Quite a Lot On

michael_ondaatje_1It was quite a busy week for me, and so all those moments I meant to stop and post thoughts and observations seemed to evaporate as I went from one thing to the next, with rather full days. I hit the ground running on Monday with several extra things on the calendar including being an external member of the committee for a thesis defense in the Chemistry department. Always useful and instructive to look in on what one’s colleagues are up to, and it was a rather nicely written thesis well defended.

The evening saw me at Bovard Auditorium to attend a pleasant visit by author Michael Ondaatje. My colleague from English and Comparative Literature, Hilary Schor, always super-enthusiastic about great authors, gave an introduction and then he came onto the stage and read a few extracts from his work before having a rather nice conversation with Hilary. Then the audience joined in with questions and comments of their own. While it was not full, it was a decent audience for this event, given its type, and I was happy to get the perfect seats I got. I had not done an RSVP, and came as a walk-in only to discover that some of the people on the door knew me and arranged for me to sit in the reserved seating for special guests. Only then did I remember that I’m on the committee that partly was responsible for this event happening. (Search for posts on College Commons – this was jointly under that banner and also that of Visions and Voices). For a few minutes before the event I managed to catch up with a friend and chat for a little while, so that was a huge bonus.

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Wednesday’s big event was The Celebration in Bovard Auditorium. We’d been sent invitations two weeks before that the Dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences would rather like us to reserve that date to come to this event, but the invitation did not say what the Celebration was for, except that it was to be one of the most important says in the history of USC. Gosh. I dutifully marked it on my calendar and then forgot about it until a colleague asked if I knew what it was about. I thought about it properly for a minute or two and then it was obvious. First, it was something to do with the College in particular, and second it was a very glossy and fancy invitation. While the engineers and the school of Cinematic Arts and Annenberg and so forth are known for their glossy invitations, the College is not. So it could only mean one thing. Someone had given the College that naming gift that had been long discussed as a goal. Sure enough, a day or two later a story appeared in the LA Times, followed by a message from the senior administration to all of us that we’d been given 200 million dollars by Dana and David Dornsife. (Yes, the ordering is notable. Was there a leak? I guess it’s clear that there was a bit of a miscommunication about the timing. ) This is the largest gift of its sort (i.e. In the support of a core unit all about humanities, arts, letters, sciences…) in the history of any university in the US (and presumably the planet), and dwarfed the previous gift record (for us) of 150 million we were pleased about from George Lucas to Cinematic Arts a few years ago. The best thing about all this is that the funds are unrestricted in how they can be used. So we shall see. I’ve already been contacted by a Dean to discuss some new ideas in the light of this gift… I imagine I might get more calls. It’ll be exciting to try to help us move forward with the new will and enthusiasm this gift has generated. The college is the fundamental core of USC, and now we can begin to accelerate our efforts to further support and revitalize some of the subjects that form this foundation – the humanities, the pure sciences, and so forth. These often get neglected in the understandable rush to support sexy applications and cross-disciplinary things. We should of course be able to pursue all these things, and we can.

Anyway, the Celebration was quite the thing, with all the great and the good turning out to show their thanks and support. Many speeches, all of a high standard, (but what is the Dark Matter problem of the Brain, Mr/Ms speechwriter for our Dean? Not sure…), the awarding of medals, unveiling of plaques, umpteen rounds of applause, lots of standing to be recognized, slightly oddly chosen jaunty/celebratory bossa-nova-ey music during the gaps in between, an awesome surprise appearance from a large fraction of the USC band who blew the roof off the building (but happily not with a 200 million repair bill!) and great humour and optimism all around. (I have to say, our new President, Max Nikias, just gets better and better in his role in this sort of event. He was already really good, but he’s now more relaxed natural in his jokes, joviality, and dealing with the unexpected, like not knowing where his speech was for a moment when he came up to the podium (it was sort of hidden at the podium already). The hotdogs on the lawn in front of Doheny were a bit of a surprise for the picnic after, but it all worked rather well, I’d say, since there was good accompaniment for them, and I suppose that they were in the spirit of celebration and relaxation. There was music and performance there as well. Sorry the are no pictures for this. I left my phone at home that day in my haste to get the bus to get to the event. I was running a bit late, having lost some time trying to find the jaunty/celebratory tie I wanted to wear for the occasion. See a story on the event here.

The afternoon saw me having to leave class early to dash to another building to a crucial meeting of a job search committee, where we met to make our final recommendation to the department about what we should do with our shortlist. This is an exciting time, since it means a new colleague, new activity in the department, and a further strengthening in one of the areas we have identified as our priority to build in – Biophysics – and most importantly (in my opinion) it is a junior position. We need to invest more in promising young people and build for the future and not put all our eggs in the basket of hiring more senior people. So I’m pleased about where this hiring cycle might take us, and hope that we get to do more like it soon. This all connects nicely to the big event I went to that morning.

Then I had to dash off early from the committee meeting to another building to give a presentation to a gathering of graduate students from the department. The students had called for a series of presentations from the faculty about the research being done in the department, and various of us have volunteered to take 25 minutes each to do that, two a week, each Wednesday. We started this week, with my colleague Paolo Zanardi talking about some of the things he does in the context of Quantum Information, and I then surveyed some of the motivating questions that fuel research in the High Energy Physics group. Since there are six of us in the group, I’ve no clue whether I did justice to the whole body of activity, but I tried.

I’m really not sure what happened on Thursday. I was supposed to be focusing on working on The Project, but it’s all a blur.

Friday was a big deal, since the morning had a 10:00am meeting of the department faculty to take the next step in the business of the hiring I mentioned above. Our job was to take the committee’s recommendation, consider it, hear from the members of the committee, and then as a faculty come to some decisions, vote on things to move forward, and then out of all of that the Chair writes a report to the Deans with our thoughts and our final recommendation. Yes, lots of stages and reports and memos and so on and so forth, but it is important to hear all voices, to follow procedure, and to do it all transparently. Hence the dance. It’ll be worth it in the end.

Remarkably, after lots of discussion about the needs of the department, and some valuable (often refreshingly full and frank) exchanges of views, there was strong agreement about how to move forward in the end. I say remarkably because when it comes to Biophysics – especially theoretical work – there are almost as many different views about what the core issues are (and hence what the best approaches, measures of success, etc) as there are physicists and biologists. It is a new field, relatively speaking, with new questions, lots of data (and at the same time not enough data – some of the basic physics questions you might ask are not really ones for which the experiments have been done…either because they can’t or because the experiments have simply not been done since they are not natural or traditional biology questions…) and no established traditions, for better or worse. So a raft of good candidates is difficult to rank since oftentimes there are no clear ways with which to compare candidates.

Another major landmark of the day was that a group of faculty spontaneously went to lunch and just hung out and chatted after. This might sound like it should not be a big deal, but it was notable for some of us since on the one hand everyone seems busy these days and to get a large group to just pop out to lunch together like that was great, and on the other hand it is a Friday. Fridays seem particularly hard to get some people to even show up on campus (this seems to be part of a campus wide phenomenon – don’t get me started on this topic!!), and so it was just great that we got a good turnout from key people, both at the meeting and at lunch.

Friday evening ended the week nicely with dinner downtown with friends followed by a play (Burn This) at the Mark Taper forum. So far the weekend has involved staring out the window at the rain (yes! rain! great!) and wondering when I’m going to get the Spring planting done, helping a friend shop for hiking boots, the making of lemon marmalade and laundry. I think I’d better stop now and get ready to go to the farmer’s market.


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