Presidential Medal recipients reflect on contributions

Dan Mazmanian (left), Dr. Sarah Van Orman (center) and Robert Cutietta (right) holding their medals.
Dan Mazmanian (left), Dr. Sarah Van Orman (center) and Robert Cutietta (right) were honored at the 41st annual Academic Honors Convocation held at Town and Gown April 19. (Photo courtesy of USC News)

By the time ze was in junior high school, Thornton School of Music and Kaufman School of Dance Dean Robert Cutietta, who had grown up in a very musical family, knew that for zim, “it was all music.” Cutietta said ze didn’t have much going for zim except for music, which became zir driving passion, zir decided path. 

The University awarded Cutietta the Presidential Medallion — the highest honor USC bestows upon its employees — to commemorate zir 20 years as dean. Cutietta was honored alongside Chair of the President’s Working Group on Sustainability Education and Research Dan Mazmanian and Chief Student Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman at the University’s 41st annual Academic Honors Convocation April 19. 

Robert Cutietta

After finding zir place playing music professionally, Cutietta began a part-time job teaching musical theory and was shocked by how much ze enjoyed it. The experience served as a “turning point” for Cutietta and launched zir decades long love affair with music education, which led to zir 2002 appointment as the dean of the Thornton School. All zir contributions to the University’s music and dance programs, Cutietta said, were a “labor of love.”

“I’m honored. It’s wonderful to be recognized for something that you do. Everything I did was because I believe in it,” said Cutietta, who will step down from zir position in June. “I really just did what I loved doing and was passionate about and then I got a medal for it. So, how cool is that?”

During Cutietta’s time as dean, the Thornton School introduced new degrees in arts journalism, music education, visual and performing arts studies, choral music, vocal jazz and popular music. The school also expanded its physical space by 40%, which included new rehearsal and practice areas, as well as renovated homes for film scoring, student services, jazz and film scoring. Five new endowed faculty chairs and one professorship were added in addition to tens of millions of dollars in new scholarships, among other forms of student funding. The Kaufman School, USC’s first new school in 41 years, was established in 2014 and underwent the 59,000 square foot construction of the Kaufman International Dance Center.

“I really am adamant that I want to leave both schools really in great shape for the next deans. I want to literally hand it to them on a silver platter because schools like this should be leaders,” Cutietta said. “It’s time for somebody else to come in with a new vision and build on this.”

Following zir parting from USC, Cutietta will be a Scholar in Residence at the Albert & Elaine Borchard Foundation and will pen a book about the pandemic’s effects on music education while living in Paris, France. Cutietta’s work will serve to compare virtual teaching modalities employed by Thornton and those used by the Paris Conservatory.

Dr. Sarah Van Orman

From the first advisory message alerting the USC community of the “Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)” to 10,000 community coronavirus cases and more than one million tests conducted, USC Student Health, headed by Van Orman, has directed the University’s response to the pandemic. 

Coming to USC in 2017 after serving as executive director of university health services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she served since 2008, Van Orman led the charge amid the unprecedented, sometimes overwhelming and “nonstop” work to contain and adapt to the pandemic. Van Orman’s Presidential Medal recognizes her leadership and contributions to student health and safety at USC, prepandemic and now. 

“Many of us feel like it’s been a privilege to get to lead during really historic times for public health,” Van Orman said. “Many of us feel proud of the work that we’ve been able to do on our campuses. We’ve been able to keep our campus safe, minimize the spread of disease and contribute, in a way, to public health in the community.”

Working to curb the spread of coronavirus on campus underscored the value of partnership and collaboration for Student Health, Van Orman said, and she adapted her leadership style to “orchestrate the pieces” necessary for the vast and ever-changing demands of the University’s response. 

“To survive something like this … it was about the team at Student Health,” Van Orman said. “[As a leader], your job is not to necessarily know everything or make all the decisions or do everything.”

As someone who community members looked to for guidance during the pandemic, Van Orman said the uncertainty she — and health professionals around the world — faced in understanding and responding to the pandemic proved difficult. Comforting ill and exposed faculty, staff and students through health advice to relieve their worries has been one of the most gratifying aspects of her time as chief student health officer over the past two years, Van Orman said.

With public health measures returning to a semblance of a postpandemic world, Van Orman said the tasks ahead are less exhausting, though still uncertain, and Student Health is refocusing its efforts onto additional public health matters.  

“We’re returning to some of those other big health issues … [such as the] growing challenges with mental health, the impacts of gender-based violence and other forms of sexual violence and issues around diversity and inclusion,” Van Orman said. “Those are all issues that we think actually got exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Dan Mazmanian

As a young man, Mazmanian spent his summers in the High Sierras, admiring the Californian beaches and natural treasures — but knew there was harm coming. The global climate crisis became a part of his consciousness back then, leading him to focus his research on sustainability policy as a graduate student in the 1970s during the wind-up of the environmental movement. 

Mazmanian has written about environmental sustainability ever since and began to participate in policy-making forums, eventually making his way to tenure as a professor of public policy at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and a faculty fellow at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Institute of State and Global Policy. In 2019, when Mazmanian had originally planned to retire, President Carol Folt appointed Mazmanian as chair of the President’s Working Group on Sustainability, a position in which he has spearheaded the collaborative efforts of students, employees and stakeholders in paving the University’s way toward sustainable operation and growth. 

The most fruitful part of planning and teaching sustainable practices at USC, Mazmanian said, has been the excitement he witnessed among students who see the existential threat of the climate crisis and are frustrated, frightened and curious about how they can affect change through policies, both in their communities and on a grander scale.

After three years of leading what he called the “coalition of the willing,” Mazmanian will retire from his work at USC. Come May 16, Mazmanian said, he’ll sit down and think about what comes next for him. The Presidential Medal, he said, symbolizes the University’s prioritization of environmental action and recognition of the community built around sustainability since the conception of the Working Group. Mazmanian said he accepts the medal “on behalf of all of us” who have worked to further the University’s sustainability viability and vision. 

“I’m proud of what we have achieved. This, in a sense, is the culmination of my time at USC,” Mazmanian said. “Now we are transforming the physical nature of our campus — it’s all blossoming — and that’s going to take many more years, so I thought it would be an appropriate time for me, individually, to say thank goodness and fight on.”

Jenna Peterson contributed to this report.