Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi State of the School

Dean Yannis C. Yortsos reports on the school's progress in annual talk to the Viterbi community

September 19, 2008 —
Delivered by Dean Yannis C. Yortsos
September 17, 2008

Good afternoon to you all. I am very pleased to welcome you once again 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 to help us plan for the future. Before we begin, allow me to take a few minutes to discuss the Good Neighbors Campaign.

So S Good Neigh Cam
Good Neighbor Campaign co-chair Neil Teixeira, left, and Steve Bucher, right, mention projects that benefited from GNC support.
As you know, this Campaign is a university initiative to help the immediate neighborhood of our campus. It is entirely voluntary and funded by your own contributions. I am very proud to tell you that just like in the prior year, the Viterbi community (including AMI, ICT and ISI) once again topped all other university units, with a record contribution that approached $100K. And, for the second time in a row, this year’s contributions represent a more than 10% increase compared to the prior year. This strong statement of outreach in today’s uncertain economic times demonstrates your faith to the value of service and community: A value that, incidentally, is also increasingly shared by our own students. I want to thank Najm Meshkati and Candace House in this campus, Susan Cooper of AMI, Laura Wolf of ICT and Sharon Nealon of ISI for skillfully leading and managing the campaign last fall.

One part of our motto is to be first at USC. And in this specific issue, the GNC reinforces this point of Viterbi excellence. This fall’s campaign will be led by Steve Bucher and Neil Teixeira, who I am sure will feel no pressure to continue raising the bar… They are here to tell us how they plan to do it

Academia is a union of people who share a mission—to advance the mind and the spirit; in the case of an engineering school, the mission also involves providing solutions to tough problems, and devising new tools and ways of thinking to improve humankind.

In my short time as a dean of the school, I have marveled at your capacity, of both faculty and staff, for moving forward this mission: at your ingenuity; the relentless quest for discovery and excellence; and the dedication to teaching the next generations. In the process, you have helped elevate the school to a most enviable place: among the top ten in the nation— and among the top in the world (indeed last year’s Shanghai’s Jiao Tong rankings placed USC Engineering at the top 12 in the world, among engineering schools).

In his remarks during the inauguration of the new UCLA Chancellor, USC President Steven B. Sample paralleled the position of an academic administrator to someone who mows the lawn in a cemetery: He makes a lot of noise, but nobody pays attention!
Yortsos 1
Dean Yortsos

I hope that my speech today will not fit that description. In fact, I could use a different (more melodious) metaphor: That of the conductor, sometimes of an orchestra, more often of a jazz ensemble: Of a conductor whose contribution is to make sure that the jazz players are given the freedom and the means to improvise.  For your own benefit, I will refrain from singing aloud the music you have created—but I will highlight it (hum it so to speak) by reviewing briefly the school’s accomplishments and the challenges that lie ahead. I will start with our undergraduate program.

This fall’s freshman enrollment target was 400 (as you know freshman enrollments at USC are now capped): we enrolled 427, and then a few more: Not only did we meet and exceed our target, while offering fewer admissions, but we still attracted higher-quality students and we enrolled more of them.

The freshman class is the best ever in the school, in terms of SAT scores, continuing a constantly ascending trend of the last few years: 55 % of the incoming freshmen are from outside California... one-third are women (an increase of 6% over last year).  This puts our total undergraduate class at about 27% women… And 15% are from backgrounds that are underrepresented in engineering.

So S Lunch
Lunch in Town and Gown.
Educating and retaining in engineering these bright students is a very high priority—and a fundamental responsibility of our school.  I am pleased to tell you that last year’s freshman return rate to engineering reached 93%—a mark that reflects the many innovations introduced in the freshman year (from the freshman academies to outside-the-classroom service and leadership opportunities to the teaching of mathematics). Parallel efforts are being made to improve the retention of sophomores and of upper classmen, by introducing innovations and opportunities for them to interact with industry and alumni. These are to be announced later this fall.

I am also very pleased to tell you, that for the first time in the school’s history, the six-year graduation rate of Viterbi students has climbed to 87%, a 9% increase over last year — and by far the best ever in the school. This remarkable achievement is due to a number of factors, including innovative curricula, dedicated faculty teaching, and new and proactive advising systems, supported by staff across departments and exemplified by Monica de los Santos, winner of a university-wide award. And to top it off, our own Ous Mellouli (CS 2007) won an Olympic gold at the 2007 Beijing Olympics in the 1500m free-style swimming competition. So you can say that this part of your music is allegro con brio. I would like to salute the tremendous efforts and energy of Louise Yates and her team in the Viterbi Admission & Student Affairs Office and all the academic departments that have helped make these gains possible.  

I would like now to discuss the MS program: A high-quality professional MS program is key to the current structural model of the school. Whether one views it as a terminal professional degree or as the potential extension of the BS degree – and there are voices calling for the establishment of a five-year engineering degree – we must view the MS degree as a self-contained degree rather than the anteroom to the PhD (as it used to be). It is certainly so viewed at the university level.
VSo E Audience 4
Lunch gets under way in Town and Gown.

Under the leadership of Associate Dean Kelly Goulis, the Office of Master’s and Professional Programs (MAPP) has embarked in a long-term effort to move the MS program to the same level of excellence as the undergraduate one. New services, stringent advisement practices and the development of a culture of excellence are the drivers in this effort.  Last year’s move of the Graduate Commencement Ceremony to the Galen Center, an appropriate venue for both the size and prestige of the event, was a resounding success.

Enlarging the applicant pool is a most important key in this strategy: MAPP has implemented an aggressive domestic and international recruitment strategy. This includes: over 35 domestic recruiting visits, several recruiting trips to the Pacific Rim, a permanent office in India, an upcoming permanent office in Shanghai, planned recruitment activities in Mexico and Canada, and the aggressive promotion of the Progressive Degree Program domestically—which I should note, leads USC by leaps and bounds.

To increase our domestic MS applicants, we are initiating agreements for partnerships with strong undergraduate domestic feeder schools; we call them VIP.  Our first such agreement was signed with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo over the summer, with recruitment beginning this year.  Other such efforts are planned or are underway.

These efforts are producing noticeable results: This fall’s MS class was higher in quality, and right on target, with notable increases of new MS students from mainland China. The domestic economy has somewhat affected DEN enrollments—and the turbulence in  Wall Street is something we monitor closely. On the other hand, Lockheed Martin just selected USC engineering as on of its six preferred schools in the area of Systems Engineering. Many thanks go to Stan Settles and the SAE team for making this happen! So, I will call this movement allegro ma non troppo.

So S Satwindar Sadhal
AME Professor Satwindar Sadhal

In parallel, we continue to build on continuing education and professional programs, led by Candace House.  Continuing Education is the next logical endeavor to build upon our strong DEN capabilities and several new opportunities are currently under development. 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 (but also to our own students: my own daughter, sophomore in CECS (the major du jour for her) is taking a computer hacking class at ITP- hopefully not to hack my own machine…). ITP enrollments have not only stabilized, but also grown, and the program has been a source of continuous innovation, with new classes, minors and resources like their Tech Blog.

I would like now to address the PhD program: Strong academic programs produce large numbers of PhD students, and that has a tremendous impact on academic reputation. The news for our PhD program, guided by Associate Dean Margie Berti and Sr. Associate Dean John O’Brien, is also exciting. In the past year, we graduated 154 PhD students (I believe more than 1/3 of USC’s total). This is a fantastic testament to the strength of our faculty and their research. Excluding research unproductive faculty- such as the dean, the Provost and the President (all of whom are engineering faculty)- this number roughly corresponds on average to almost an one-PhD graduate/per TT faculty. Very few other schools (perhaps Stanford, Caltech and MIT) can boast similar productivity. In my music analogy, this is allegrissimo!  

As a school, we must sustain this output – to be competitive, even at the lead, with our peer institutions, and consistent with our own expectations.  Funding the PhD students is a great challenge: I have proposed a 1+1+3 model, where one year is school-provided unrestricted support, one year is through also a school-supported TA-ship and three years are supported from external research contracts. With your help, I am looking forward to make this ambitious goal a reality.

In this context, the number of unrestricted first-year fellowships is increasing dramatically: A theoretical total of 40 new Annenberg Fellows was added to the mix last year. Chevron provided the school with almost $1M funds for scholarships, the lion's share of which goes to PhD fellowships on energy. I am also pleased to tell you that this year we created three more Alfred Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering Fellowships. Our students have won prestigious external doctoral fellowships from organizations such as IEEE and IBM. With the support of the Provost and our own, the number of unrestricted first-year fellowships of various forms now exceeds 100. The acceptance rates have averaged close to 50%.  And a higher percentage than ever before (more than 25%) will be women and underrepresented minorities. Placing our graduates to elite institutions and companies will be an important next step in our efforts. And with the help of the university, the PhD program will soon have its own point of difference: A certificate course of study in technology commercialization.
So S Speech 1
Dean Yortsos addresses the school.

Last year we launched the new Division of Engineering Education, ably led by Raghu. The DEE studies, reviews, and proposes changes in our curriculum across the board, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. We intend it to become a catalyst for new and innovative directions in engineering education. I expect a great deal from it—and I urge all of you to embrace it.

Since its inception, the DEE has energetically addressed undergraduate curriculum reform across the board, that will respond to the need for the education of the engineer of 2020, the one with left- and right-brain balance. One who is steeped in the fundamentals of science and engineering; is at the leading edge of new technologies; understands the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship; and can solve societal and global problems by combining engineering tools and methods with leadership and service. Tangible successes of the DEE in these areas include a number of NSF-funded education initiatives- and I hope to report in the near future on many more.   
Of course, 2020 is a little further away than 2009. And in fall 2009, ABET is coming to town! I suppose the right tempo for this would be schizo (or, schizophrenic?)! So, among our highest priorities this year is preparing for that visit. John O’Brien is leading this effort, with his usual effectiveness and calmness. We are also fortunate that Gigi Ragousa of the Rossier School of Education is working with John and the DEE to help by preparing the right education assessment tools.   

I would like now to come to research. The research enterprise is the jewel of the school; research strength has always been a defining mark of the Viterbi School. In the past few years, together with ISI, we have ranked consistently among the top five in the nation in total research volume—that’s significant for a school of medium to small size in faculty.  Not to be overlooked is that Viterbi also accounts for about one-third of all of USC’s research.

Last year, the Provost challenged the university faculty to increase our research volume by 20%. While this is a tough challenge in today’s tough research funding environment, we have responded with the following: First, I am pleased to tell you that the school’s research volume-in-hand has rebounded and is now at an all-time high. We established last year a new Viterbi School Research Innovation Fund, headed by Sr. Associate Dean Maja Mataric which awarded 10 grants to a variety of strategic projects, across the school.  We have implemented a new structure to streamline pre/post-award procedures and hired Nichole Phillips to help in center proposals. We are working closely with the USC Washington DC Office for Research Advancement (which is a unique USC strength) in order to match funding opportunities to our faculty, provide strategic help with center proposals, and connect faculty to federal funders.

Part of our strategy is to aggressively pursue national centers of excellence – last year we supported two NSF ERC full proposals; this year the school is competing with three Department of Energy Frontiers on Energy center proposals (led by Dan Dapkus, Martin Gundersen and Don Zhang, respectively) and with an NSF STC proposal, led by Martin Gundersen. We now facilitate center proposal preparation with budget preparation, grant editing, graphics, and administration; and a team of staff is being trained to aid in proposal writing. Our mentoring program for tenure-track assistant professors and new faculty, includes a fall half-day workshop presented by Maja, one or more assigned faculty mentors for all pre-tenure faculty, coaching for the NSF Career Program and internal review process, reduced overhead rates for early career awards, reduced pre-tenure teaching load, and a web portal of early career funding opportunities.  A Research Retreat was held in the summer to identify and discuss key issues and challenges and to shape action items for this year. In October we will hold another important research retreat: Together with the Keck medical school, we will host a Keck-Viterbi faculty retreat that will launch a new Health Sciences Engineering initiative, similar perhaps to the HST model at Harvard-MIT. We are looking forward to this new endeavor. And in the same context, I am pleased to report that we have started a new center, CHI, the Center for Health Informatics at ISI, co-directed by Carl Kesselman, and supported by St. John’s Hospital at the tune of $5.4M for the first year.

So S Audience  
Gerald Loeb, center, listens to the presentation by Dean Yortsos.
Earlier this month we launched a new software research and education center, funded by Infosys, the giant Indian IT company that pioneered outsourcing. In a twist of irony, the leader in outsourcing is now outsourcing to the US –is the flat world going both ways? The new Center for Advanced Software Technologies (CAST) at the Viterbi School, led by Viktor Prasanna, is the first-ever supported outside of India by Infosys.
The award of the CAST center by Infosys was a major achievement; we also established a new international research center funded by GE and Korean Air. All told, we now have four corporate-funded international research centers- as well as various partnership agreements with a dozen universities in China, India and Korea. In March we will be co-hosting, along with Duke University, where Tom Katsouleas is now the engineering dean, and Olin College, a National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Summit. The NAE lists 14 grand challenges for engineering, many of which correspond to our new research initiatives – notably in Energy, Megacities, Biomedical Engineering and Engineering+Health.

Other research news includes: One of our longest running success stories will be running at least five years longer. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have announced a five-year, $5.9 million grant to continue funding the Biomedical Simulations Resource, headed by David D’Argenio and Vasilis Marmarelis. BMSR began in 1985.  This is their fifth renewal — an extraordinary record in biomedical research. The latest renewal brings the total cumulative funding for the program to $27.3 million.

The Viterbi School was also selected to receive a 2008 HP Labs Innovation Research Award. Alan Willner will lead the collaboration on our end. Alan and Bob Hellwarth have also received $4.3 million in DARPA funding to develop "continuously tunable optical delays," which they hope will change the rules of manipulating photonic data at ultra high speeds. Jose-Luis Ambite and Ewa Deelman of ISI and Computer Science are participants in a new four-year, $31 million multi-university initiative aimed at understanding how genetic variation influences the risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer and other common diseases.

Michael Khoo will participate in a new $2.4 million multidisciplinary study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate the impact of blood viscosity on oxygen delivery in people with sickle cell anemia. A grant from the Energy Corporation of America (ECA) will fund a research effort on better ways to extract natural gas from "tight" shales. Kristian Jessen is the lead researcher. Behrokh Khoshnevis’s research on “Contour Crafting,” an automated construction system that may one day be able to build full-scale houses in hours, has received new substantial funding from Caterpillar. The list goes on. And it is a music with a tempo that accelerates, let’s call it allegro vivo.

Scholarly and research excellence results from outstanding faculty and staff.  This fall, I am pleased to tell you that nine new faculty across the school bring us a fresh burst of creative talent and skills.  Whenever we recruit faculty or staff we ask the simple question:   “Are they better than us?” And only if the answer is a resounding yes, we proceed with the hire.

I am going to call the names of the new faculty, 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.
  • Andrea Armani has joined the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science as an assistant professor. She earned her Ph.D. in applied physics from Caltech.
  • Burcin Becerik joined the Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering as an assistant professor in construction engineering and management. She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard.
  • Rahul Jain joins the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering as an assistant professor. He comes to us from the IBM Watson Research Center and UC Berkeley. 
  • Grid computing pioneer Carl Kesselman is now Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the Epstein Department and brings the needed connection of information technology to health systems.
  • Cedrick Ngalande, who earned his Ph. D in Astronautical Engineering from our own Astronautics and Space Technology Division, has accepted a visiting assistant professor position.
  • Michelle Povinelli joins the Ming Hsieh Department as an assistant professor. She is an optics/photonics specialist studying light propagation in nanostructured materials. Michelle earned her Ph.D. in physics at MIT, and comes to us from Stanford. 
  • Fei Sha is an assistant professor of computer science with interests in machine learning and speech recognition. Fei obtained his PhD at Penn and comes to us from previous positions at Berkeley and Yahoo. 
  • Demetri Spanos has accepted a visiting assistant professor position in the Ming Hsieh Department coming from Caltech.
  • And last but not least, Joe Wang will be joining the Astronautics and Space Technology Division from Virginia Tech. Before serving as the founding co-director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Space Science and Engineering Research, Joe also served at JPL for several years. He did his graduate work at MIT.  A warm welcome to all.
VSo E EFC Chair
Sandeep Gupta, chair of the Engineering Faculty Council, introduces the dean.
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.  The teaching load policy for all junior faculty has essentially been reduced to the equivalent of two three-unit courses in the first four years. In addition, John announced the availability of travel funds outside the start-up packages. Last year we proposed a new change in the default faculty load profile. I am looking forward to its revision so that it can be embraced widely by the faculty and the EFC. And I am also 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.  I should also mention that this is the second year of our keynote lectures series.  All departments have by now a keynote lecture established - as should be the case for every quality department in an elite school. Next week, the Epstein Department is holding the Rechtin Lecture, delivered by Wanda Austin, the CEO of The Aerospace Corporation and a doctoral alumnus of the School, who was elected to the National Academy of Engineering last year.

Many of you brought great distinction to the Viterbi School during the past year. In April, I was pleased to report three NSF CAREER Awards to Amy Rechenmacher, Michael Neely and Tait Pottebaum, the election of Max Nikias and myself to the NAE, and a host of other impressive honors. (For those of you interested in trivia, UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang has noted that USC is the only university with a President, Provost and Dean all members of the NAE.) Since then, Terry Langdon won the 2008 Blaise Pascal Medal for Materials Science from the European Academy of Sciences, and he will deliver the Lee Hsun Lecture at the Chinese Institute of Materials Science in the spring.  Shri Narayanan of the Ming Hsieh Department and Laurent Itti of our Computer Science Department are our latest recipients of Okawa research awards.  Shri also won a 2008 IBM Faculty award, as did three other of our colleagues: Barry Boehm, Leana Golubchik and Murali Annavaram. Ari Requicha was this year’s recipient of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society Pioneer Award, given "to those individuals who have had a significant impact on development of the robotics and/or automation fields."

Audience listens to school news from the dean.

The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) has named Keith Chugg of our Ming Hsieh Department the recipient of the 2008 Terman Award in recognition of his achievements in text writing, teaching, research and student guidance. A team led by Vijay Kumar received the Best Paper (Algorithms) Award at the 4th IEEE International Conference on Distributed Computing in Sensor Systems. Mike Safonov of the same department was elected Fellow of the International Federation of Automatic Control (IFAC).  And finally - we were delighted – and extremely proud – to hear the recent news that Andy Viterbi will be a recipient of the National Medal of Science. Coming at the heels of his June award as a Laureate of the Millennium Technology Prize, this is truly an exalted honor, bestowed only on those who have had a transformative impact on the nation’s science and technology. In Andy’s case, it is more than well-deserved; it is long overdue. Andy will receive the medal from President Bush at a White House ceremony on September 29. This musical concerto is getting more and more delightful!

Allow me now to review the school’s finances: Today, I am pleased to tell you that the school is financially healthy for a number of reasons: Robust enrollments (including gains in undergraduate students, due to retention), increasing endowment, stable research funding. Dave Murphy and Linda Rock have been outstanding stewards of the school’s financial and human resources.

As with the previous year, we exceeded budgeted revenues for the fiscal year 2008 and ended the year in the black (so to speak). The first three weeks in the fall semester also show that we are right on target in meeting our budget projections for 2008. However, like everyone else, we are vulnerable to the economy and changes in research directions. We should be always alert and vigilant in these turbulent financial times and wisely use our resources.

So S Toast
John O'Brien, left foreground, Christopher J. Stoy, center, and Louise Yates, right, raise their glasses in a toast with the Dean to a successful fundraising initiative.
You may have noticed an incredibly important accomplishment highlighted in this week’s edition of the USC Chronicle – the ahead-of-schedule, target-surpassing completion of our ambitious $300 million, seven-year fundraising initiative, which was called “Destination: The Future.” The fundraising highlight of the year was the naming of the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with a $17M pledge, our third department naming in as many years. The name is apt – the initiative helps secure our future. Indeed, the majority of these funds are going to the school’s endowment – which has more than doubled in the seven-year period of the initiative. Christopher Stoy and the External Relations team were instrumental to this success, which translated into raising about $45M per year for seven consecutive years.

When the initiative started, it was considered aggressive and its target unreachable. Yet, with perseverance and patience, it was accomplished ahead of time- even though it involved a mid-term dean’s change. The success is a testament of the continuity and strength of our school, the steady support of our alumni and friends, and the steadfastness to move the school ever forward. To celebrate this wonderful milestone, I ask you to please raise your glass to toast the success of this remarkable achievement.

Of course, we do not plan to stop here and rest – in fact, we are looking forward to extending this initiative- and I hope that we will have good news to report for additional important gifts later this year.

When I started as a Dean, I encapsulated our vision as follows:
  • First at USC
  • A leader in the nation
  • With constantly rising quality
  • And excellence in all our endeavors
Then, we added that we want to reach a state so that our constituents would be able to say:
  • I am fortunate to be a Viterbi student
  • I am fortunate to be a Viterbi alumnus
  • I am fortunate to be a Viterbi faculty/staff
With your support, we are making good progress in all these goals. And the music you create, both faculty and staff, nourishes our mind and our spirit to move the school ever forward.

Thank you and good afternoon.