“In the vocabulary of the many-world theory of quantum mechanics, on March 15, 2020, the “wave function” collapsed,” said Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, in jest, in the opening remarks of his 2020 State of the School speech. “And, essentially, we collectively moved overnight to another world, the COVID world.”
The dean’s speech, normally presented during a luncheon at Town & Gown, was instead broadcast from his office in the Olin Hall of Engineering. Yortsos lauded the perseverance of Viterbi faculty, staff, and students in the difficult times that ensued, as well as their extraordinary ability to innovate in the face of unprecedented stressors.
“At Viterbi, the transition to the COVID world was effective, and it was more or less seamless,” he explained. “Faculty, students and staff adjusted, created, innovated and continued to lead in a world of uncertainty, apprehension, and extraordinary constraints.”
The importance of trust
Yortsos used the Zoom-delivered speech as an opportunity to display his pedagogical side. Mentioning the parallels between the sustainable energy course he teaches and the COVID-19 pandemic, he shared some lecture slides to impress his points.
He stressed, as he has done in previous years, the importance of realizing that we live in the “era of the exponential”: exponential growth in areas like technology, or environmental impact. He then tacked the spread of pandemic infections onto this list, remarking that early failures to combat the pandemic may have been due to an inability to comprehend its exponential nature. Human-infection driven pandemics also display an exponential rise in infections, at least at its growing phase.
“Unfortunately, human nature does not change exponentially fast,” said the dean. “We are very good at extrapolating, but only on a straight line. And this inability leads often to what we often term “wicked problems”.
“Two fundamental requirements: outstanding competence and outstanding character. Together they create trust. Which is needed to navigate together these unprecedented times.”
A seamless transition
“Arguably, no engineering school in the country was better positioned to make the shift to online teaching than USC Viterbi,” said Yortsos. He went on to recap Viterbi’s nearly fourty- year history of offering virtual courses, even reminiscing about his own experiences teaching courses for the Distance Education Network (DEN@Viterbi) through a tape delivery system, decades ago.
Fast-forwarding to the present, Yortsos had nothing but praise for the faculty: Who not only transitioned to online teaching, but many reoriented their research to directly address the coronavirus pandemic. A collection of such work is in fact offered this Fall as a free course of 10 lectures in “Viterbi vs. Pandemics!”
“This lecture series paints a beautiful tableau of the research capacity and competence of the school, and a most vivid demonstration of the very definition of technology: leveraging phenomena for useful purposes,” said the dean.
Equity as a moral imperative
In parallel, Dean Yortsos reflected on the raise of our collective awareness on racial inequities brought about by the death of George Floyd, placing it in the greater context of the longstanding struggle for racial equity, and the role of academia, and of engineering schools, specifically, in attaining that equity. He spoke of a moral imperative to keep improving on our practices to advance inclusion for all.
“We must revisit how we recruit, we mentor, we nurture, and we graduate Black engineering students. How we attract and retain Black engineering faculty and staff. And how we create an equity-minded environment for all.”
As a first step, he encouraged his audience to check out Viterbi’s Escape Velocity podcast series, where Black Viterbi faculty, students and staff share their thoughts and experiences:
“Listening to the poignant stories of some of our Black colleagues, faculty, students and staff will move you,” said Yortsos, “but it will also educate you on experiences that many of us never encounter.”
Dean Yortsos took special care to praise Trojan faculty, staff, and students in a comprehensive variety of fields. These accomplishments included:
- Six junior faculty members (Aleksandra Korolova, Daniel McCurry, Haipeng Luo, Mitul Luhar, Qiming Wang and Megan McCain) won the 2020 NSF Career Award, the highest number within a single year in USC Viterbi history
- Berok Khoshnevis and Mahta Moghadam were promoted to Distinguished Professor, while Shri Narayanan became a University Professor
- The USC Aero-Design Team won (for the third time) the Annual American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Design/Build/Fly Competition
- Viterbi students won first place in the AIAA Small Satellite Student Competition
- In a recent study, USC ranked fifth in the list of universities from which Apple and Google hire
- Viterbi graduate students won the “Jury’s Choice” Award at the SIGGRAPH 2020 Computer Animation Festival, by inventing a new way to create 3D avatars of a person using a webcam
- The Student Affairs Team hosted a large selection of innovative virtual events, including a new student welcome, a Viterbi Zoom party, a 48 hour Sustain-a-Thon, Viterbi Spirit Week, and much more
Strong optimism in a world of uncertainty
I am proud of a school with the ambition of leadership, the clarity of vision, and the commitment to competence and character, to trust.
Dean Yortsos did not dwell too long on past accomplishments, but looked with optimism to the future. He pointed out the groundwork being laid for future success; this was quite literal in the case of the brand-new Baum Family Maker Space, a space and workshop for student design teams, and in the Ginsburg Human-Centered Computational Computer Science Building, a student-designed LEED Platinum building, with ground-breaking set in Spring 2021.
Beyond the walls of Viterbi, he stressed the need for engineers to combat the “wicked problems” facing the world, to fulfill the mission to engineer a better world for all of humanity.
“The world impatiently needs talented engineers using their skills, their knowledge, their mindsets, and their character, to help us engineer a fast recovery and a new and bright future.”
With engineering becoming increasingly human-centric, Yortsos said, the future will be shaped by the new engineers, those with both exceptional competence and exceptional character. Namely, by trustworthy engineers. Engineers who are changing the conversation, about who they are, what they do and what they look like.
He concluded by rephrasing a quote from Winston Churchill to read: “The duty of the university is to teach wisdom and to develop competence and character. So as to help engineer a better world for all humanity.”
Watch the Dean’s entire State of the School speech below: