of the retreat: pushing forward the grand challenges agenda; a new program for our undergraduates (the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars program, which is now national, with Duke, USC and Olin as founding members); and the call for a second summit, which will be held here at USC next year, October 6-7, 2010. We envision it as the Davos for engineers!

But that is not the only headline in research.

BMES, the NSF ERC, jointly with the Keck School, was reviewed for its critical six-year last June. We also just renewed a second year for the Center for Health Informatics, headed by Carl Kesselman and Stephan Erberich, with an $11.6M grant, arguably the largest such research budget in the university!

Last year, we started the process for a new joint program between Viterbi and the Keck School of Medicine, paralleling the MIT-Harvard Health Science and Technology program (HST).  Following two successful joint faculty retreats, we are now moving to making this new bridge between medicine and engineering an exciting reality.

The medicine-engineering intersection is vibrant and very promising: Later this month, we will announce the award of a major NIH-NCI center that includes faculty from both schools (and led in engineering from research faculty Danny Hillis), to study cancer from a physical sciences and engineering perspective. Paul Newton, of AME, also participates in another such center, with home at Scripps.

I should also add a few other very notable recent distinctions:

  • Ewa Deelman of ISI and her group will participate in an NSF effort to develop and test novel approaches to parallel, grid, and cloud computing. This FutureGrid effort, led by Indiana University, is part of a $15 million project largely supported by NSF — one of only two experimental systems in the NSF Track 2 program that funds the next-generation scientific supercomputers in the nation.
  • Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project has initiated an international collaboration with the Viterbi School, Peking University (PKU) and the China University of Geosciences at Wuhan (CUG) to address fundamental issues associated with large-scale sequestration of carbon dioxide in China. Don Zhang of CEE will direct the 39-member team of scientists, researchers and students.
  • Ted Berger and Michel Baudry of the College have been awarded a Biomedical Research Partnership (BRP) NIH grant. It will support joint research for four years, with the total amount of funding reaching $2.3 million.
  • Just recently, Rich Roberts was awarded one of only two of the prestigious NIH Transformative R01 awards at USC (the other went to Pharmacy) with total funding of $2,650,000.Last year, we launched a new software research and education center on campus, funded by Infosys. In a twist of irony, the leader in outsourcing is now outsourcing to the US.
  • The new Center for Advanced Software Technologies (CAST), led by Viktor Prasanna is the first-ever supported outside of India by Infosys. Narayana Murthy, the visionary founder of Infosys, attended our awards dinner last April and received our Daniel Epstein Engineering Management award.
  • All told, we now have 4 corporate-funded major international research centers- as well as various partnership agreements with 16 universities in China, India, Korea, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Israel, the UK and others.

Scholarly and research excellence results from outstanding faculty and staff: These are the artists who paint the masterpiece.

With a combination of prior offers and by exercising as-needed discretion, we hired last year several outstanding new faculty. We are very proud that all fit the criterion “are they better than us?”

I am going to call the names of the new faculty joining us this year, and ask each one who is here to stand, and to remain standing as a group until I have finished. Please hold your applause until everyone is introduced.

  • Shang-Hua Teng, a noted theoretical computer scientist with broad experience in both academia and industry has joined Computer Science as Seeley-Mudd Professor and chair.
  • Azad Madni, founder and chief executive officer of Intelligent Systems Technology, Inc., has joined the Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. He will direct the Systems Architecting and Engineering (SAE) Program.
  • Terry Sanger, MD/PhD, newly appointed to the Department of Biomedical Engineering and jointly with the Keck School, is the first Viterbi faculty who has been awarded the title ‘Provost Associate Professor’ a distinction reserved only for a select group of interdisciplinary scholars at USC.
  • Jernej Barbic, in the area of computer graphics, and William G.J. Halfond, in software engineering, have joined Computer Science as Assistant Professors.
  • Veronica Eliasson, who earned her Ph.D. from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, is the most recent addition to the AME faculty as Assistant Professor. She joins us from the California Institute of Technology.
  • Alex Dimakis is a new Assistant Professor in Electrical Engineering-Systems.
  • Malancha Gupta joins the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science as Assistant Professor in the area of materials.
  • And Quiang Huang is a new Assistant Professor of the Epstein Department in the area of nano-manufacturing.

A warm welcome to each of you. 

In close collaboration with the EFC, and with the combined leadership of John O’Brien and Sandeep Gupta, we announced last year a number of policy changes.  For all jr. faculty the load is reduced to the equivalent of 2 3-unit courses in the first four years. In addition, John announced the availability of travel funds outside the start-up packages.

Last Spring we proposed a new iteration in the default faculty load profile, which combines rewarding research productivity with the recent memo from the Provost and the Senate on faculty development plans. I am looking forward to its wide embrace by the faculty and the EFC. And as always, I am looking forward to work with the EFC in a close partnership, so that together we move forward the school’s agenda in all the important matters. Our agenda is open, transparent, collaborative and receptive to ideas.

Maja announced the availability of a research fund for workshops and other seed funding efforts. And Michael Goay is likely to announce new IT plans to help with the support of faculty and staff computing needs.

At our luncheon in April, John O’Brien told you about Andy Viterbi’s award of the National Medal of Science at the White House, and Bob Scholtz and George Olah’s election to the National Academy of Engineering. Their election made us one of only six schools in the nation with two or more elected members each of the last two years.

Since then…

  • The National Science Foundation awarded Stephen Cronin and Hossein Hashemi, both of the Ming Hsieh Department, Faculty CAREER Awards. Earlier, Andrea Armani of the Mork Family Department was chosen to receive an Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Award. Just this Monday we learned that Michelle Povinelli, also of the Ming Hsieh department has received the Air Force Office Young Investigator Award.
  • Andrea and Ellis Meng were named in August to the “TR35,” Technology Review’s annual list of the world's top innovators under the age of 35. That’s 2 out of 35. USC Engineering was the only school in the nation, along with UC Berkeley, with that distinction! Andrea and Ellis are as we speak in Boston for the festivities.
  • Shanghua Teng is the winner of a 2009 Delbert Ray Fulkerson Prize, a high honor presented only every three years. The Mathematical Programming Society (MPS) and the American Mathematical Society (AMS) jointly sponsor these Prizes for outstanding papers in the area of discrete mathematics.Alice Parker was the 2009 recipient of the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) Sharon Keillor Award for Women in Engineering Education. This award recognizes and honors outstanding women engineering educators.
  • Terry Langdon was awarded the Honorary Medal "De Scientia Et Humanitate Optime Meritis" by the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. The medal, awarded for “exceptionally meritorious contributions in the area of science and the promotion of humanitarian ideas,” is the highest award that academy bestows.
  • The National Academies selected Najm Meshkati to serve as a 2009 Jefferson Science Fellow for the U.S. State Department. Najm was one of I believe 10 fellows selected across the country for this honor that couples engineering and diplomacy (Engineering+ anyone?).   
  • Dan Dapkus was awarded the 2009 Welker Award of the International Symposium on Compound Semiconductors’s (ISCS). The award is given annually to a truly outstanding researcher in the field of Compound Semiconductors, and includes a cash prize and a medal.
  • Alan Willner is the winner of 2009 Leadership Award New Focus/Bookham Prize from the Optical Society of America. Alan was also selected for another HP 2009 Innovation Research award.
  • The Global Wireless Education Consortium named Andy Molisch as “Wireless Educator of the Year” for outstanding contributions in teaching, research, and collaboration with academic peers and the industry.
  • Krishna Nayak received a 2009 GE (General Electric) Healthcare Thought Leader Award for his research in magnetic resonance cardiac imaging.
  • A best paper award at the 2009 International conference on autonomous agents and multiagent systems went to Milind Tambe's team, for recent work done for the Federal Air Marshals- a breakthrough with vast implications on security.
  • In a rare sweep for one school, the USC Academic Senate conferred Distinguished Service Awards for 2009 on Solomon Golomb, Sandeep Gupta, and Maja Matarić.
  • Roger Ghanem received the U.S. Association for Computational Mechanics Computational Structural Mechanics Award for 2009.
  • Yong Chen and Andy Molisch are among 88 promising engineers selected to take part in the NAE's 15th annual U.S.Frontiers of Engineering symposium.
  • Michael Kassner was recently elected a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), a distinction accorded to only about 2% of its members. Mike is also going to be the new director of the ONR. (And as you know, Charlie Bolden, the new NASA director, is also a Viterbi alum.)
  • The International Fuzzy Systems Association (IFSA) named Jerry Mendel and Bart Kosko as fellows.
  • Finally, we learned last week that Michael Arbib was awarded an Okawa Foundation Grant.

A true symphony of colors in a dazzling Viterbi landscape!

In my memo to you a few weeks ago I emphasized that we are here to serve broadly the school’s constituencies. Of course, the

Charlotte Aquarelle Bayona Chew, with parents Alexandre François and Elaine Chew.
most immediate ones are you, our faculty and staff colleagues; other constituencies include the academy, the profession, and society at large; but above all, our students are our prime constituents.  Today’s competitive environment in higher education is one of increasing accountability, and one where people (students, donors, the federal government and the society at large) have many choices. It is therefore of paramount importance that we:

  • Offer outstanding programs of increasingly added-value
  • Deliver on our promises
  • Be good stewards of  the trust and confidence bestowed upon us

One of my strongest motivations as a dean is to strive for the school to do these things in such a way that all members of our community, student, faculty, staff, and alumni, are able to say: “I am fortunate to be associated with the Viterbi School.”

With your support we are making excellent progress in reaching this goal.

And the art you create, both faculty and staff, nourishes our mind and our spirit to move the school ever forward.

Thank you and have a good afternoon.