Logo: University of Southern California

2008 Viterbi School Faculty and Staff Awards

Dean Yortsos Recognizes Exceptional Teaching, Research and Service to the University in His Annual 'State of the School' Speech

April 29, 2008 —



PDF Version of the Address 

Viterbi School Dean Yannis Yortsos delivered the 2008 Faculty and Staff Awards speech on April 29, 2008.  The following is an edited version of his talk. 
Good afternoon – and thank you for coming!

Spring is the season of hope and renewal. For us, it is also the culmination of the academic year. Graduates will leave our school, their second home, one in which they spent some of their most formative years, to embark in a life journey. A journey to be profoundly influenced by the knowledge, skills, culture and mentorship they received here- whether as undergraduate or graduate students. It is the preparation for this send-off and the contribution that all of us have made in their future that we are celebrating- With a feeling of deep satisfaction and pride, for this year we were fortunate again to have lived up to our promise of “excellence in all our endeavors”.
Fac Staff Marilee Reynolds
Marilee Reynolds received the Dean's Staff Award for Service.
Spring is also the time to reflect on the past academic year, on our successes and on our challenges. And to express our appreciation to all who have made a difference. While only some will receive awards, we can all take pride in the progress of our school. Many people are responsible. It is our faculty, first and foremost. But also the dedication, work and talent of all of you, that have kept the School again into the top echelon of engineering.

 I strongly believe that we can be what we want to be. Because the talent is here- in abundance.
When I was first appointed as dean I summarized my goals for the school as:
  • First at USC,
  • A leader in the nation,
  • With constantly improving quality, and
  • Excellence in all our endeavors.

And in our last Board of Councilors meeting in the Fall, I added that reaching these goals will make it possible for:

  •   Our students to say that they are fortunate to be Viterbi students.
  •   Our alumni to say that they are fortunate to be Viterbi alumni.
  •   And our faculty and staff to say that they are fortunate to be affiliated with the Viterbi school.

I  know that a similar ambition drives you as well: It is the ambition to set the bar as high as we can, go over it- and then reset it higher, yet again.

In his remarkable book on Academic Leadership, President Sample states that there is an important difference between “being president” and “doing president”. “Being President” breeds complacency and status quo; “Doing President” is the thirst to strive to be better.
Fac Staff Hashimi Best
Maja Mataric, left, presented the Junior Research Award to Hossein Hashemi, center.

 I will submit that as a school we face a similar challenge: The difference between “being at the top echelon” and “doing the things required for being at the top echelon”.

 A look a decade back will show that the school has been “doing the things required for being at the top echelon”. It underwent a tremendous qualitative and quantitative transformation in practically all its components:

Students- Faculty- Departments- Academic Distinctions- Research in Science and Engineering- and Financial Health

However, we are not the only school of engineering that has made great strides forward. Indeed, the competition in quality, talent, resources, and the ability to generate and translate new knowledge, has never been fiercer- not only nationally but also globally.

Moreover, the knowledge domain in engineering has enlarged- in some cases migrated- towards interdisciplinary areas. At USC, we are fortunate that we have the right partners in Institutes, such as ISI and ICT, and in a number of strong professional schools and the College, to form flexible and successful interdisciplinary alliances. However, fundamental challenges exist. I can cite three:

  • Preventing the migration of technological leadership away from engineering;

  • Creating the necessary horizontal structures to eliminate departmental and school vertical barriers; and

  • Integrating the applied research institutes, such as ISI, closer and better with our campus.  
Fac Staff Chilingar
Retired professor George Chilingar, right, received the Dean's Faculty Service Award for his many decades of service to USC.

Unquestionably, engineering and technology (in their true creative and enabling sense, as opposed to their mechanical and repetitive Dilbert caricature) will be the drivers of the new century- to solve new and daunting problems that appear in the horizon- from energy, to climate, to health, to sustainability. But I believe that at the Viterbi school we have the resources, the opportunity- and, going one step further, the responsibility- to be at the forefront of these challenges.  And to pioneer the disruptive changes needed to make a difference in education and research. The opportunities are there to be grabbed. It’s up to us to set high the expectation bar, and to follow through in this quest.

Let me now review last year, both as it regards successes and challenges. As part of a leading research university we are strong in graduate programs and research- but we are not only a research powerhouse. We strive for a balance in both UG and G education and in research:

The Viterbi School continues to attract and inspire some of the world’s best undergraduates.

Under the leadership of Louise Yates, the academic quality of our incoming class just gets better. The growth in quality has been unprecedented for several consecutive years. It will become increasingly challenging to sustain such growth, but we are very pleased with what we have reached.

While it is still early to tell about this fall’s freshman class, we can say some things about the admitted class:  

This year, we had a 10% increase in freshman applications... With a decreasing enrollment target of 400 for next Fall, this augurs very well for quality.

The admitted students SAT scores are up (again) by 15 points. So is the numbers of women and underrepresented students.   We are now competing head-to-head at the freshman level with the most elite schools, Stanford, MIT and Caltech. And we are leading USC in all important metrics of freshman quality.

Linda Rock, left, presents Tim Boston, center, with one of two Dean's Staff Awards for Excellence, while Dean Yortsos looks on, right.  The second Staff Award for Excellence went to Maria "Tina" Albertina Silva.

Regarding retention, the return rate to engineering of freshmen who enrolled in Fall 2006 is at 92%, up from 89% last year. I am very proud of these remarkable gains- they reflect the strength and quality of our UG program. And we are working hard to solidify, preserve and even increase them.

Those of you who have not taught UG students in a while- you are missing a great experience, and I urge you to consider teaching UGs next year! In fact, if any of you would like to teach the Freshman Academies this year, Louise will be happy to accommodate you! This year’s theme will most likely be Sustainability.

The Freshman Academy Program is becoming a model for the university and it is one of our key tools, along with KIUEL and the Freshman Year Excellence Program, to increasing retention.

The outstanding UG student quality is reflected this year in multiple awards: Reed Doucette, a senior in ME, was selected as one of two Californians to receive a 2008 Rhodes Scholarship. (The last USC Rhodes scholar was in the mid-90’s, also from Engineering.)  Two graduating seniors were designated by their peers as the students most likely to represent the Trojan spirit – Althea Lyman, Biomedical Engineering, was named as Ms. USC and Reed Doucette was named as Mr. USC.

Both the University Valedictorian and Salutatorian for the May, 2008 USC Commencement Ceremony will be Viterbi students.   Julianne Gale, Computer Science, will serve as University Valedictorian and Reed Doucette, Mechanical Engineering, will serve as Salutatorian.  Julianne also represents the Viterbi School as a Renaissance Scholar, and she will receive a $10,000 prize from the University as she graduates.

And the Society of Women Engineers has won recognition by the University as the "Best Academic Organization," and received the Tommy Award as a result.

This year we introduced a significant new initiative, the Division of Engineering Education. This structure cuts across the school and it is headed at present by Sr. AD Raghavendra. Its function is of utmost importance to the school. Its aspiration is to become a catalyst to innovative changes in engineering education. I expect a great deal from the DEE- and I urge all of you to embrace it.
Under Linda Rock’s leadership, we have invested more than $2M in space renovations this fiscal year- with many dedicated to improve the UG laboratory infrastructure. Among these we count: A new Undergraduate Nanotechnology Instructional Laboratory; the Undergraduate Fabrication Laboratory (Fab Lab) that opened this spring for student design projects across the school; the renovation of the Microsatellite Systems Center; and the renovation of the Human-Centered-Robotics Laboratory.

In his talk to the faculty this year, President Sample emphasized the evolution of USC from a commuter campus to a residential university, and his belief that this transformation will greatly strengthen USC academically. We already see the impact of these changes.

As it makes this transition, the university is also recommitting itself to its neighborhood. The USC Good Neighbors Campaign continues to have a very tangible impact. Last year, the contributions of Viterbi faculty and staff made us “first at USC” among all schools in total dollars raised. I congratulate you for this commitment and urge you to continue upholding this distinction.

Our commitment to service learning and community outreach has also had a significant impact. The students in the Engineering Writing Program, headed by Steve Bucher, have written hundreds of consulting reports for local non-profit agencies. Many of these have been implemented, with several organizations using the student reports to secure funding. And, for the third year in a row, a proposal originated by students in the writing program was awarded a USC University Neighborhood Outreach grant.

President Sample has also noted that USC students – both international and domestic – are well aware of how important it is for them to be prepared for life and work in a global society. Providing our students with such global opportunities is a high priority. The global initiatives during the past year, led by Raghu, resulted in successful agreements for exchange programs with many reputable partners.

I signed so many memos of understanding on my various trips that I think we must be the leader in global understanding! We signed MOUs with National Taiwan University, the Indian Institute of Sciences, Seoul National University, Korea Aerospace University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University- the university producing the global rankings that placed last year Viterbi twelfth best in the world in engineering, technology and computer science programs.  

Last summer we hosted 8 students from Tsinghua and 14 students from IIT Kharagpur, and we will be repeating the same this summer. Conversely, we are planning to send 8 Viterbi students to Tsinghua for a summer internship. Last May we held a productive two-day Viterbi-Tsinghua faculty forum at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and we are getting ready for the second version of the USC-THU faculty forum here, beginning tomorrow.

At the graduate level, the current structural model of the school requires a strong professional MS program- one that ideally should be decoupled from the PhD program. Whether one views the MS program as a terminal professional degree (e.g. the equivalent of an MBA or law degree) or as the potential extension of the BS degree (and there are voices in the nation calling for the establishment of a 5-year degree), we must view it as a self-contained degree rather than the anteroom to the PhD (as it used to be the case). It is part of the charge of the DEE to address how to best decouple the two programs. However, to be successful on what we do, we should not see the two programs as intertwined.
Ted Lee received the Northrop Grumman Excellence in Teaching award.

For this reason that we created the Office of Master’s and Professional Programs, which under Kelly Goulis’s leadership, has energetically moved to reshape the MS program.

MAPP has implemented an aggressive recruiting strategy - domestic and international. Their efforts have included:

  •  Over 50 domestic recruiting visits…
  •  3 recruiting trips to the Pacific Rim in the last year…
  •  A permanent office in India…
  •  For the 1st time, several scholarships were provided to top MS students…
  •  And we are initiating agreements for our ViP program - partnerships with strong UG domestic feeder schools…

These efforts are already producing results. As of April, our Fall 2008 admitted MS students have all-time highs in the mean GPA and GRE Quantitative scores.

MAPP is also launching an aggressive Professional Programs activity, headed by Candace House. Under Tom Anthony, its program director, the Aviation Safety program is expanding- with more than double the number of executive courses contracted to overseas aviation and government clients.

MAPP has strengthened our student support services to include targeted advisement and a academic warning systems; an academic integrity tutorial; and activities to build a stronger MS student community.

Lest I forget, this year we will have a new venue for the May graduate commencement ceremony– the Galen Center.
Fac Staff Kirk Shung
Kirk Shung, center, received the Senior Research Award.
Fac Staff Pin Wang 4
Pin Wang, center, won a Junior Research Award.

The news for our PhD program, guided by Margie Berti, is also very exciting. As of today, more than 80 entering new PhD students in fall 2008 will be supported by unrestricted-fellowships- compared to 53 last year. The acceptance rates for the various fellowships (Annenberg, Provost and Viterbi) averaged close to 50%.  A higher percentage than ever before will be women (more than 25%) and underrepresented minorities. If we were to also use the rest of our other unrestricted graduate fellowships supported by endowment towards first-year PhD students, the number could be significantly higher. I am pleased to tell you that this year we received 5 new PhD fellowships from Chevron, in the area of energy- and we will have shortly an announcement about four new PhD fellowships.  

Strong academic programs produce an academically impactful number of PhD students. The last two years we graduated approximately .8 PhD students per TT faculty. This number is also likely to be upheld this year as well. As a school, we must sustain and improve this output- so that we are competitive with our peer institutions and consistent with what our expectations should be. Funding the support of the PhD students is a great challenge: I have proposed a 1+1+3 model, where one year is unrestricted, 1 is a TAship and 3 is support from external research and contracts. With your help, I am looking forward to make this ambitious goal a reality.      

Last year we hired 7 new faculty- and next year’s crop will be even larger. I certainly have experienced a new syndrome, FCIF, “faculty candidate interview fatigue”- and I am sure many of you have the same condition… At this pace, and within two-to-three years we are likely to replace close to 15% of the school’s TT faculty. This non-trivial impact will change the character and image of the school. In hiring new faculty we must use great care and with guide the following attributes:

  •  Superb quality
  •  The criterion “are they better than us?”
  •  How they fit across the school, rather than within a specific department.

I know that the latter goes against the vertical departmental culture and the instinct for “faculty reproduction”, if I may say- but the modern trends are inexorably across departments and disciplines, and one must carefully view new faculty hiring in this dimension.
Fac Staff 2
Petra Pearce Saphir, center, received a new staff award, the Dean's Staff Award for Community Building.

I am very proud to say that all seven faculty hired last year fit these criteria- and I am also very pleased to tell you that we are making inroads in closing the unintentional gap between the school’s average and the national average in terms of URM and women faculty.

Promoting academic quality and research should be our overarching goal. For the first time in the school’s history, all departments have now a keynote lecture established (and in many cases endowed)- as it should be for quality departments in an elite school. Indeed, last week, we held the inaugural Al Dorman lecture in CEE delivered in a succinct fashion by the new Caltech President Jean Lou Chameau. And earlier this month, we honored the late Provost Neal Pings with the first Pings lecture in Chemical Engineering, delivered by Matt Tirrell, dean at UCSB.

I am proud that I have worked closely with the EFC to address various issues and concerns.  As a result, we have been able to announce a reduced teaching-load policy for jr. faculty- and to provide them with travel funds outside their start-up packages. In parallel, we are working to revise the default policy for all ranks. I want to thank Sr. AD John O’Brien and the EFC Chair Sandeep Gupta, for their combined leadership in this effort.

Can the school grow in faculty size? There are two parameters that must be considered in this regard: Resources and Space.

Today the school is financially healthy for a number of reasons: Robust enrollments (including gains in UG, due to retention), increasing endowment, and stable research funding. Dave Murphy has been a thoughtful steward of the school’s financial resources. Like almost everyone else, we need to be alert to drastic changes in the economy- domestic and global- to changes in research directions from the federal government, and to the relentless competition from the heavily endowed schools- such as the Ivy League and Stanford- which can force dramatic behavioral changes to the rest of us, with only a small swing of their mammoth endowments (as recently done with financial aid).  
Martin Gundersen, center, received a Senior Research Award.

Growing the size of our faculty beyond attrition will almost certainly require increased endowment. Fortunately, we have a good plan and a good team in place to accomplish this- as I will discuss shortly below. It would also require additional space. In this regard, I am most pleased to tell you that we are at the final stages for approval of the construction of a new Science and Engineering Building, to be located at the parking lot in front of the MCB. This facility will be equally shared with the College, and consist of 130,000 sq ft, half of which, namely 65,000, will belong to engineering. Pending trustee approval, I expect that the building will be on-line in about three years. This new space will increase the school’s available capacity by a little more than 15%.  

The tough climate in federal research (particularly DARPA) and the ever evolving global corporate landscape made for a challenging year in research initiatives last year. In fact, for the first time in several years, our research volume (combined with ISI) did not grow but experienced a slight decrease.

This was not for lack of effort. With the leadership of Maja Mataric we have been aggressively promoting innovative research.  Our emphasis on Engineering for Health is reflected in a steady increase of support from NIH, at the same time as the national rates of NIH funding are decreasing.

In addition to last year’s renewals of all of our active research centers, we won a NIH Center for Genomic and Phenomic Studies of Autism, a 5-year $8M center, led by Clara Lajonchere of the Biomedical Engineering Department and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Norberto Grzywacz leads an interdisciplinary team from the Viterbi School, the College and the Keck School of Medicine on a $6-million Bioengineering Research Partnership grant from NIH to begin designing visual aids for adults who suffer from significant vision loss.   

This year also saw two National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center full proposal invitations, one in engineering for urban youth, and the other in pulsed power for a range of applications. In close collaboration with the USC Washington DC Office for Research Advancement we have several major center proposal projects planned for the next few months. All these efforts exemplify the broad impact and societal relevance of our faculty’s research pursuits, and our major school research initiatives, including Energy, Megacities, and Engineering for Health, among others.

Many important single-investigator grants have also been awarded to our faculty. I will cite a few: Yolanda Gil of ISI leads the $13.8-million Windward Project aimed at "Scaleable Knowledge Discovery through Grid Workflows." Costas Sioutas from Civil and Environmental Engineering has begun a $1.12 million study to examine coarse particle pollution, funded by the  EPA.

ISI’s DETER project, headed by Terry Benzel and funded by the Department of Homeland Security, provides the cyber-security community a test bed in which the effects of malicious code can be studied and new defenses devised.

And DARPA announced that ISI’s participation in a multi-agency effort to develop a sophisticated combat decision support system called “Deep Green” would receive $7.6 million in funding. Alan Willner was the recipient of a multimillion dollar, hard-to-win new funding from DARPA.

I am pleased to report that our industry-sponsored research continues to grow. A significant new development is a partnership with General Electric, which will provide several grants for our faculty. Our established partnership with Chevron, through our highly successful CiSoft- directed with the unparalleled leadership of Iraj Ershaghi, whom I want to specially acknowledge from this podium- is expanding in scope and annual funding level.
Fac Staff Katsouleus
Tom Katsouleas, right, was given an exceptional service award, for his many years of service at USC. He will become dean of Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering on July 1, 2008.

Last month we signed a research agreement with Infosys, in Bangalore, to establish a research center at USC in the area of services computing and software engineering.  An announcement will be forthcoming.

Provost Nikias has set a challenge for the university to increase its federal research volume support by 20%. The challenge was clearly and unmistakably articulated in a three-day retreat last February. We need to meet the challenge and redouble our efforts. Maja’s office is responding by actively pairing PIs with BAA to win new centers, and by providing for the first time in the school’s history research seed funds directly from the school.

Promoting excellence requires resources, both human and fiscal. The ancient orator Demosthenes said as much to the Athenians. The ancient Greek reading is as follows: “Dei dh xrhmatwn w Andres Athenaioi kai mhdeni xrhmatwn ouden esti genesthai twn deontwn” which, as all of you know, translates into “you need financial resources, o Athenians, and without them nothing can be done from what is needed”.

Christopher Stoy is no ancient Greek, but he understands the value of money. Seven years ago we set a very aggressive and lofty $300 million target for the seven-year fundraising initiative. This is due to end in June. I am extremely pleased to tell you that as of the end of this March, our fundraising total stood at $300,955,609 in cash and pledges, having reached the target with three months to go. More importantly, an impressive 62.6% of the funds are going to the school’s endowment, which has more than doubled in that period. Will the external development team please stand up to be acknowledged for their remarkable success?

The highlight of our effort last year was the $17 million naming gift by Sonny Astani for our Civil and Environmental Engineering department, our third department naming in as many years. We would like to keep the streak alive and we are working towards a fourth consecutive department naming in as many years.

We called our initiative, “Destination – The Future,” and that is what our fundraising is all about. Development funds our growth as a school.

Fac Staff Speech 1
Maria "Tina" Albertina Silva, center, received one of the two Dean's Staff Awards for Excellence.  Tim Boston (see photo above) received the other award.
But when I say we completed the initiative, don’t think for a moment that we will pause too long to take a breath. We’re accelerating our effort – the School must really be in a perpetual state of fundraising, for more named professorships, more named departments, more buildings, more student support, and a larger endowment.

In closing, I would like to ask you to join me to increase our ambitions, raise the expectation bar, doing elite school work- and generate the academic culture and the intellectual climate to lead USC and the nation in creating knowledge, forming people and pioneering solutions to society’s problems. We can really be what we want to be. Let us to continue wanting to be:

  • First at USC
  • A leader in the nation-
  • With constantly improving quality-
  • And excellence in all our endeavors.

So that it will be possible for:

  • Our students to say that they are fortunate to be Viterbi students.
  • Our alumni to say that they are fortunate to be Viterbi alumni.
  • And our faculty and staff to say that they are fortunate to be affiliated with the Viterbi school.

Thank you all.