Couple to give record $200-million gift to USC

The unrestricted donation from alumnus David Dornsife, the chairman of a large steel fabricating company, and his wife, Dana, will go to the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, which will be named for the couple.

By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
March 9, 2011

The University of Southern California will announce Wednesday its largest donation ever, a $200-million gift from alumnus David Dornsife, the chairman of a large steel fabricating company, and his wife, Dana.

The Dornsifes' donation will go to USC's College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the university's biggest academic unit, without restrictions on how it should be spent. It is expected to support faculty hiring, research and fellowships and be especially useful for the humanities and social sciences, which receive less funding than the sciences from federal and private sources.

USC President C. L. Max Nikias praised the donors, after whom the college will be named, for the donation's size and its unusually open-ended nature. "Especially in the economic environment we are in, this gift makes a big statement about the importance of the humanities and social sciences in the university, not just the sciences," he said. "It's a very, very transformative gift."

As a single donation, it beats USC's previous record of $175 million from "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, given in 2006 to build a new home for the university's film school, which he attended. Philanthropy experts say the Dornsife gift, along with two recent $100-million gifts to UCLA from other donors, shows that the recession's chilling effect on college fundraising may be easing.

David Dornsife, 67, is chairman and majority owner of Herrick Corp., a Stockton-based firm that has fabricated steel for many of the signature skyscrapers and civic projects in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities. The privately held company has plants in Stockton and San Bernardino, as well as Texas, Mississippi and Thailand, and employs about 2,000 people.

Dornsife, a USC trustee, praised the school's rising academic prestige and said he hopes to help "continue the momentum."

A USC business major who graduated in 1965 and was a shot putter on the track team, Dornsife has deep family ties to the Los Angeles campus; both his parents were also USC alumni. And although none of their six adult children attended the school, Dana and David Dornsife say they are encouraging their eight grandchildren with gifts of Trojan sweatshirts.

"We are brainwashing them at an early age," he joked.

In a telephone interview from their home in Danville in Northern California, the Dornsifes recalled how they had attended Nikias' inauguration in October and heard references to several USC schools that have been named for donors, including the Viterbi School of Engineering. The couple, who have made major donations to neuroscience research at the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, began discussing how that school lacked a donor name. Campus officials then encouraged a naming donation.

The college has 33 academic departments, including anthropology, chemistry, English and economics. It enrolls about 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

That broad range "allows students to put more tools in their tool box and address some of the major issues in the world today," said Dana Dornsife, 49, who is a business graduate of Drexel University in Philadelphia and has established a charity, the Lazarex Cancer Foundation, which helps cancer patients and their families through clinical trial treatments.

As for the gift's lack of restrictions, the couple said they had confidence in USC faculty and administrators to spend it wisely.

Howard Gillman, dean of what will be the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said the school will establish a cash prize for outstanding seniors whose scholarly work tackles societal problems in the United States and abroad. But in general, the donation will boost the school's endowment, while officials consider the best ways to use the money.

USC officials and the Dornsifes declined to provide details of the gift, such as whether it is being paid in a lump sum or over time, and whether it is all cash.

The single largest gift to a U.S. college or university was the $600-million pledge to Caltech in 2001 from Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore, his wife Betty, and their foundation, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. More than 20 schools have received individual donations of at least $200 million over the years.

National fundraising experts noted that big donors usually focus on a construction project or research area, in contrast to the unrestricted Dornsife gift. "In fact, it is often the kind of gift an institution needs the most. It is both a rare thing and a good thing for the donor to have the sense of confidence in the institution making those judgments," said Rae Goldsmith, vice president for advancement resources at the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Along with many universities, USC saw its endowment decline in the 2008 stock market and real estate collapse but has recovered somewhat, to $2.9 billion by last June, officials said. It is dwarfed by endowments at the wealthiest private universities, including Harvard's $27 billion, Yale's $16.7 billion and Stanford's $13.8 billion. ... 9936.story