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Dean Yortsos Addresses USC Student Affairs Conference

August 25, 2008 —
 Dean Yannis C. Yortsos
Dean Yannis C. Yortsos recently addressed the topic of "Meeting and Managing Rising Student Expectations" at the 2008 Student Affairs Conference, held in Bovard Auditorium. His speech to approximately 250 student affairs staff follows.

Thank you for your very kind introduction!  Good morning to everyone!

When Denzil emailed me with the invitation of this event, I was in my native home, the Greek island of Rhodes, enjoying the Aegean Sea.   I made the mistake of checking my email — I did so ill-advisedly a few times, with deleterious consequences to my short vacation.  Now, I thought that he had either made a mistake in asking me to speak to this group, or more likely, that he had run out of speakers.  You see, most of the time I am asked to speak, it is about a technical aspect, often obscure to many. Given the circumstances you can imagine my enthusiasm, particularly when the alternative was to go back to swim in the Aegean. Sooner or later, reality catches up with you, and I also realized that it may be useful to share my thoughts with you.

This realization grew larger, the more I got used to being back in the office (which took a grand total of one day). Denzil was very happy — I should more accurately say relieved — with my decision.  Most interesting is that I was not given a topic to speak about, really, other than that I will be addressing an audience of student affairs professionals from all categories. This freedom of choice is both welcome and risky.  So, I hope that you will get something useful from this presentation and that you will not go stealthily answering your emails or surfing the net in the next ten minutes or so.

Like in any other university, our fundamental mission is twofold:

1. To serve our students (using a very broad definition of the word “serve”).
2. To promote research and scholarship.

The second involves more and more students, in the context of the research university and increasingly so more undergraduate students. Today, I will focus on the students, particularly undergraduates, which is your focus as well, although some of what I will say apply equally well to graduate students.

It is not an exaggeration to say that USC is in a special moment in its history: A moment of dramatic ascent. This ascent is in multiple fronts. We have gained a lot, but we must relentlessly continue this effort to reach a state where small setbacks do not cause a great regress and large gains are possible with a small effort.

Earlier this summer, we held several retreats in the Viterbi School in the various areas where the school is involved. (In fact we held so many that next time I call for a retreat, I will truly see a mass retreat from attending.) In practically every one of these brainstorming sessions I realized that this ascent can be described simply. We, engineers, think in graphs, so I thought I should share one with you:

Slide Show
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Moving to the right of the critical point in all our endeavors, whether they are in education, research, fund-raising or outreach, should be our institutional goal. Because reaching that region creates a virtuous cycle, in which small efforts produce large gains, and which further lead to higher excellence.

To make that transition requires vision and commitment.

When I started as a dean of the Viterbi school, I encapsulated the Viterbi school’s mission in the following sentences:

• First at USC
• A leader in the nation
• Constantly rising quality
• Excellence in all endeavors

And then, last year, we added:

We would like (to reach a state) for our constituents to be able to say:
• I am fortunate to be a Viterbi faculty/staff
• I am fortunate to be a Viterbi student
• I am fortunate to be a Viterbi alumnus

This vision encompasses a number of subtle items:

-Meeting and surpassing expectations and promises. Indeed, perception is intimately related to expectations, and as the expectations of our constituencies increase, so is the perception, and vice-versa.

-Nurturing and cultivating a quality environment (I would venture  to call it an elite environment, in the pure and noble sense of the word, not an elitist one) - one that elevates the mind, the spirit and the soul.

-Being at the forefront of national (and global) leadership.

-Educating for a lifetime.

Are these consistent with what our undergraduates need, or expect , and of what we should offer them?  I will comment on the engineering students, whom I think I know best (after all, my own daughter is a Viterbi student), but I would like to be as general as I can (because I do have a son in the College).

I think I can summarize the students’ expectations (and our own responsibility to respond) as follows and in no specific order:

-First, they want to belong to a stimulating community that sharpens and enhances their skills, launches them to a drive to excellence, cultivates their ambitions, and provides them with a moral, societal compass- a community that reaches out deeply to the society. Indeed, how fortunate we are, that as an elite university, we are located in the heart of the inner city?

-Second, to feel that they are part of an environment that is nurturing, without being overbearing; stimulating and demanding, but not irrational- one that will help them explore the mysteries of science, but also of their inner self; to help them enjoy the thrill of discovery, but also of the human dimension; to help them create and innovate- and one that will prepare them for an ever-changing future.

-Third, to learn the scientific and engineering methods that will help them solve problems, invent the future, and become societal leaders. I would like to emphasize the latter:

Our students have all it takes to be at the forefront of leadership, technological and societal. The emerging global problems demand it. The competition and the challenge will be fierce. But our students will be asked to lead the world. It is as simple as that!

Finally, more than ever before, information is retrievable and ubiquitous. Translating it into useful knowledge, creating new knowledge and using it to solve complex societal problems will be the predominant challenge of the future. This dramatic change in scope of what it means to be “educated” leads to their fourth expectation. It is an expectation manifested in our students need for individual attention — as opposed to the massive scale teaching — for individual connection to our faculty and staff on a one-to-one basis, and gives rise to the need for a deep understanding of ethics.

We are responding by having created the Division of Engineering Education, one that looks at all dimensions of our curricula. The program on Freshman Academies provides community and a big-picture view of engineering. It is now being expanded to the sophomore year. Programs like KIUEL, Engineers Without Borders, the Engineering Writing Program and its Outreach, and many of the student organizations at Louise’ (Yate's) office provide leadership opportunities and community. We are constantly looking for internships (including summer research internships), “hands-on” creative engagement, the involvement of the industry in design competitions. We have launched global exchange opportunities with institutions such as IIT and Tsinghua — and last year we created the "Fab Lab," a laboratory for the exclusive use of undergraduates, so that they can experiment and design on their own. Many other activities are planned or under way.

Universities have endured in time, in large part because they cultivate both the mind and the spirit. The frontiers are limitless — and they will always be so, because of the specialness of human nature:

Young people will always be curious,
They will always be ambitious,
They will always have an abundant optimism for a different and better future,
They will always be refreshingly innovative and creative.

At USC we are very fortunate that we enroll those among the best. It is our obligation to make them better than that.

The years 18 to 23 are precious and valuable. It is our responsibility that they are not wasted; on the contrary, that they will help mark the passage to a triumphant voyage in life.

Ultimately, the university is its people: it is you and me. Ascending to the next level in the mountain of excellence, to the right of the critical point, is our imperative. Not only because our constituencies demand it, but also because it will elevate all of us and make this stage of our life in this university immensely fulfilling. Getting there will take a deep appreciation of our mission and an unwavering commitment. Then the rest will come easily.

Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts with you. I wish you a great retreat.