Gaurav Sukhatme, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering, received official designation from USC President Carol Folt as the first director of the USC School of Advanced Computing on Wednesday.
Approaching the lectern to enthusiastic applause from the audience filling the Ronald Tutor Campus Center rotunda, Sukhatme, executive vice dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, expressed his gratitude, stating that he was “at a loss for words” before acknowledging Folt’s confidence in him. “I am both honored and moved,” he said.
In individual addresses, both Folt and USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos demonstrated their conviction in Sukhatme’s capability to lead the university’s 23rd school. “For a powerhouse school, we needed a powerhouse director,” Folt said. “We found that in Gaurav.”
The new school, which was officially proclaimed last week, is a cornerstone of Folt’s Frontiers of Computing “moonshot,” functioning as a center for advanced computing research and education across the university.
In the fall of 2023, Folt initiated the effort with a university endowment of $260 million from the Lord Foundation of California aimed at promoting and expanding computing research and education across the university.
“Our accomplishments in engineering and computation have already altered the world in numerous ways,” Folt said. “I like to say that USC knows how to move quickly when necessary. And that is what we are witnessing and celebrating today.”
A digital backbone
The new school, a subdivision of USC Viterbi, will be the home of the Thomas Lord Department of Computer Science, the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Division of Computing Education, but Folt stated that “faculty across all schools will be engaged in constructing this digital backbone.”
Students are central to the initiative, which Folt mentioned aims to offer knowledge of advanced computing to all, irrespective of discipline.
“The jobs of the future will demand digital skills and computer literacy,” she said. “Our moonshot, when fully realized, is committed to ensuring that every single student will be prepared to participate in creating the world of the future.”
Characterizing Sukhatme as a “true multihyphenate” with a “multidisciplinary mind,” Folt commended his academic achievements and leadership ability, acknowledging his scholarly work’s substantial 39,000 citations and his numerous leadership roles at the university.
He also embodies the philosophy of prioritizing students, she said, highlighting his mentorship of over 45 doctoral students and 100 master’s and undergraduate students during his academic career at USC.
A long and storied Trojan journey
The inauguration also served as an opportunity to celebrate Sukhatme’s extensive and eventful Trojan journey.
Sukhatme is a double USC Viterbi alumnus, having earned his master’s degree and doctorate in computer science at USC. He was mentored by Professor Emeritus George Bekey, a renowned pioneer in robotic and technology ethics.
Sukhatme became a professor in 2000 and chaired USC’s department of computer science from 2012 to 2017 during one of its fastest periods of growth. Since 2017, he has served as the executive vice dean of USC Viterbi.
In 2023, at the Thomas Lord Department of Computer Science naming ceremony, he received the Donald M. Alstadt Chair in Advanced Computing. “Some people may think of this as a capstone, but for Gaurav, it was just another milestone that brings us here today,” Folt said.
In closing, Folt reflected on the similarities between cricket, Sukhatme’s favorite sport, and computer science, his intellectual passion.
“They both require strategic planning by people to succeed and … enormous patience,” said Folt. “While things in computing can move quickly — like current advances in AI — patience is key, especially given the ethical issues at stake.”
Before handing the podium to Sukhatme, Folt thanked Yortsos and Geoffrey Garrett, dean of the USC Marshall School of Business. “You’ve been real partners from the start,” she said. “It has been such a great opportunity to work with you.”
A truly remarkable vision
For his part, Yortsos, during the ceremony’s closing speech, said he didn’t have to look far to find the perfect leader to entrust with this initiative’s “extraordinary genesis.”
“When I was asked who would be the ideal person to run the new school, help it stand, take its first steps and grow to adulthood, I knew that the right person was next to me: Gaurav Sukhatme,” he said.
Yortsos said he envisions the new school as “a trusted, indivisible and quintessential part of the entire university. A school of advanced computing for all.”
Paraphrasing economist W. Brian Arthur, he said: Technology is leveraging phenomena for useful purposes. “These … words encapsulate all that we do.”
The phenomena may vary, he said, from the physical, chemical, geological, biological and planetary, to the behavioral and social.
The “useful purposes” can address grand challenges and moonshots, “but what leverages these phenomena, and the reason we are here today, is advanced computing,” Yortsos said. “This is, then, the mission of our new school: to leverage phenomena using advanced computing.”
That mission, he added, will include “the solution of vexing problems in sustainability, health, security; enriching life; and the pruning and ultimate elimination of unavoidable unintended consequences that challenge our ethics and our humanity.”
In closing, Yortsos delivered this message to Sukhatme, his friend and colleague of more than 20 years:
“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to also usher in this historic moment for the entire university and to congratulate and celebrate our remarkable colleague, who is entrusted with carrying forward a truly remarkable vision.”