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Kay installed as dean of USC Dornsife

Dean Steve A. Kay accepts a symbolic armchair from USC President C. L. Max Nikias. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

In an inspiring installation speech, Steve A. Kay on Nov. 7 set the tone for his administration, sharing his mantra as the 21st dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences: educate, enrich and empower.

“We must educate our students to think critically and immerse them in their subject matter, so they can become the renaissance scholars of their time, who are prepared to succeed in any career,” Kay, holder of the Anna H. Bing Dean’s Chair and professor of biological sciences, told approximately 350 people at the ceremony and reception at Town & Gown.

“We must enrich their classroom experience with discovery-based learning opportunities, through exposure to research, internships and international engagement.

“We must empower them to succeed in a competitive job market, or move quickly to an advanced degree, by instilling communication skills, leadership training and networking tactics.”

Kay also underscored several flagship programs and initiatives that, with the faculty’s help, he will advance as dean.

President C. L. Max Nikias introduced Kay, pointing out that USC Dornsife is the largest, oldest and most diverse academic unit on the University Park Campus. It is comprised of more than 30 academic departments, dozens of research centers and institutes, approximately 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and nearly 800 faculty members.

“I often say, ‘The College is the beating heart of our university,’ ” Nikias said. “And this could not be more true. So few individuals have the breadth of experience, the depth of intellectual training and the leadership skills to assume such a challenging and important role, but I’m confident when I tell you: We have found the very best.

“Steve Kay is uniquely equipped to lead the USC Dornsife College at this crucial juncture in its history,” he added. “Not only is he a highly accomplished administrator, he is a world-class scientist, and a renowned expert on genes and circadian rhythms.”

Nikias noted that Kay came to USC from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where he distinguished himself as an innovative researcher, a dynamic administrator and a charismatic leader.

At UCSD, he served as dean of the division of biological sciences, and he held the Richard C. Atkinson Chair in Biological Sciences. He was also a UCSD Distinguished Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology. Kay is trained in genetics and genomics, having received his PhD from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Science magazine cited Kay’s work among its “Breakthroughs of the Year” in 1997, 1998 and again in 2002. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

During his tenure as a dean at UCSD, Kay led a large and vibrant academic division, with nearly 6,000 undergraduate biology majors, several hundred graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and faculty spanning four major departments.

As an academic leader, Kay demonstrated a commitment to faculty excellence, having recruited exceptional department chairs and center directors, members of the National Academy of Sciences and many other highly productive researchers, Nikias said.

During the same period, Kay oversaw the creation of four significant new research centers in fields ranging from the biomedical to environmental sciences. In the division he led, grants and contract activity grew nearly 60 percent from 2007 to 2011.

Prior to joining UCSD, Kay held faculty positions at Rockefeller University, the University of Virginia and The Scripps Research Institute.

“I know there is a great deal of warmth in this room and that I speak for everyone when I say how pleased we are to formally welcome Dean Kay to the Trojan Family,” Nikias said.

To a standing ovation, Kay stood and expressed his gratitude to the two people he said were instrumental in his decision to become a Trojan: Nikias and Elizabeth Garrett, USC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs,.

“Together they are building on USC’s great traditions and entrusting faculty and students with the freedom to generate and execute fresh ideas,” Kay said.

Kay recognized and warmly thanked USC Trustee David Dornsife ’65 and his wife, Dana, who were in attendance, as well as his leadership team: Dani Byrd, Charles McKenna, Peter Mancall, Wendy Wood, George Sanchez, Steve Lamy, Donal Manahan and Ted Budge. And his most recent addition, Neil Macready, USC Dornsife’s new chief development officer.

Along with faculty and staff, among others, Kay also welcomed his family: his wife, Shelley, daughter Sophie, sister-in-law and Trojan Maureen, and twin sons Julian and Alex.

“We have been blessed beyond measure by this opportunity,” he said.

Kay shared some of his background, telling the audience that his affinity for discovery began more than 5,000 miles from Los Angeles on the small island of Jersey, off the coast of Normandy.

“My grandfather, a commercial fisherman, taught me how to steer boats through 10-foot swells and slot through perilous reefs to retrieve lobster traps,” he said before joking, “And I must say that after that experience, even faculty meetings seem pretty tame.”

He said he was fortunate to benefit from dedicated teachers who visited the island from the English “mainland.”

“When I first peered through a microscope, I was astonished to find the unseen world that unfolds within a drop of seawater,” he said. “That’s all it took to set me on the path to becoming a scientist.”

During what he called “a Eureka moment for USC,” marked by the launch of The Campaign for the University of Southern California and its $6 billion goal, Kay said he wants to implement a bold vision for the role of USC Dornsife in the effort.

The first initiative will focus on qBio or quantitative biology, which will enable USC Dornsife to be a leader in what is becoming known as P4 medicine: predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory.

“qBio in other words, is where cures begin,” Kay said. “In close collaboration with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, I envision us making this great campus a preeminent destination for emerging themes in science and technology.

“Population growth, combined in a perfect storm with climate change, present challenges in health, the environment and energy use, unlike any we have faced before. Our new initiatives in the Convergence of Molecular Science and Engineering will be the foundry where solutions to these complex problems are forged.”

This is USC Dornsife’s time to make history, Kay said.

“More specifically, this is our time to make history in how we train the next generation of health care professionals and innovators,” Kay said. “Never has the need been greater to solve the complexities associated with improving the health of all people on our planet, in an equitable, cost-effective, way.”

These solutions will only emerge through the development of the right human capital: a new Trojan army, prepared to implement ideas not yet imagined, he said.

“This calls for the creation of a Comprehensive School for Pre-health Education,” said Kay, who also holds a joint appointment as professor of neurology and also physiology and biophysics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “This new effort will cross many disciplines and many schools on both our campuses. It will provide an internationally recognized paradigm shift in curriculum, discovery-based learning and fundamentally change how we train students.”

Success will require both the classical role of the natural and biomedical sciences, and the skills of the social sciences, he said. Melding the two will make quantum leaps in understanding human behavior, which may include the application of economics for deployment at scale, and technology development for wireless and information technology health care.

“Equally as important will be a strong vein of core humanities topics, to provide context, critical abilities, ethics and synthesis. If we can arrive at this place in our journey, we might benefit humankind in indelible ways.”

During the ceremony, Nikias presented Kay with a miniature armchair set inside a glass case. It is symbolic of the Anna H. Bing Dean’s Chair that Kay now holds.

The wooden chair created in 1918 by the Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld constituted a radical departure in armchair design, and the chair became an icon of a design movement in Holland. Inscribed on the miniature chair’s base is “One serves mankind by enlightening it.”

Kay installed as dean of USC Dornsife

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