Nikias discusses fundraising plans

President C. L. Max Nikias knows the challenges that face him in his quest to raise $6 billion in seven years. The economy has entered another downturn, and the size of the university’s goal is unprecedented in higher education. But he’s not worried.

“I feel good about it,” Nikias said Monday, a day after announcing the campaign for the University of Southern California. “I know it’s a lot of work. I know we all have to work very hard for it.”

The ambitious undertaking has been on Nikias’ mind since he was selected to succeed former President Steven B. Sample in the spring of 2010; he has been working for the past year to develop specific goals and to bring in private donations before the campaign’s public launch Sept. 15.

The campaign’s goals are explicit and include improvements to virtually every facet of university life.

The projected $6 billion will be split among four broad purposes: $2 billion for the endowment of faculty and research programs, $1 billion to endow student scholarships, $2 billion for immediate support of academic priorities and $1 billion for support of building projects. If successful, the campaign will more than double the size of USC’s endowment, and USC has hired its first chief investment officer to make sure the endowment is invested in the best possible way.

Specific projects include endowing a graduate fellowship for artists from the Pacific Rim, constructing an interdisciplinary social sciences building, adding more undergraduate and graduate student housing, renovating the University Village, increasing clinical and translational efforts on the Health Sciences Campus and building a new facility for the Marshall School of Business.

The goals were developed by Al Checcio, senior vice president for university advancement, in close conjunction with Provost Elizabeth Garrett, whose office is in the process of developing USC’s new strategic vision, a roadmap for the university’s academic growth, that will be presented to the Board of Trustees this fall.

In the process of developing the strategic vision, the provost’s office solicited advice from all constituents on campus, including students.

Undergraduate Student Government President Monish Tyagi said USG was contacted by the provost’s office in the spring and subsequently held a forum to give students the chance to offer suggestions for the strategic plan.

“Students definitely seemed really excited with the direction the university’s headed in terms of just becoming much more of a top-tier university,” Tyagi said.

Students specifically asked for more housing and student scholarships, Tyagi said, both of which are listed as goals for the upcoming capital campaign.

In setting goals, the university also worked with each individual school and unit on campus to help them set their own objectives. The autonomy of the individual schools will be a hallmark of the campaign, Nikias said, and each of the deans will be responsible for meeting their school’s benchmark.

“The deans are very, very important for the success of the campaign. I told the deans that I expect that at least 70, if not 80, percent of their time will have to be devoted to the campaign,” Nikias said.

The schools’ individual goals were decided by determining how much each school realistically needs to support its academic vision and by evaluating the giving power of each school’s alumni base.

“For instance, the Marshall School would have better prospects in many ways because of the nature of the school and the business the alums go into,” Checcio said.

The schools with the highest aspirations are the Keck School of Medicine, which aims to raise $1.5 billion, and the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, with a goal of $750 million. Both Keck and USC Dornsife have already received large gifts, including $200 million to name USC Dornsife that was the largest single donation in the university’s history.

Large donations like these are part of the reason Nikias and Checcio aren’t too worried about meeting their lofty goal.

“It helps in so many ways –— it creates a sense of momentum,” Checcio said. “It also serves as an affirmation of the direction and leadership of the institution.”

In large-scale capital campaigns, universities often rely on “mega-gifts,” donations that exceed $25 million, according to Donald Fellows, a fundraising consultant. Typically, Fellows said, 75 to 80 percent of the money raised in large campaigns comes from gifts of $1 million or more.

That could pose a challenge for USC, as people who make large gifts tend to be more cautious when the economy is unstable, Fellows said.

“The challenge may be in the number of those mega-gifts,” he said. “But I’ve got to believe the university knows it has many more out there that will come or they wouldn’t have made such a bold statement on the goal.”

Nikias confirmed there are several gifts currently in the negotiation stage, but he said there will probably not be another major gift announced between now and the kick-off of the campaign.

“Many universities, when they announce campaigns, usually they also announce a large gift, but we already had five big gifts announced. I don’t feel I have to do that,” Nikias said. “I don’t have to do what others are doing. I want to do what is right for USC.”