Veterans Appreciation Dinner celebrates centennial anniversary of ROTC; Dean of Religious Life reflects USC’s spirit of inclusion

April 28, 2017

I would like to begin this month’s letter by returning to a deeply moving evening from late March, when the USC community came together—for the seventh straight year—to honor our military service members and their families. This year’s gathering, an event we call the Veterans Appreciation Dinner, coincided with the centennial anniversary of USC’s ROTC program, and was made all the more special by the presence of a number of World War II veterans. These heroes elevated our spirits, and their attendance quietly reminded us all how noble it is to serve one’s country. They represent the sacrifices of so many, across so many generations, and it was a profound honor to have them among us. Our trustee, Edward P. Roski Jr.—himself a former Marine and a Vietnam veteran—presented specially-made medals honoring their individual service, creating a solemn, touching moment for us all.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Viet Luong, the evening’s keynote speaker, moved everyone in the room with his inspiring personal story. After fleeing war-torn Vietnam as a refugee, he attended USC on a full ROTC scholarship, and now serves as chief of staff of U.S. Army Central. In 2014, he became the first United States military general born in Vietnam. “This fabled story only happens here,” he told our 800-plus guests. “I am an American by choice, not by birth.”

A voice of compassion
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times published an excellent profile of USC’s dean of religious life, Varun Soni. Nine years ago, at the time of his appointment, Dean Soni was the only non-Christian head chaplain at a major university, and to this day, remains one of only a few in our nation. His appointment reflects USC’s spirit of inclusion, as our student body represents more than 90 different religious viewpoints. During his tenure at USC, Dean Soni has become a beloved part of our Trojan Family, and the article underscored the tremendous heart he brings to his work: “Inside and outside the lecture halls and dormitories, he bridges what he sees as the gap between the slow-moving wheels of academic change and a new generation’s impatience with tradition,” the reporter wrote. “He counters the tendency to split apart and subdivide with a message of tolerance, coexistence, and respect.”

USC Iovine and Young Academy adds masters
The USC Iovine and Young Academy continues to flourish, and recently added a new online graduate program in integrated design, technology and business. This exceptionally collaborative masters program will complement the program for undergraduate students, which is now in its third year. “The sky’s the limit on both of these programs,” Erica Muhl, the academy’s director, told Billboard magazine. “We’re not focused on a specific discipline but rather on what we call ‘new literacies’ and how those can be applied to problem solving in any area.”

The program was developed in part by the academy’s founding benefactors, Jimmy Iovine and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young. “The academy’s model is highly collaborative and team based,” Dean Muhl added, echoing a key point of Mr. Iovine and Mr. Young’s vision. “It works, to a certain extent, on a collision of ideas and what I like to call the over-the-shoulder look of one student to another.”

New applications for artificial intelligence
Launched last fall, the USC Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society focuses on using cutting-edge artificial intelligence to advance humanitarian causes, and in so doing, creates remarkably imaginative opportunities for social change. The center—a collaboration between our Viterbi School of Engineering and our Dworak-Peck School of Social Work—is already receiving positive attention, as Entrepreneur magazine reported on research by Professors Milind Tambe and Eric Rice, the center’s co-directors.

As one example of their work, they examine how to most effectively reach local homeless youth with extremely useful information about HIV testing. Their method, which draws on social media and other data to identify a community’s peer leaders, has helped increase HIV testing in the group. The article in Entrepreneur opens with an optimistic nod to the center: “Artificial intelligence is one of the heralds of a smarter tech world—but could it help us be a more compassionate one, as well?” it began. “The University of Southern California thinks so.”

On this happy note, I’ll add that Niki and I very much look forward to commencement next month. Our speaker will be the beloved actor and comedian Will Ferrell, and his presence will carry special meaning for our students, as he is a proud alumnus of our USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. We are certain his words will inspire our graduates as they prepare to make their own way in the world.

Yours truly,

C. L. Max Nikias