USC to seek record-breaking donation total

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In what is said to be the largest fundraising goal in American academia to date, USC is launching a campaign to garner $5 billion in donations by 2018, on top of $1 billion given to the school in the last year.

USC President C.L. Max Nikias said he was optimistic that the campaign, to be announced Sunday, would succeed despite the economic worries that even wealthy alumni may have about their investments.

“Yes, we have to be mindful of the short-term economic uncertainties, but this campaign focuses beyond the next few months and next few years,” Nikias said. “I feel it is extremely important that we position the university to ride the first wave of economic recovery.” The formal kick-off will occur at a Sept. 15 campus ceremony and dinner.


Half of the $6-billion total would be used to increase the university’s endowment in an effort to boost faculty hiring and student financial aid. The rest would go toward new buildings and labs and toward expanding research projects, Nikias said.

Higher education experts said Columbia University has the single largest previous campaign goal on record, $5 billion, set after it reached its original $4-billion target. Next is Stanford University, which is concluding a plan that has raised $4.4 billion, exceeding its $4.3-billion goal. Harvard University is preparing a mega-campaign that some expect will be larger than USC’s, but a Harvard spokesman said no details have been announced.

Typically, universities do not go public with such ambitions unless they first sound out potential donors privately, said Rae Goldsmith, vice president of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, which tracks donations.

“They don’t want to set themselves up to fail. The institutions would have to have some confidence in their ability to raise that kind of money,” said Goldsmith, adding that she did not know specifics of USC’s situation.

Donations to U.S. colleges and universities dropped nearly 12% in 2009, the steepest decline in 40 years, according to a survey by the New York-based Council for Aid to Education; they rose just 0.5% last year. More recently, there have been signs of an increase in contributions, but economic worries remain and colleges have to work harder for big gifts, said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Of the USC plan, Pals said: “Even during normal economic times, it would be ambitious. Coming now, it’s doubly so.” Yet given USC’s recent track record, he said, he expects it to succeed.


Nikias, who has been in office for one year, has landed an unusual number of large donations, including USC’s biggest, a $200-million gift from alumnus David Dornsife and his wife, Dana, to the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

But Nikias and other education officials say USC’s $3.3-billion endowment is relatively small for a research university of its size. (In comparison, Harvard’s endowment was reported at $27.6 billion last year, the largest of any U.S. university; others included Stanford, with $13.8 billion; Northwestern University, $5.9 billion; and Notre Dame, $5.2 billion.) Income from endowments, along with tuition payments and research grants, helps support a university’s salaries and scholarships.

“The only way we can sustain for the long haul all the academic gains we have made at the university is by building the endowment,” Nikias said. “We are not going to be taken seriously by our private peers unless we get our endowment in the top tier.”

Among the construction projects the money would support are academic buildings for social sciences, arts, business and clinical medicine, along with medical school housing and a $900-million “village” of shops, hotel, movie theaters and student housing designed to replace an older shopping center just north of the main USC campus.