Dean’s Message: We Are All in This Together

About five months ago, the COVID pandemic started. Five months later, the world still struggles to contain it. When the contagion started I thought that the most important challenge was that it will test what we value. And, so it did. And it will continue to do so, in the near future and in the post-COVID world.

What have we learned these past months?

We learned how important are science and engineering to help bring an end to the contagion. And to help in so much more. Our researchers met the challenge of mitigating the impact of the coronavirus in many ways, ranging from modeling the epidemic, to contact tracing to vaccine development to combatting online misinformation about the virus, to producing and disseminating Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Almost right after COVID-19 became part of our vocabulary, the National Academy of Engineering launched a Call to Action against it. This cross-generational project includes engineers of all generations, from baby boomers to Gen Z’ers. Having the honor to chair its executive committee, I know how exciting it is to usher in innovative solutions, by accomplished engineers or by bright new engineering students, including our Grand Challenges Scholars.

We learned how much we should value education. Particularly in times of exponential change, like today, where uninformed decisions have debilitating consequences. And while most, if not all our classes this semester are online, we see as our moral responsibility to offer the highest quality of education for all our students all over the world. The experience we will have in the fall, unanticipated as it is, will also help us invent the future. To this goal, we will explore multiple avenues for the creation of community, for the active engagement with our students, and for creating all means that will probe the boundaries of connectivity as far as possible. In many ways, our students will be the co-creators of such innovation.

Finally, during this pandemic we learned, yet again, the importance of valuing our fellow human. To uphold our collective humanity, to open our hearts and minds to inclusion and understanding, to work to eliminate inequities. “We are in this together” is for all of us, for people of all races, in all parts of the world. Inadvertently, the COVID-19 crisis has challenged our true character. The brutal death of George Floyd has led so many of us to confront longstanding systemic issues of racial equity for our Black fellow humans. It has also led academic institutions like ours to revisit how we recruit, mentor, nurture and graduate Black engineering students and how we attract and retain Black engineering faculty.

That’s not to suggest we have been standing still. In 2015, we helped lead a national diversity pledge that more than 230 engineering schools have signed since. In 2016 we articulated a Parity Objective, and in 2017, USC Viterbi received the ASEE President’s Award in recognition of these efforts. But much more is needed in order to reach a strong, equitable environment for all our Black colleagues at USC Viterbi, and on campus and the community at-large. In all such efforts, we should be willing to acknowledge, educate, stand up, commit to change, dedicate resources, prioritize, and be accountable. We will innovate in these areas with actionable initiatives to uplift our hearts and our minds.

The online issue of the magazine includes our re-imagined “Escape Velocity” podcast series that addresses many such issues. Listening to the poignant stories of some of our Black colleagues and friends, faculty, students and staff at Viterbi is an inspiration to our own call to action.

I am very optimistic about the future.

The world will impatiently need talented engineers with their skills and their mindsets as soon as possible. In order to help us engineer a fast recovery and a new and bright future. But engineering will become increasingly human centric. With an Engineering + mindset, reflected in novel engineering education programs, such as those inspired by the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program. That not only develop technical competence, but also character, as the two together result in the forming of trustworthy engineers. This new engineer will change the conversation about our discipline: Who we are, what we do and what we look like.

For more than a century, 115 years to be exact, USC engineering has leveraged technology for useful purposes, including combatting another pandemic, that of 1918. In the process, we have collectively made important discoveries in every field of engineering. We commemorate this special birthday, with a unique, interactive game that features 115 seminal moments over these past years.

In these extraordinary times, our mission to engineer a better world for all humanity continues, strongly reinforced by the present crisis and the events that unfolded, to keep our focus on things that matter, things we value, as individuals, and as society.

In the pursuit of such as a noble goal, we are all in this together.