ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: Mark Kaufman, D.D.S.
By Ali Mendoza
Dr. Mark Kaufman, a religion major from the class of 1979, always knew that he wanted to be a dentist. “Everyone who wanted to be a dentist went into the biology major. People told me its what I had to do. I had a rebellious nature and did not want to do that.”
Temporarily suppressing his rebellious nature, the young Mark Kaufman started his USC experience with general education courses. He paints a vivid picture as he reminisces about Professor Peter Sugarman’s Biology 106 classes held in Bovard auditorium with 1200 students. In these large courses, face-time with professors was always minimal. If students wanted to meet with the professor, they had to sign up for a ten-minute time slot on a registration sheet. USC’s academic curriculum was very different in 1979, Kaufman explains, and opportunities for pursuing less conventional paths into traditional professions were limited. But Kaufman was determined to expand his horizons.
He first learned about the Religion Department when he took a class with Professor Don Miller to fulfill a general education requirement. In stark contrast to the overcrowded science classes, this GE course, Religion 120, only had 30 students. The introductory religious studies course caught Kaufman’s attention, and he decided to become a religion major. The class examined psychological and sociological approaches to the study of religious experience and religious institutions. In the Religion Department, Kaufman found, the learning experience was more personal, the professors were more accessible, and the students all knew each other. Some of the classes were so small that lessons were taught at the professor’s home. According to Kaufman, “It was like college is supposed to be.”
Fascinated by the study of religion, Kaufman continued to explore courses with Professors Don Miller and Jack Crossley, as well as Wes Robb. His studies focused on ethics, sociology of religion, and neo-orthodox Protestant theology. Kaufman enjoyed his ethics courses in particular. “If you accept the premise that most of the activities in your life are going to affect others, then most of the decisions you make are fundamentally ethical,” he explains. “I would say that [the study of] ethics helps you do—whatever it is you do—better: business, law, teaching, dentistry, medicine, social work … . If you have that background [in ethics], you’re going to be better at doing [your job].”
It’s clear that Kaufman really enjoys talking about his study of religion at USC. His memories are bright and his passion fresh. Shortly after graduating with a degree in Religion, Kaufman was accepted into several dental schools. He ultimately decided to attend Northwestern University, where he obtained his doctor of dental surgery degree. Dr. Kaufman opened a private practice in Burbank in 1983, and he has been teaching as a clinical instructor at the USC Ostrow School of Dentistry since 1988.
Dr. Kaufman drew on his study of religious ethics during his six-year tenure as a member of the Judicial Council of the California Dental Association. The council is responsible for enforcing the Association’s code of ethics. Dr. Kaufman found that he was the only one on the council with ethics training. Most council members had chosen undergraduate majors in the hard sciences and had never had the opportunity to study ethical thought in a systematic way. Concerned that the council had fallen into the habit of enforcing rules without reflecting upon them thoughtfully, Dr. Kaufman encouraged his colleagues to consider the issues brought before the board in a deeper, more disciplined fashion. His undergraduate degree in Religion, he says, enabled him to provide much-needed leadership in his chosen profession.