Dani Byrd reflects on plans as interim dean

Dani Byrd, appointed by Provost Michael Quick as interim dean for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is continuing  a push for curriculum innovation, integration of research, and strengthened communication among faculty and students. She was appointed after the departure of former Dean Steve Kay on Nov. 30 to assume the role of president of the Scripps Research Institution.

Byrd, a faculty member at USC for 17 years, has served various roles within Dornsife including vice dean for research advancement, vice dean for faculty and research, vice dean for institutional affairs and most recently, executive vice dean. Her field of study focuses primarily on human speech production which involves the use of MRI to observe the vocal tract and how it generates speech.

“My job is to make sure they have all the opportunities to make terrific choices about classes and majors, to lower obstacles to allow for students to chart that educational path,” Byrd said. “While at the same time making sure that we have this enormous array of high-quality teaching in classes available to students so that they have the information they need to seek their educational goals.”

Byrd also said that there are opportunities for Dornsife to integrate programs of study that are thematic and do not necessarily fall under what an academic would traditionally perceive as tied to a specific discipline or department. Byrd explained that the creation of new majors and minors within Dornsife has led to greater convergence among disciplines.

“We’ve been talking about curricular innovation that includes lowering obstacles to programs of study, cleaning up programs that may not be so interesting and offering instead, thematic, novel or interestingly structured new options,” Byrd said. “It involves making sure that we are doing a terrific job teaching those classes, not just offering them and that are students are actively involved in those classes.”

Some of Byrd’s primary concerns as interim dean include increasing student opportunity in internships and research for scholarly experiences through funding by the Student Opportunities for Academic Research and Summer Undergraduate Research Fund programs within Dornsife. Further, she explained that innovating the core undergraduate curriculum includes active communication among students and with faculty members.

“We have to be committed to setting the bar high and continuing all of the progress we’ve benefited from,” Byrd said. “Dornsife is a top college and a top research university in the country and that gives us an opportunity — but even more than that, an obligation — to become better and to tackle both from our students’ perspectives and from our faculty research the toughest challenges that are out there and to prepare our students to become the Trojan Family representatives that are going to go on and lead the way in these very difficult but societally critical problems.”

Byrd received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in linguistics from Yale University and a doctorate degree from UCLA. She founded the USC Phonetics Laboratory in 1998. Four years later, she became an associate professor of linguistics at USC and since then has continued to advance research.

Byrd has received several awards in recognition of her work in linguistics, such as a fellowship and the R. Bruce Lindsay Award granted by the Acoustical Society of America and the USC Dornsife Dean’s Award for Distinguished Service in 2012. Additionally, Byrd has worked as an editorial board member for the Journal of the International Phonetic Association.

In discussing different ways to engage students in research, Byrd highlighted the Bridge Institution and the Korean Studies Institute as epicenters for vast opportunities in undergraduate research.

“We’ve developed, over the past few decades, some terrific research centers and institutes, and for me, it’s so important to highlight that they are at an educational institution and that they have a special role to play in the educational mission,” Byrd said.

Provost Michael Quick and Dean Avishai Sadan of the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry will head the 12-member advisory search committee to select and appoint the next permanent dean of Dornsife.