Dornsifes inspired by Nikias’ inauguration speech

When Dana and David Dornsife returned to their hotel room after President C. L. Max Nikias’ inaugural speech in October, they both had one thing on their mind: naming the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences.

Benefactors · David Dornsife graduated from USC in 1965. He and his wife, Dana Dornsife, both sit on the board of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute. They donated $200 million in unrestricted funds to the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences. - Courtesy of Philip Channing

“We were staying at the Radisson across the street, and we both kind of simultaneously brought out, ‘Wouldn’t that be exciting if they announced in the future ‘the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences,’ but instead they said ‘the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences?’” David Dornsife said. “That was the first time we saw each other [that day] and we both had the same idea.”

Further talks with Howard Gillman, dean of the College of Letters, Arts, & Sciences, as well as meetings with Nikias led to the Dornsife’s $200 million unrestricted donation to the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, which will officially be renamed the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences on March 23.

“We’re thrilled to be able to do it,” Dana Dornsife said. “And we feel very blessed and fortunate to have the financial resources that allow us to do things like this to help make the world a better place.”

The Dornsifes’ pledge is the largest single donation in USC’s history. They credit Nikias with motivating them to give during his inauguration speech.

“He put a challenge out to the audience to have the courage to explore boldly and he really put forward a very aggressive agenda on the things that he wanted to do to improve the quality of the education at USC and to attract highly sought after professors,” Dana Dornsife said. “Dave and I really took that to heart.”

The donation will also create a Dornsife Scholars Program, given to graduating seniors in the College who plan to continue with the research they began at USC on a national or global scale.

“The idea of the Dornsife scholars is to take top performers and incentivize them to go on further, and in particular, look at those that feel that they can change the world as a result of the scholarly work that they could continue to do at USC,” David Dornsife said.

At a Visions & Voices event about two years ago, the Dornsifes were invited to talk about water-well drilling in Africa and their involvement there. They left impressed by the students’ reaction, which gave them faith in the students to make a difference in the world.

“We were overwhelmed with the students who were very eager to do what they could do to change the world and were asking us if we had any ideas for them,” Dana Dornsife said. “That mindset, coming from the heart, and being passionate about helping their fellow man, David and I are very impressed with them.”

Because the $200 million is an unrestricted endowment, the College can use the money in any way it sees fit.

The Dornsifes are not worried about the different ways the money will be used.

“We have a lot of faith in the individuals running the College,” David Dornsife said. “We’re not concerned about mistakes being made because they’re good people and they know a lot about education.”

David Dornsife graduated from USC’s business school in 1965 and is currently a USC trustee and chairman of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute in the neurosciences. His parents were also USC alumni. Dana Dornsife also sits on the board of the Brain and Creativity Institute.

Their involvement in the neuroscience program provided opportunities for the Dornsifes to meet faculty in the College, as well as the dean.

“We think the fact that the neuroscience program is funded and working is an example of what could be done when you really focus on an area,” David Dornsife said. “All that exposure with the neurosciences started getting us interested in broadening out to the rest of the members of the college, so that was the catalyst that got us a chance to be involved intimately with other disciplines.”

Dana Dornsife said they are proud of the interdisciplinary studies taking place at USC, and donated specifically to the College because they feel it has more interdisciplinary opportunities for students.

The Dornsifes plan to continue their support of both neuroscience and the College through meetings with Gillman and continuing their positions in the Brain and Creativity Institute.

“We think this is the right time to be supportive of the school,” David Dornsife said. “We think they’re doing a great job and we hope this helps lift them to a higher level.”

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