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Dana and David Dornsife honored for their gift

Dana and David Dornsife Honored for Their Gift
Dana Dornsife, David Dornsife and USC president C. L. Max Nikias

USC president C. L. Max Nikias on Wednesday held up two engraved, long golden chains – an honor presented to only one other person in USC’s 131-year-history.

Slipping the heavy, shiny chains over the heads of Dana and David Dornsife, he told the philanthropists and humanitarians:

“It is now my profound privilege to bestow upon both of you the University Medallion.”

The Trojan Marching Band entered the Bovard Auditorium stage playing “Reign of Troy.” The lights dimmed and a backdrop resembling a marble wall was virtually “etched” to read: USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. (To view a video tribute to the Dornsifes, go to

“This is what you call serious bling,” Dana Dornsife said, holding up her medallion, which is identical to the one worn by the university’s president. The ceremony honored the Dornsifes for their $200 million unrestricted gift to USC College – the largest naming gift in the history of higher education for a college of letters, arts and sciences.

“ ‘How could you make it unrestricted?’ ” David Dornsife said many people have asked him.

“It’s real simple,” said Dornsife, a 1965 USC alumnus in business and chairman of the Herrick Corp., a steel fabrication contractor. “We think we understand the people who are going to administer the gift. We have a lot of faith in them. And if it’s a good friend of mine, I say, ‘They don’t tell me how to put a steel building up. And I don’t tell them how to run a university.’ ”

Also unveiled was a bronze plaque displayed at the entrance to Bovard, engraved with portraits of Dana and David Dornsife and naming the USC benefactors University Medallion recipients, dated March 23, 2011. Directly across is an engraved plaque with the image of the only other person given the honor, Walter H. Annenberg.

“[Dana and David Dornsife’s] plaque is located there because of the central role the College plays in the academic and cultural life of this university,” Nikias said of the Bovard entryway.

The event included a processional march of USC College faculty members, senior administrators, USC deans, the school’s Board of Councilors and USC trustees.

The first speaker was Howard Gillman, dean of the newly named USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, comprised of 10,000 students, 700 faculty members and 600 staff members. Gillman oversees the school’s 33 academic departments in humanities, social sciences and sciences, and 31 research centers and institutes.

“At every renowned institution of higher education, the foundational work of inquiry and discovery takes place within this community, within the disciplines of the humanities, social sciences and sciences,” said Gillman, who acted as host. “To enter this world is to encounter the best that has ever been thought or created or discovered.”

With the USC Afro Latin American Jazz Ensemble playing in the background, USC Board of Trustees chairman Edward P. Roski, Jr., stepped forward. He said the audience was sharing a transforming moment in the university’s history.

“Dana and David are people who understand that education is the key to human progress,” Roski said. “They understand that although education does deliver personal rewards and growth, at the end of the day, education is not about me. It is about we. What matters is how you and I use our knowledge for the greater good, for our communities, our fellow humans and the world.”

Speaking before the crowd, School of Philosophy director Scott Soames, one of 23 USC faculty members who hold the title of Distinguished Professor, said that the Dornsifes’ past gifts to brain science were visionary. “Their present gift reflects a level of understanding few can match,” he said. “It is the College that is the heart of the university, combining the ancient disciplines of philosophy and mathematics with the great engines of modernity – the physical, biological and social sciences – while embracing the study of language, literature, art, history, religion and culture – in short, all that makes us human.”

Sociology Ph.D. candidate Radheeka Jayasundera said she spoke on behalf of students when she thanked the Dornsifes.

“Because of your generosity, students like me from developing countries who have very few resources are able to come to the U.S. to get a higher education at a great university like USC,” said Jayasundera of Sri Lanka. “And live to our fullest potential.”

With University Professor Kevin Starr’s baritone voice moderating, a video was shown telling the story of the Dornsifes, beginning with Harold Dornsife, David’s father, arriving at USC from Indiana in 1934 with 18 cents in his pocket. Harold Dornsife ’38 met his future wife, Ester ’41 at the university.

The couple later became some of USC’s most generous benefactors in chemical engineering, chemistry and neuroscience. They established the Harold W. Dornsife Chair in Neurosciences and were lead donors of the Hedco Neuroscience Building. Harold died in March 1999 and Ester died in January 2000.

“Dave, I know that your parents, who are both Trojans, are looking down on us from above,” Nikias said during the event. “And I have no doubt that, right now, they are smiling.”

David Dornsife, a USC trustee, is vice president of the Hedco Foundation and chairman of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute Board. Dana Dornsife is a board member of the same institute and the USC-Huntington Institutes. She also is president and founder of the Lazarex Cancer Foundation. The couple funded a cognitive neuroscience imaging center named after them.

After Nikias presented the Dornsifes with a handcrafted, calligraphical citation acknowledging the breadth of their contributions, Dana Dornsife said she wanted to recognize USC’s faculty and administrators.

“They are extraordinary,” she said. “But really what we’ve been touched by most is the outstanding students. And students are what this is all about. They make us extraordinarily proud. We love USC. We love the Trojan Family. Fight on!”

After the ceremony, the Trojan Marching Band led guests to a tented picnic at Alumni Park.

“Someone has believed in the College enough to give us a name,” said Lily Mathison, a psychology senior, as she handed out T-shirts marking the historic event. “Viterbi has one. Marshall has one. Just saying the College makes you kind of feel left out. We’re not left out anymore.”

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