Steve Kay became the 21st dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 2012. An acclaimed biologist, Kay also has an entrepreneurial side: He’s founded several biotechnology companies. He recently talked with USC Trojan Family Magazine about his new role and USC Dornsife’s future.
Why come to USC?
The president and the provost are really building a new kind of university. It’s a university with a fire in its belly. They understand that the classical silos of academia no longer best serve the interests of a university that’s going to have a huge impact on the world. But perhaps the clincher was when I came to visit and sat down in the Tutor Center and started talking with our vibrant and dynamic students.
What are you most excited about in your role as dean?
It’s the fact that we have so much ability to effect change in society. We can effect that change in three fantastic ways — through the creation of knowledge, the transmission of knowledge and the translation of that knowledge for public benefit. Whether it’s in history, economics or chemistry, we are developing a major footprint among the world’s elite universities. What really excites me is this mixture of a liberal arts ethos within the context of a major research university, an engine for discovery.
What are your top priorities for USC Dornsife’s $750 million fundraising initiative, recently launched as part of the $6 billion Campaign for the University of Southern California?
It is incredibly visionary of the president to understand that, for us to be a world-renowned institution, we need foundational fiscal resources. Dana and David Dornsife’s transformational gift was the first step into the future for this college. Our initiative aims to magnify the impact of their initial gift.
Where USC Dornsife is going to play a real role in the future is in large-scale programs that will enable the university to be a leader in emerging areas of scholarship. Those areas are interdisciplinary by nature, and they encompass things like quantitative biology, which is going to be a foundation for modern medicine. They encompass new ways to approach the social sciences so that we can understand economics and policy and the decision-making that occurs in healthy, viable societies. We need to support the humanities, because the humanities bring so much into context. How can classical book learning be combined with technology to help us understand what it means to be human?
In addition, for USC to move forward as an elite university we need to significantly strengthen our PhD programs. This is often misinterpreted as just training the next generation of college professors, but it’s more than that. It’s about ensuring a vibrant research enterprise that keeps America competitive.
What is your vision for USC Dornsife over the next five years?
I want to know that USC Dornsife will have had a positive impact on the world, whether it’s contributing to solutions for climate change, finding the next cancer cure or helping place the human endeavor in the rich context of the history of literature and culture. I want us to be recognized as the leading institution on the Pacific Rim for the creation and transmission of knowledge.
And I’d love nothing more than to stop a student on Childs Way and ask, “Why did you come to USC?” And for that student to say, “I came to USC because that’s where USC Dornsife is.”
If you have questions or comments on this article, write to us.