Couple donates $110 million for USC undergraduate scholarships

The University of Southern California will announce Wednesday a $110-million donation for scholarships from a Colorado couple who made a fortune in the oil and gas industry. The gift is expected to cover tuition and some expenses for about 100 academically gifted undergraduates at the Los Angeles campus each year.

The donation from USC engineering school alumnus John Mork and his wife, Julie, is aimed at encouraging more of the nation’s top students to attend USC. An unspecified share of the scholarships, each worth about $47,000, will be set aside for graduates of high schools near the campus south of downtown.

John Mork, 63, is chief executive of the Denver-based Energy Corp. of America, which controls vast leased acreage and thousands of wells in Appalachia, the Texas coast, the Rockies and New Zealand.

In an interview, Mork said he worries that well-paying blue collar jobs are disappearing in America and that he wants as many young people as possible to obtain a university education as the ticket to a middle-class life.

“Public and private education has gotten more expensive over time. I think this will allow the very best kids to get a degree at USC, whether they can afford it or not,” he said.


The gift is the latest in a string of nine-figure donations to USC and UCLA since January, including a $200-million contribution last month to USC’s College of Letters, Arts & Sciences. That gift, from alumnus David Dornsife, a steel industry businessman, and his wife, Dana, was USC’s largest to date.

USC President C.L. “Max” Nikias said he was pleased that the Mork donation will go to undergraduate scholarships, as the recession has strained many families’ budgets. “Julie and John are giving the gift of education to students of all walks of life. And ultimately, thousands of students will benefit,” Nikias said.

Nikias and Mork, a USC trustee since 2006, declined to provide some details about the donation, including when it will be paid in full.

The scholarships will cover recipients’ tuition, which will be $42,162 next year, with an extra $5,000 in annual spending money. Students will be chosen based on academic promise, not financial need, and will be required to maintain a grade-point average of at least 3.5 while at USC.

At first, about 40 students a year will receive the gifts. That number is expected to rise quickly to about 100 as the endowment is established and investment returns improve, said Al Checcio, USC’s senior vice president for university advancement.

Such merit scholarships are controversial in academia, with critics complaining that schools bid for top students even when they are from affluent families and can pay their way. USC officials emphasized that many recipients will be financially needy and that an unspecified number will come from nearby high schools that have academic partnerships with USC and enroll mainly low-income students.

John Mork grew up in Encino and, after graduating from USC in 1970, followed his father into the oil and gas exploration industry. He and his wife founded the business that became the Energy Corp. of America. Julie Mork, a UCLA graduate, helps run the firm’s charitable foundation, which focuses on helping youth, and she is active in education groups.

The couple and their two adult children gave $15 million to USC’s engineering school five years ago.

Mork said he hopes to host an annual dinner for the new scholarship recipients. “It will be so much fun to watch these kids and how successful they are going to be,” he said.

The Mork donation is USC’s largest for undergraduate scholarships. The biggest in the nation was $400 million from media magnate John W. Kluge to his alma mater, Columbia University, in 2007, according to Rae Goldsmith, a vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Donations for new university buildings and endowed faculty chairs are more common, she said, but gifts for financial aid have risen since the recession began three years ago.