Logo: University of Southern California

2004 State of the School


April 29, 2004 —

State of the School Address

 Keynote Address at 2004 Engineering Staff and Faculty Awards Ceremony

 by

 Dean C.L. Max Nikias

 It is the tradition at this annual luncheon for the dean of the school to offer remarks on the State of the School, and I am delighted to report to you on a number of milestones that we have reached.

But first, allow me a moment to put our work into some context. Peter Drucker once argued that a key reason the United States moved past the British Empire during the Industrial Revolution was because America gave special treatment to its technologists”— its engineers.

Drucker wrote, and I quote him:

“The technologist… had become the American folk hero and was both socially accepted and financially rewarded. Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, may have been the first example; Thomas Edison became the most prominent. But England did not accept the technologist socially. He never became a ‘gentleman.”

Drucker added that while Americans put on a pedestal those technological innovators who could advance American economic and military power, Britain worshipped pure scientists in ivory towers—they were considered the true “gentlemen” in England. And as a result, England lost its edge as an empire.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love science. American science is one of the great fountains of truth and knowledge. But we engineers are at the center of the action, aren’t we? And today more than ever. It is a great thing in our age to be a “technologist,” to use Peter Drucker’s term. By staying at the cutting edge of real human needs, we are able to usher in advances that alter the direction of our nation—and of an entire planet.

For our engineering school, this once meant that we worked closely with the petroleum and aerospace industries. As the world changed, those industries shrank in Southern California. So we partnered with the growing industries such as communications and life sciences. That helped us become an elite school. And now, as the world changes even more, we are finding that it is strategically smart for our academic mission to work again with aerospace and petroleum.

The Viterbi School is where the best technologists do their work, and your work will have—and is already having—an astonishing impact on future generations. That is why it is a great privilege for me to be your dean at this time in history.

Let’s take a look back now at an incredible year. What was the big news? Well, unless you were a visiting professor at a university in Siberia, you have heard that Andrew and Erna Viterbi gave a $52 million gift to help secure the future prosperity of the school.

And today, on a day on which we are bestowing awards on some remarkable people, we can be proud that USC’s engineering school has received the greatest award of all: the name and the legacy of one of the world’s greatest engineers—and the incredible support of Andy and Erna.

You have surely heard some other big news about the school. Take it for what it’s worth, but I will tell you in a moment why it’s not the most important news in the world to me.

U.S. News & World Report announced early this month that the Viterbi School of Engineering rose to sixth place in its rankings of graduate schools. We were actually tied for sixth, with a small school that you may have heard of, named Caltech.

Among private universities, only graduate engineering programs at Stanford and MIT ranked above the USC Viterbi School in 2004. Only six years ago, we were number 16 . Now the media tell us that we are a top 10 school, on the verge of breaking the top 5. Not bad.

But we have a chance to accomplish something much greater than scoring well in external rankings—so we refuse to be pulled by the nose by other people’s constantly changing metrics of quality. We want to ignore external metrics of success that are beyond our control, and we are focusing on what we can and should control—defining our own identity as the engineering school that sets the pace for excellence. The leader that other elite schools copy and learn from.

The magazines are there to squeeze you into their box and see how well you fit into their mold. They have a job to do—sell magazines and entertain readers—and they do this by ranking us based on whatever the conventional wisdom is at the moment.

But do you know what? No one ever attained greatness by following the current conventional wisdom within one’s profession. No one ever made a lasting difference by trying to follow conventional wisdom to the best of their ability. Just look at USC. We’ve made astonishing gains in the past decade by “going against the grain”—by using what Steve Sample calls a “contrarian” approach, not a conventional approach.

So let’s forget the rankings—sure, they make us feel good, but they do not really count. Let me tell you what does count:

One thing that counts, of course, is the gift by Erna and Andy, which adds $52 million to our endowment.

What also counts is that we now have the strongest overall student body in our history, one of the most outstanding groups in the nation. We have seen a 40% increase in domestic Ph.D. applicants, and they are very high quality. And we have seen a 1420 average SAT score for undergraduates admitted for this fall! Perhaps most importantly, our retention rate is on the rise.

Another thing that really counts is our ability to build partnerships with business and academia here and around the world. On the same day as the announcement of the U.S. News rankings, we were able to announce a partnership with one of the elite engineering schools in India: the India Institute of Technology in Kharagpur.

We also have created the ChevronTexaco Research Center for Interactive Smart Oilfield Technologies, a new center of excellence in the Viterbi School. And the Pratt and Whitney Institute for Collaborative Engineering at USC is another new partnership, which will break new ground in information technology and aerospace communications.

We were awarded two major research centers last year: the Department of Homeland Security’s first Research Center of Excellence, and the Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems Center established by the National Science Foundation. Both won despite national competition from other top schools.

We now have two active Engineering Research Centers funded by the National Science Foundation—and that makes us the only school in California with more than one such ERC, and one of only four in the nation—along with MIT, Michigan, and Georgia Tech—with more than one.

And, of course, what really counts is the excellence of our faculty, which is at an all-time high. And we’ve recruited some of the best new faculty in the nation. Other schools are just trying to endure an economic hurricane, but we’ve recruited an astonishing 26 new tenure-track faculty over the past two years, helping to broaden academic excellence across every department.

While we’ve honored a few special people today, let me salute a few others among you have had distinguished yourselves over the past year:

Dan Dapkus has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering. And with Dr. Viterbi on the faculty, we now have 23 members total -- the fourth highest total among private universities.

Elaine Chew won a National Science Foundation Career award, the premier grant for young faculty in engineering and the sciences. Bhaskar Krishnamachari also won a NSF Career award.

The American Association of Retired Persons has named Ted Berger an “action hero” for his work on mental function in brains that have been damaged by stroke, epilepsy, or neuro-degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

Behrokh Khoshnevis won the Institute of Industrial Engineers’ Technical Innovation in Industrial Engineering Award.

Alexander Sawchuk received the “Best Presentation” award from the International Society of Optical Engineering.

Gerald Loeb ’s bion microstimulator earned the 2004 Medical Design Excellence Award.

The great digital pioneer Irving S. Reed has added to his endless list of honors the Defense and Security Symposium Lifetime Achievement Award.

 The Russian Academy of Sciences has awarded the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa to Terence Langdon.

 Ting Chen earned an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship.

George Chilingar won the Trofimuk Medal from the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Medal of Honor of Catherine in Russia, and the Russian Order Medal of Eagle with Crown.

Melvin A. Breuer, Aiichiro Nakano and Milind Tambe are Okawa Foundation award winners.

 Richard Leahy was named an IEEE fellow. And P. Daniel Dapkus was named an American Physical Society fellow.

Over a third of USC engineering faculty have been named fellows of their societies.

 Alan Willner won the IEEE Lasers & Electro-Optics Society Distinguished Service Award and the USC Associates Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Michael Crowley won the Northrop Grumman Excellence in Teaching Award.

Lloyd Welch won USC’s 2003 Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2003 Claude E. Shannon Award.

 Tzung Hsiai won a Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health.

 Mathieu Desbrun won the ACM SIGGRAPH 2003 Significant New Researcher award.

And Matthew Behrend won the Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship and the National Defense Science and Engineering Award.

My friends, I know I have not mentioned all the significant accomplishments that you and your peers have accomplished today. If I were to do so, we would be here until tomorrow, and I know you have work to do today! But I want to let you know that I am very aware of—and very appreciative of—all the many things that you all do for the Viterbi School and for the university.

There is something very significant about our faculty that, again, you can’t always gauge by awards or externally created metrics.

While we have professors and students who are among the brightest and most distinguished in the world, so do some other elite schools. But we have faculty and students who know how to connect to the problems of the real world—and who know how to find ways to address those problems. We have talent that knows how to work with industry, with government, with people in the sciences and humanities.

And our people have never locked themselves away in an ivory tower—or shied away from real world needs such as our nation’s defense and security. To this end, we’ve together built our Distance Education Network, which is the model for lifelong education for engineers around the globe.

That’s why corporations and government agencies and experts in other fields love to build partnerships with our people. They know that our faculty are able to come down out of the ivory tower and work with people in the real world, in order to make a better world.

We know how to plug in with others—but we also know how to go back to the ivory tower and work independently. It’s hard enough to do one of these well. But it’s really hard to do both well. And I’m proud that our people are able to do both. That’s what makes this school special. And that’s what will be expected from engineering schools in the 21 st century. That’s why the people of USC are increasingly being studied and emulated.

So it’s been an incredible year, hasn’t it? But we have many challenges facing us in the coming year.

First, we have a long way to go to finish our fundraising initiative and accomplish our strategic plan. You will remember that the strategic plan requires us to invest in certain emerging technologies while also increasing and balancing our academic strengths.

We are already halfway to our fundraising goal, which will allow this to happen. But in one sense, getting the first large set of gifts is easy. That comes from your friends. But the next set of gifts we seek will require us to make new friends and new partners.

Second, we must continue to pursue the absolute highest standards in quality. We will have an external review committee helping us in this regard.

Third, all these recent investments in the Viterbi School must bear fruit. This will involve a renewed dedication and innovation on all of our parts.

Fourth, I want to announce today a new faculty initiative that will further strengthen our faculty in a dramatic way: The school is beginning a recruitment campaign that will bring to USC five top-notch senior stars in engineering. These five people could come from any discipline—but they will be “heavyweight world champions” in their fields. These will be people whose abilities and accomplishments will be beyond dispute. And these bright new stars will add to the overall brilliance of the Viterbi School.

These are great challenges. But I remind you all: the impact of our work will be felt in future generations. Our opportunities are tremendous, and the beneficial impact of our work can be limitless.

I must close by making sure that I give my thanks to all of our faculty and staff for your contributions. Many of you have gone beyond the call of duty, working day and night because you take pride in your work—and you take pride in being associated with a school like ours.

For many of you, yes, I even worry that you don't burn out. Think about it: We have gotten where we are even though we have been a fairly lean organization. We don’t yet have the resources of some of the ivy league elites with whom we compete. Your entrepreneurialism, your creativity and your hard work have allowed us to catch up. Be assured that I notice and appreciate this very deeply.

Still, we press forward, knowing that we are tantalizingly close to cementing our position in the front ranks of the nation’s elite engineering schools. And we are tantalizingly close to our vision of being the engineering school that others want to copy.

It gives me great energy and excitement to wake up each morning with the chance to see this Viterbi School rising steadily. And it is an unimaginable privilege to be a part of this journey we are undertaking together! I thank all of you for how you have made our progress possible, and I say that it’s time for us to get moving with the next chapter of this great journey!

Thank you very much!