What should the name USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences mean?
Seems like an odd question, but with the record $200-million donation Dana and David Dornsife gave to the College last March, it not only got a new name but a chance to reinvent and to create a brand to go with the name.
The recent news that Howard Gillman, the dean of USC Dornsife, is stepping down makes this an even more critical time for the university to discuss and focus on the school’s future.
Now is the time for all of USC — President C. L. Max Nikias, administration, faculty, students — to seize that chance by giving USC Dornsife the attention it has long deserved, allowing a key shift from a professionally dominated academic culture to a more interdisciplinary liberal arts model.
The Marshall School of Business, Viterbi School of Engineering and Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism each have prestigious reputations and distinct brands attached to their names. One of the reasons for their prestige (and a definite reason so many students desperately hope for admission into the schools) is that they come with a recognizable name and a known and trusted brand as a reputable school.
These schools launch students on conventionally desirable career paths, such as entry-level jobs after college, followed by promotion after promotion.
I’ve even heard Marshall students joke about the worthlessness of non-Marshall students.
The message is: If you’re not branded, if you’re not on a “traditional” career-driven track, then you don’t matter.
The College of Letters, Arts and Sciences has long lived in the shadow of the Marshall, Viterbi and Annenberg brands.
But the Dornsife gift, dubbed “Historic. Transformational. Inspirational,” has the ability to change all of that.
It has prompted a historic and transformational change in the university’s academic culture.
At a Dornsife Commons event on Sept. 22, a conversational venue created to foster dialogue among students and faculty on new possibilities sparked by USC Dornsife, Charles Lanski, professor of mathematics, explained what makes USC Dornsife different.
“Students who are in the College are studying many different sorts of disciplines, [so] we cannot be related to careers or career opportunities as the identification of the college,” Lanski said.
And that is exactly what the USC Dornsife brand should be: A school that does not need to identify itself with any cookie-cutter career path because it allows students to reach across disciplinary boundaries to study what they’re genuinely interested in, whether or not there are specific careers attached to those interests.
USC Dornsife should be a revolutionary, interdisciplinary academic culture that differentiates and expands the undergraduate experience.
The university should make more courses available that are smaller and more rigorous, with a more honed-in focus than intro-style general education courses.
The future leadership will also be integral to the transformation. Since he began his post as dean in 2007, Gillman implemented key growth in USC Dornsife.
Unfortunately, Dornsife is losing exactly the kind of leadership it needs. Gillman created new interdisciplinary majors and minors, fostered more undergraduate research opportunities through the Student Opportunities for Academic Research and Summer Undergraduate Research Funds programs, and recruited top-notch faculty, among other accomplishments.
Finding a replacement dean who will promote USC Dornsife’s diverse, expansive focus is essential to the school’s new vision.
This is a new era for USC Dornsife. How the university handles this era has the potential to redefine the entire university’s future.
We should all take part in seizing this rare chance to rebrand.
And whether you realize it or not, it will impact all students. A second Dornsife Commons event will take place Oct. 27 to further discuss the college’s future.
Elena Kadvany is a senior majoring in Spanish. Her column “Beyond the Classroom” runs Mondays.