“My job as the chief of staff was to keep all the engines running.”
Dennis Cornell, who has served as chief of staff for two presidents, and worked under three, will retire June 30 after being at the University for almost 30 years.
The chief of staff position reports directly to the president, managing their daily tasks and acting as a liaison between them, the senior administration and the Board of Trustees. According to a job posting on USC’s website, the University is actively searching for a new chief of staff who can “[think] strategically, making complex decisions in an extremely fast paced and sensitive environment.”
“A chief of staff is connected to the president they serve,” Cornell said. “When [Nikias] stepped down, technically I stepped down. They rehired me the next day to work with [Interim President Wanda Austin].”
Although Cornell said President-elect Carol Folt asked him to stay on while she searched for her own chief of staff, Cornell said it was time for a new era for the University.
“New presidents get to have their own chiefs of staff and their own teams, and that’s the way it should be,” Cornell said. “They need to have their own sense of trust with people.”
Cornell’s background in the entertainment industry, such as serving as vice president of casting and talent development for Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television, lent him to the arts, he said. When he served as chief of protocol and associate senior vice president in 2001, Cornell oversaw the artistic direction of about 200 USC programs per year. Cornell helped create the arts and humanities initiative Visions and Voices and oversaw special projects such as the University’s 125th anniversary celebration.
Cornell first came to the University as a visiting professor at the School of Dramatic Arts in 1991. He then served as the managing director of SDA and was later appointed executive director of University events in 1995.
While working as chief of protocol, Cornell worked closely with C.L. Max Nikias when the former president was the dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering. When Nikias was named president in 2010, he asked Cornell to be his chief of staff.
Under Nikias, Cornell represented USC in visits to South Korea among other countries, the Daily Trojan previously reported.
“[Doing this job,] you learn every day about how to grow and how to be more transparent … more accountable to our constituents,” Cornell said. “I’ve probably learned more in the last two years than I’ve learned ever at USC — and I’ve learned a lot here.”
Cornell said his retirement is bittersweet, but he is ready to return to his roots in the theater arts, likely serving as the chair of the Pasadena Playhouse and traveling the world to see theater.
“[He] is one of the most familiar and friendly faces on our campuses,” Interim President Austin wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “He has been an advisor to many of his colleagues and an excellent sounding board for me during this critical transition period. We will very much miss his daily presence on our campuses and wish him much happiness in retirement.”