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Revitalizing Professional Education for the Next Century

Revitalizing Professional Education for the Next Century

Remarks at the American Association of Dental Schools’ 75th Anniversary Leadership Summit

by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
October 12, 1998

I am pleased to be here for the AADS’s 75th Anniversary Leadership Summit. There are many urgent issues that need to be addressed during this conference. Perhaps most important among these is how dental schools can become more closely integrated into the lives of the universities of which they are a part.

Let me start by telling you my perceptions of the role our own dental school plays in the life of USC. I will then follow up with some thoughts I have about the need to achieve a re-integration of knowledge throughout the American academic community.

USC was founded in 1880 as a private Methodist university. This small church-affiliated college grew into a fine non-denominational regional university by the 1920s. But it really began to come of age in 1958 when a visionary leader named Norman Topping was elected president. Dr. Topping sensed that the emergence of the University of California system and many regional state universities gave USC the opportunity to set out on a new path as a national research university. Within a decade, USC was elected into membership in the Association of American Universities, the consortium of the nation’s premier research universities.

The university has continued to change dramatically over the 40 years since Dr. Topping’s inauguration. Many world-class research facilities have been built and dozens of national academy members are now on our faculty. In 1994 Professor George Olah was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Our highly selective admission process has attracted one of the strongest student bodies in the nation. The university’s endowment has grown faster than the endowment at any other university. We now have dozens of highly-ranked programs in the arts and sciences and the professions. And USC now ranks among the top 10 of all private universities in the country in terms of sponsored research.

USC’s senior administration is very mindful of the key role that our School of Dentistry has played in the university’s overall growth and development. Under Dean Howard Landesman’s leadership the dental school has exploited two key assets that have helped ensure its connection to the total university: first, the location of its principal operations on our main academic campus in University Park; and second, the location on our Health Sciences campus of the school’s world-renowned Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology, which was established by USC Professor Harold Slavkin (who is now director of the National Institute for Dental Research). These two factors have allowed our dental school to develop numerous collaborations and to be fully integrated into the life of both USC campuses.

In 1994 USC’s Board of Trustees adopted a strategic plan – a blueprint for taking the entire university into the ranks of the 10 leading private research universities in the United States. It is a very unusual academic plan – only 15 pages long. And whereas most such plans contain scores of priorities, this one has only four. What this means is that most of our faculty have actually read the plan.

This plan contains four strategic initiatives that, taken together, apply to every school and department in the university. They are:

  1. Undergraduate Education – developing a distinctive program of undergraduate education that exploits the great breadth of our professional schools.
  2. Interdisciplinary Education and Research – increasing collaborations among faculty across disciplines in order to achieve new perspectives in teaching and research.
  3. Southern California – capitalizing on our location in Southern California, which is now (for better or worse) the urban paradigm for emerging countries and economies everywhere.
  4. Internationalization – expanding our partnerships with universities, governments and businesses around the world, especially around the Pacific Rim and in Latin America.

The USC School of Dentistry has been a leader in implementing all four of these initiatives. Indeed, what’s most significant about our dental school’s efforts to become a more integral part of USC has been the willingness of the school to be responsive and supportive of initiatives that advance the entire university’s mission.


Our dental school has become very interdisciplinary. It has expanded its collaborations with faculty in molecular biology, social work, education, business, medicine, nursing and public administration. It has become a leader among dental schools in implementing a pilot program for “Problem-Based Learning” – an inquiry-based mode of education that is more common in medical schools. It has also launched a pioneering five-year DDS/MBA program, one of the first of its kind in the nation.

The dental school offers a wide range of community outreach programs that keep it connected to the broader Southern California community. Its Mobile Dental Clinic has provided services to more than 75,000 low-income local children. The school has established partnerships with numerous science organizations to improve science teaching in local K-12 schools. For example, Professor Slavkin and his wife Lois received $3 million from the National Science Foundation to establish a Center for the Advancement of Pre-College Science Education.

The dental school has also made strong efforts to serve our undergraduate students. Its accelerated admissions program allows some of our brightest undergraduates to enroll early in the dental school. And the school offers one of the few baccalaureate degree programs in dental hygiene. The dental school has worked hard to advance USC’s initiative in internationalization. It organized the first International Symposium on Problem-Based Learning, which was attended by representatives from 11 nations. Its faculty regularly participate in conferences and lecture around the world. And its student population hails from over 20 different nations. Indeed, USC now has more alumni in Asia, including dental alumni, than any other American university.

As a part of this process of advancing our strategic plan, the dental school has been very aggressive in developing USC’s research enterprise. While USC as a whole now ranks 9th among all private universities in terms of federal research funding, our dental school ranks first among private dental schools. It also ranks fifth among our 17 professional schools in terms of sponsored research.

Dentistry is a leader in many other areas of importance to USC. One example is the ability of the school to attract outstanding pre-doctoral and post-doctoral dental students. We receive 2,000 applicants annually, and our entering class boasts an average GPA of 3.4. The dental school also has raised $5 million in cash gifts over the past fiscal year. The school has been able to establish nine endowed chairs and has built up a $30 million endowment. In addition, the dental school’s administrators and faculty are active in overall university governance.

So is the School of Dentistry highly valued at USC? You bet it is. Everyone I know at USC is proud of the national excellence which our dental school has achieved, and all of us feel it is an integral part of the university as a whole.

But my larger purpose here is not simply to talk about USC’s dental school. Rather it is to explore ways in which all dental schools, and indeed all professional schools, can become more closely integrated with each other and with the arts and sciences, in response to a world in which knowledge is expanding at a phenomenal rate, and in which faculty and students must be ready to adapt to new technologies and new opportunities more rapidly than ever before.

I shall not offer any simple, across-the-board solutions. Rather, I hope to raise issues and pose questions which, if properly addressed, could allow dental schools and other professional schools to play an expanded role in the American academy. Two questions are very much on my mind:

  1. Can professional schools help stem the tide of overspecialization in American higher education?
  2. Can we use our resources so as to encourage students and faculty to gain the extraordinary benefits of intellectual breadth without sacrificing depth?

Let me provide a bit of background. In his beautiful translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, John Ciardi includes at the end of each canto a number of intriguing footnotes that explain Dante’s myriad technical and literary allusions. Ciardi’s notes make it clear that Dante was not only a gifted poet and man of letters, well versed in theology, history, politics and classical literature, but that he was equally conversant with such scientific fields as astronomy, geography, trigonometry and spherical geometry.


Dante was an early example of that extraordinarily broad and creative intellect which we have come to call the Renaissance Man. Could such a man or woman exist today? Can we even conceive of a major poet in our own time whose understanding of contemporary science and mathematics would be the equal of Dante’s in the fourteenth century?

The answer of course is no. Many factors have contributed to the demise of the Renaissance Man over the past century and a half, not the least of which have been the spectacular success of the doctoral degree and the professionalization of scholarship and research within the modern university. These innovations signaled the start of a trend that is even more pronounced today – the increasing compartmentalization of faculty and the concomitant specialization of knowledge. For the essential concept behind most doctoral degrees, and behind the faculty members who hold such degrees, is that no person can know everything, and therefore it is better to know one thing extremely well than to attempt to know many things superficially.

These and other developments have aided and abetted the widening division between things literary and things scientific. Those who valued the old curriculum and literary ways increasingly divorced themselves from those who valued science and the search for technological knowledge. This growing rift was identified in our own time very succinctly by Charles Percy Snow, an English literary figure whose formal education through the doctorate had been in the sciences. In the late 1950s Snow wrote an essay entitled “The Two Cultures” in which he lamented the widening separation between literary and artistic culture on the one hand, and scientific and technological culture on the other. Snow describes it in this way, “Literary intellectuals at one pole -and at the other, scientists … and between the two, a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

But on top of this unfortunate polarization between the two cultures is the fact that we live in an age of increasing specialization. We no longer think of an accountant, per se, as a specialist; we no longer think even of a tax accountant as a specialist; instead, it is the real estate tax accountant who today rates the accolade of specialist. In my own discipline it sometimes takes three or four adjectives to define the precise area of electrical engineering that one inhabits. And we are seeing this same phenomenon in many of the health professions.

Society in the latter half of the twentieth century has come to worship the narrow, the focused, the specialized. And no wonder. Knowledge is being generated more rapidly today than in the past. The speed with which data can be processed and manipulated is increasing at an incredible rate; our capacity to store information is growing apace; new specializations are of necessity being formed every day.

In the past 150 years we have lost not only the possibility of broad and integrated knowledge, we have lost even the myth of it. Few if any of us claim to be broadly educated across the arts and sciences, much less across the professions. Indeed, the various disciplines within the arts and sciences appear to be going their separate ways with relatively little concern for, or connection with, their fellows.

Of course one might argue, in the manner of Leibniz, that the dis-integration of knowledge in the 20th century has been both beneficial and inevitable. But I would disagree. I believe the present times cry out for a re-integration of knowledge and for the re-valuation of breadth within the academy. Moreover, I believe that a re-integration of knowledge within higher education is well within the realm of possibility, and would be to the great advantage of American professional schools and the universities of which they are a part.

In his essay “The American Scholar,” published in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson offered a vision of human wholeness in which he repeated the fable of the One Man.

“It is one of those fables which out of an unknown antiquity conveys an unlooked-for wisdom, that the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.

“The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man – present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole Man. Man is not simply a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all these. Man is also priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state these functions are parceled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his.

“The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters – a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a Man.”

The One Man was, in the Emersonian vision, in need of being gathered back into his single transcendent identity. That fable suited an era in which, as Emerson believed, the division of labor in society was the chief threat to the completeness and unityof the human spirit.

In our time, the threat comes not so much from our specialized labors as from the nature and extent of human knowledge itself. Thus our ideal might be, not the Emersonian One Man who individually incorporates all human capacity and all human knowing, but instead the person who works deeply and productively in two or three disciplines which are not contiguous in the current geography of thought – in English literature and neurobiology, for example, or in dentistry and anthropology, or in political science and music. Perhaps such people should share some of the honors and attention that are now reserved almost exclusively for the singular specialists among us.

Why only two or three fields? First, because learning that many disciplines deeply and well is about all that is humanly possible today. But more important, because the object should not be merely well-roundedness in the old sense. Rather, our principal object in this day and age should be the unpredictable release of intellectual energy and the unanticipated change in perspective which occur by connecting within one mind two widely separated fields of thought.

To find the more recent heroes of this process of intellectual integration, we must look to the Great Straddlers: to Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century, who made significant contributions in political theory, architecture, agronomy, and higher education; to Charles Darwin in the 19th century, who brought Malthusian economic theory to bear on the puzzle of evolutionary change in the biological world; and to Ilya Prigogine in our own century, whose Nobel Prize-winning work in chemistry led him to explore even larger questions in philosophy and literature.

At the boundaries and bridgings between separated fields of knowledge, anything can happen. And even where there is not the reward of major discovery, there is at least the promise of a daring and exciting encounter as we seek in our minds to overcome the distance and sustain the tension between disparate ideas and modes of thinking.

It seems to me there are three specific ways in which those of us in the university can nurture and encourage the re-integration of knowledge. The first of these involves faculty participation in interdisciplinary research and creative activity. There are numerous projects and centers that naturally bring together widely separated disciplines. Successful development of new biomedical devices requires great breadth of knowledge in science and technology, as well as sensitivity to human values and social structures. Epidemiological research clearly straddles the biological and behavioral disciplines. And many fields in the fine arts – from computer-aided composition of music to the production of modern film and video – involve an intimate marriage of artistic creativity with state-of-the-art technology.

A second means by which all of us as academicians can assist in the re-integration of knowledge is through interdisciplinary teaching. Few of us would feel comfortable teaching even a freshman course in a discipline that is far removed across the intellectual landscape from our home territory. But practically all of us could successfully team-teach a course with a colleague from a distant discipline.

During my last two years at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and during my first year at USC, I co-taught a seminar with a professor of English in which we examined, through the study of literature, the impact of science and technology on human culture. It is highly unusual, and perhaps even unprecedented, for an undergraduate course to be taught by a two-person team comprising a literary scholar and an engineer. And yet I believe this course was one of the most intellectually exciting and stimulating experiences that any of us – students and professors alike – had ever had.

Finally, we can begin to encourage our very best undergraduates to pursue two majors, or at least a major and a minor, in widely separated fields of study, rather than simply encourage them to become specialists in our own image. Perhaps we should consider awarding an extraordinary honors degree to students who successfully complete an academic major in literature and a second major in one of the physical sciences, or a major and a minor in two equally disparate fields. These students will then enter our professional schools with both sides of their brains working, which will in turn produce a new generation of practitioners and researchers who will be able to adapt much more quickly and productively to a world of rapid change.

It may be too late for most of us to become straddlers of the disciplines, in the manner of Darwin and Prigogine, but we can certainly encourage our brightest and most ambitious students to seek for themselves the kind of intellectual breadth that will stand them in good stead in the 21st century.

The re-integration of knowledge may well be the single most important and creative endeavor that any of us in universities could undertake. We should of course continue to value academic specialization and the important contributions of the professional schools. But all of us in the academy, whether professors of dentistry or professors of English, must work assiduously for the re-integration of knowledge and the revaluation of breadth with depth as the intellectual hallmarks of the American university.