Right before the jazz band started playing and the audience gave two standing ovations to an alumna for her $1.5-million donation to Cal State Northridge, Yale architect Robert A.M. Stern injected the event with a strong dose of reality.
The February contribution kicked off a yearlong, $10-million fund-raising campaign at Cal State Northridge, remarkably its first. But Stern, a brash New Yorker, was less than impressed.
"It doesn't seem enough," he told the gathering. "At Yale, $10 million is one gift, and not necessarily a naming opportunity at that."
Northridge is already halfway toward its goal, but that pales in comparison to the $223 million that Yale raised in 1998. Northridge's plight is typical of California State University's 23 campuses, which only recently began raising private money in earnest. At a time when a record number of university endowments are surpassing 10 figures, it is easy to write off Cal State's efforts as chump change.
The entire system has raised $1.4 billion since 1990, compared to the $1.5 billion UCLA raised in just seven years. Columbia University raised twice that amount in 10 years.
But Cal State University is leading the pack among large public universities that emphasize teaching and access rather than research and prestige.
No one really knows why Cal State waited so long to fine-tune its fund-raising. Some cite tradition. Some mistakenly believed it was illegal for the Cal State system to raise private dollars.
"The unspoken public policy was to treat the CSU as if it was a welfare state-funded agency," said Cal State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed. "All that's changed."
As state revenues fell during the recession of the early 1990s, costs associated with corrections, K-12 schools and public health care eclipsed higher education funding. The budgets of the two state university systems were slashed. Academic programs languished, tuition skyrocketed, professors were laid off.
The University of California had to raise its tuition by 24% in 1992. But California State University raised tuition 40% and couldn't offer the kind of generous retirement packages the UC system managed.
Cal State has been putting its statewide fund-raising team together since 1994 and has had mixed success. San Diego State, with more research programs than any other Cal State campus, raised $33 million in 1998.
Other success stories include the system's flagship campus, Cal State Long Beach, which raised $36 million, and the system's biggest sports school, Fresno State, which raised $21 million.
At Long Beach, the system's fund-raising leader, President Robert Maxson, has advertised in national magazines like Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report.
He has worked hard to draw top high school students to raise the university's profile and attract dollars. His presidential scholars program, which offers full scholarships to 308 California valedictorians and national merit scholars, has drawn $12 million over three years.
Last year, Long Beach State posted the largest increase in admissions applications in the Cal State system, and Maxson says that kind of news translates into dollars.
"What that says is: Long Beach State is a hot campus," said Maxson. "We market that information. People love to donate to high-achieving kids."
Despite their prime locations, Cal State's three Los Angeles campuses--Cal State Los Angeles, Dominguez Hills and Northridge--have started slowly, raising a total of $30 million among them.
Some experts say fierce competition with fund-raising powerhouses like USC and UCLA has hampered local Cal State campuses. Others say Los Angeles-based Cal State campuses have fewer affluent students than suburban campuses like San Jose State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. But most say the Los Angeles campuses just got into the game late.
Since its fund-raising department underwent a harsh state audit three years ago, Cal State Dominguez Hills has had three vice presidents for university advancement and three presidents. The campus was the worst fund-raiser in the Cal State system in 1998. Chief fund-raiser Melba Coleman said such instability scares off potential donors.
"Generally, fund-raising starts with the president and, until they know who that is, they'll just give you small stuff," she said.
Despite such challenges, most fund-raisers say big opportunities await the Cal State campuses. Deep-pocketed foundations, once found only in the Northeast, have grown stronger in California.
Organizations like the Palo Alto-based Hewlett Packard Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund in San Francisco have taken leadership roles in university giving. Corporations have started incentive plans for employees who wish to give to universities. Others have contributed cash, stock and equipment.
Alumni outreach is the most difficult task for many campuses. About 40% of all university contributions come from Cal State graduates, parents and other individuals; administrators would like that figure to increase, but only a few Cal State schools have strong relationships with their alumni.
Most big fund-raising schools have databases with tens of thousands of names and addresses.
So-called prospect researchers mine that data, including information on the Web and in public records, to find likely contributors.
"It was a tough, tough assignment for our folks to rebuild their files in a mobile state like California," said Douglas X. Patino, Cal State University vice chancellor for university advancement.
But Amy Walling, the director of prospect research for San Diego State, couldn't think of a single "prospect" she has brought into the fold.
"We're a little behind," she admitted.
And until a Times reporter informed them, Northridge administrators were unaware that the wife of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Wendi Deng, graduated from the institution in 1993.
"Really?" said Bill Outhouse, Northridge's chief fund-raiser, scribbling a note to himself. "That's great news."
After religion, Americans donate more money to higher education than to any other cause. American colleges and universities raised a record $18 billion last year, funding new buildings, better faculty salaries, equipment, scholarships and endowment increases.
Reed has charged his campuses with generating 10% of their state allocations, about half the national average for large research universities, and says he may raise that standard.
"The state of California can afford a really good CSU," said Reed. "But excellence is achieved with private fund-raising."
In this period of unprecedented wealth, university development officers sound a lot like advertising executives, employing such terms as "synergy," "branding" and "niche marketing." Many campuses have adopted retail models to raise money, complete with telemarketing departments, frequent mailers to potential donors and a tailor's approach to fitting individuals' specific philanthropic tastes.
"There's a lot of money out there," said Dennis Sloane, UCLA's vice chancellor for development. "A lot of people have quickly built new Internet fortunes; these are untraditional donors, many in their 30s or 40s, who could give gifts in excess of $10 million."
CSU has decentralized its fund-raising operations, building teams in each academic department of each university.
Fresno State's fund-raising team has capitalized on the school's nationally ranked sports teams.
San Jose and Chico State benefit from their proximity to Silicon Valley, as does Cal Poly San Luis Obispo by graduating many high-tech workers.
The three Los Angeles Cal State campuses are still struggling to find their niche, administrators say, but Northridge may be on to something. The campus has organized alumni gatherings at some of Los Angeles' best-known cultural centers.