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Meet the interim dean at USC Dornsife

Linguist Dani Byrd shares her vision for moving core academic and research missions forward

USC Dornsife Interim Dean Dani Byrd.
Dani Byrd oversees USC Dornsife’s academic administration, including faculty, research and educational excellence. (Photo/Matt Meindl)

Trojan Family ties run deep for Dani Byrd. Not only has she served as a faculty member at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences for 17 years and a vice dean for more than eight years, she is also the parent of a USC freshman and the spouse of an alumnus.

Appointed dean for the interim period by Provost Michael Quick, beginning today, Byrd oversees USC Dornsife’s academic administration, including faculty, research and educational excellence, as well as strategic planning for programmatic and institutional development.

Byrd simultaneously received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in linguistics from Yale University and her doctorate from UCLA. After serving as a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow and senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories, she joined USC in 1998 and founded the USC Phonetics Laboratory. Her research focuses on human speech production, employing innovative technology to track and image inside the throat and mouth during speech.

You’re a linguist by training. How does this help inform your work as a university administrator and leader?

Linguists, by nature and by training, are deeply interested in human diversity. They study all human language, from any community on the globe. And linguists have a deep-seated perspective of not being judgmental about language. They view languages and dialects not as “good or bad,” but as objects of linguistic study that are each inherently valuable examples of humans’ intrinsic cognitive capacity. I like to think that 25 years as a linguist has helped me be a good listener as well as curious and open-minded, yet analytical and data-driven.

My work as a scholar stands at the intersection of the traditional “domains” of the College. I’m a [National Institutes of Health]-funded laboratory scientist, working on social human behavior, in a department and field that’s historically foundational in the humanities. This uniquely positions me to work across USC Dornsife in many capacities.

Most recently, I’ve been USC Dornsife’s executive vice dean, and in my time as a college administrator, I’ve done or overseen many of the jobs in the dean’s office, most recently serving as executive vice dean. I’ve come to know the breadth of our faculty’s scholarship very well and in turn to appreciate how their wide expertise can be leveraged to accelerate USC Dornsife’s influence as an institution for innovative learning and research.

USC President C. L. Max Nikias often refers to USC Dornsife as “the beating heart” of the university. What specific priorities have you identified that will underscore this and continue our momentum?

My two immediate priorities for the interim period focus on the relevance and excitement of being a USC Dornsife student.

First, we must continue to innovate the core undergraduate curriculum — the education of students majoring or minoring at USC Dornsife. And we must do this in a way that communicates lucidly that curriculum’s value to young adults and weds that proudly with its intellectual rigor. This needs to be accompanied by creativity in how we teach. The lecture at the podium can yield, when effective, to flexibility in how we balance active learning in the classroom, on the laptop and in the “real world.”

Second, I believe we can increasingly leverage our superb research centers and institutes to further engage our undergraduate and doctoral students. By integrating the activities of our research centers into our educational mission, we will best prepare our students for their professional journeys.

The Bridge@USC is not a biotech company. Our creative writers are not a salon. The Center for Economic and Social Research is not a think tank. What sets USC Dornsife apart is that we stand at the intersection of scholarship and education. The extraordinarily high caliber of our research institutes presents a not-to-be-missed opportunity to integrate this asset in a culturally deep way with our training of the next generation of scholars.

What have you enjoyed most about teaching?

I loved teaching my science and technology general education linguistics course, “Language and Mind.” I even published a textbook, with Professor Toby Mintz, for the class. Each year some students who thought they didn’t care for science would choose this class because they assumed that a linguistics class wouldn’t be “science-y.” And it never failed that on the last day of class, students would come up to me and say, “I thought I didn’t like science, but this was great.” I guess the teacher-performer in me loves having the bully pulpit. I now do a mini-version of this class regularly as a micro-seminar for incoming students.

“Interdisciplinary” and “convergence” are definitely buzzwords in higher education right now. What is the distinction between the two? Why is convergence so foundational to scholarship of consequence?

I’ve never put much stock in the term “interdisciplinary” as a buzzword because to me it simply means that scholars from different fields all contribute to a project by working on the piece that requires their own disciplinary expertise. This is, of course, how much of my research, which involves collaborating with engineers, has always taken place. In a sense, it’s a no-brainer.

What’s essential and tremendously exciting is when those disciplinary perspectives converge or convolve — shape one another. This allows scholars to ask entirely new questions or tackle challenges in ways that couldn’t have otherwise even been conceived. In my work, this means using the perspective of the linguist and the perspective of the engineer to think about the cognitive control of human speech from a systems perspective. And this couldn’t have been conceived merely by interdisciplinary divisions of labor in the research enterprise.

As a college of letters, arts and sciences, USC Dornsife serves as the epicenter for the university’s push to be the leader in convergent research. Our scholars not only synthesize their research across disciplines, but synergize across disciplines. This is a new way of thinking about and approaching research, and a new ethos for education. In seeking to truly shape the public good, our frontline scholar-teachers emphasize to our students that they must be brave in seeking to tackle intractable problems such as devastating disease, social justice and poverty, the nature of personal identity or energy, water and food security.

Outside of the fine arts and performing arts schools, USC courses in the humanities are primarily offered at USC Dornsife. Why do you think the humanities are a critical component of a college education?

A simple and quite valid answer to this is that the ability to read, write and think critically are indisputably essential to students’ success in their varied professional journeys, irrespective of the fields they enter. And these skills are honed in the humanities.

A more nuanced answer sees the humanities as inherently valuable in shaping our citizenry. An education in the humanities facilitates the ability to connect to people of myriad backgrounds and perspectives. Aristotle recognized that, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” College graduates educated in the humanities can hold a multitude of views in their grasp for consideration and simultaneously have developed a moral framework, empathy and sense of self to find their own voices. They won’t be confined to viewing others through a lens of provincialism or narrow-mindedness.

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