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Campaign for USC transforming university in remarkable ways

‘This campaign isn’t about the money. It’s about what the money enables USC to do.’

Kevin Xu ’11 and Leah Yang MA ’13 have a passion to support the elderly. And they knew that USC students have great business ideas. They wondered: What could they do to inspire students to develop businesses that could improve life for senior citizens?

So Xu and Yang made a gift to support the university’s efforts to improve life for the aging through innovation. It makes perfect sense: Xu is an entrepreneur who studied neuroscience at USC, while Yang earned a master’s in aging services management. They created a fund at USC that grants $20,000 each year to students who incorporate elder-friendly elements into their business plans. Xu hopes that the Brighten Award for Entrepreneurial Gerontology will encourage promising innovators for decades to come as the nation ages.

Spurring entrepreneurship to encourage better care and quality of life is so typical of USC alumni. And it’s just one example of how supporters are shaping the work and achievements of the university through the Campaign for the University of Southern California.

When the campaign launched in 2011, few could have predicted that the university’s landmark $6 billion fundraising effort would result in this sort of student entrepreneurship award. Yet that’s far from the only surprising outgrowth of the campaign. Across USC, the campaign has enabled the university and its scholars to grow in unexpected ways that reflect the commitment of its alumni, trustees and other supporters and the turning wheels of science, technology, economics, the arts and our community.

At schools and institutes across the university, Trojan Family generosity and a desire to make a difference have carried USC’s campaign across the $4.3 billion mark.

“This extraordinary support is a tremendous vote of confidence in the work we do every day at USC,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “It reflects the passion of our wider community and its immense desire to see the university’s scholarly and creative work benefit society.”

Whether gifts come in the form of annual smaller gifts or multimillion-dollar contributions, what matters is how they transform today’s and tomorrow’s USC.

“This campaign isn’t about the money. It’s about what the money enables USC to do,” said Al Checcio, senior vice president for university advancement.

The “to-do” list includes advancing current university priorities, such as biomedical advances, policy research or programs that open the humanities and arts to more students and to the community. It also encompasses endowment — funds that enable USC to attract top faculty or create scholarships in perpetuity. Finally, it includes buildings and equipment, the kind of capital investments that provide students with an enriching residential life or scientists with new lab space and state-of-the-art technology.

Current university priorities

Universities like USC make a difference in society by asking difficult questions — and they’re using the support they receive to find answers.

Take USC’s work in economics. The global financial crisis of the 2000s caused many to question long-held economic assumptions and call for ways to stabilize international markets. The New York-based Institute for New Economic Thinking, or INET, saw potential for important, creative ideas from economists at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, so it threw its support behind these financial scholars, funding a new research institute in the Department of Economics.

Today, the USC Dornsife Institute for New Economic Thinking encourages research on tools outside standard economic theory — such as what social scientists call decision theory — to address problems like unemployment and economic inequality. Funding from groups like INET supports the day-in, day-out studies that expand economics’ body of knowledge and USC’s contributions to the field.

At the same time, grants from foundations and individuals promote advances in hard sciences and engineering and foster early work from next generation of biologists, chemists and physicists. The Hearst Foundations and the Broad Foundation, for example, support up-and-coming researchers at USC in stem cell science. The funds not only jumpstart the researchers’ careers, they also give scientists an avenue to pursue stem cell studies that might one day pay off in therapies for patients with neurodegenerative diseases.

Endowments

Each school at USC depends on endowments to create faculty professorships and chairs, which attract and retain great thinkers and teachers. It’s an area where the USC School of Cinematic Arts has especially flourished.

Since 2010, the school has created 10 new endowed faculty positions focused on areas from cinematic design to visual effects. A few of those positions are attached to familiar names, like director Steven Spielberg, who gave through his Wunderkinder Foundation to create the Michael Kahn Endowed Chair in Editing. It honors his longtime collaborator, who worked with him on films from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Schindler’s List.

Filmmaker George Lucas ’66 endowed three new chairs, each named for a cinematic pioneer. These named chairs will help future filmmakers remember the basics of cinema — a point critical to Lucas.

Endowed chairs often echo the passions and interests of a donor. At the USC Shoah Foundation —The Institute for Visual History and Education, for example, the new Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Executive Director Chair will honor a committed pair of supporters while it amplifies efforts to share testimonies of Holocaust and genocide survivors around the world. As a child, the late Erna Viterbi, wife of USC Trustee Andrew Viterbi, fled Europe to the United States with her family during World War II due to growing anti-Semitism, so the couple understood all too well the importance of preserving history to avoid repeating it.

Endowments also make college accessible to more students. The Heritage Initiative added $50 million to USC Athletics’ endowment, which translates to many more scholarships for student-athletes across USC’s Division I sports. A variety of new endowed scholarship programs within schools bring a USC degree that much closer for students with unique goals, whether they’re aspiring to lead nonprofit organizations (USC Price School of Public Policy) or become school principals (USC Rossier School of Education).

Buildings and equipment

At the beginning of the Campaign for USC, few would have envisioned how science and engineering would come to intertwine at the university. But they’ll soon come together at the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, on the southwest corner of the University Park Campus. Backed by a major gift from philanthropist Gary Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson, the planned building will house biologists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers and other researchers who want to work together to answer big questions, spurring advances in areas from biomedical devices to genomics.

Then there’s USC Village. In 2011, the University Village shopping center — a fixture in the memories of generations of Trojans — stood on the north side of Jefferson Boulevard. Today, it’s no more. Steel columns shoot skyward from the earth as construction accelerates at the site, hinting at the new USC Village complex to come. The $650 million living-learning community will house nine residential colleges for students and provide shops and a market for the neighborhood.

Three of the residential colleges at USC Village already have been named thanks to gifts from donors, with more expected.

Ultimately, the enthusiasm of USC donors and supporters goes a long way toward shaping how the university’s programs and campuses evolve.

Vietnam War veteran Chuck Spielman and his wife, Amy, for example, donate to the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families to help veterans transition back into their communities. While USC has had a long relationship with the military, its veterans’ programs have expanded dramatically in the past four years. That’s partly due to a happy congruence of the university’s priorities and the interest of donors like the Spielmans.

“I have a link to USC through my own personal passion. That’s a strong catalyst,” Spielman said. “When we write a check, we speak from our hearts.”

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Campaign for USC transforming university in remarkable ways

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