Of Milestones and Momentum
Shortly after I began my new job at Oxy, veteran politics professor Larry Caldwell told me, "No matter what we do, we seem to raise the same $12 million or $14 million each year." (Actual numbers do indeed vary, but you get the idea.) To hear a senior and well-respected faculty member lament a chronic lack of resources that limited Oxy's ambitions for years had a profound impact on me. Some may have found it discouraging. I took it as a personal challenge.
Thanks to the remarkable generosity of alumni, parents, and friends, Occidental has set a new, single-year fundraising record of $31.4 million in outright gifts and new pledges for the 2014-15 fiscal year. I will be the first to admit that there is always an element of the unpredictable in fundraising. No one could have foreseen the devastating impact the 2007 recession had on college endowments and philanthropy. Even so, over the last six years we have expanded our donor base and established a new benchmark for our expectations.
To what do we owe our success? One answer is that we have adopted a smarter, more sustainable approach to fundraising. We're better at keeping track of donors, thanking them for their support, and listening to them to get a better understanding of how to match their ideas with Oxy's needs. But these are the basic elements of any successful fundraising effort. There's something more profound at work in Eagle Rock. Put simply: Major benefactors are responding to our strategic vision, the impressive successes of our students and faculty, and a genuine sense of institutional momentum.
Recent gifts have addressed almost every aspect of the student experience on campus—on and off. Occidental now rivals Macalester and Middlebury as a leader in international relations programs, thanks to Oxy donors. New gifts have made it possible to press ahead with plans to build an innovative environmental sciences program, one that pairs the latest developments in genomics with Oxy's unique location at the nexus of ocean, mountains, and desert. Oxy students have new theater internships and the opportunity to learn directly from practicing artists, thanks to donors who have funded our artist-in-residence programs.
Donor support means students now have better access to community engagement and other programs in a centrally located and highly visible student activity center. A strong response to our vision of a revitalized athletics program means we are in striking distance of realizing a decades-old dream of a new aquatics center as well as badly needed new tennis courts. As students plan for their post-graduation careers—not just during senior year, but beginning their first year—they can now take advantage of all of the expanded resources of our new donor-funded Hameetman Career Center. And after they graduate, they will find meaningful programming and support at Oxy's 3-year-old gift-supported Samuelson Alumni Center.
As gratifying as new records may be, fundraising success means far more than bragging rights—it is critically important to Oxy's future. Higher education has traditionally been the engine for upward mobility in the United States. That promise is at risk, as income disparities grow even greater. Few issues have garnered more attention (and more concern) nationally than access to higher education. Family income has not kept up with tuition increases, while the model we use to assess financial need is broken. Nearly three-quarters of our students receive some form of scholarship aid, yet our endowment yields less than a quarter of the necessary funds to cover their scholarship support.
This past year's fundraising results mark an important milestone, and we are tremendously grateful to our donors. But this is only a first step in a longer journey. Imagine, as Larry Caldwell and his colleagues have done for so long, what Occidental could accomplish with an endowment approaching that of other top-ranked liberal arts colleges. We are committed to making that vision a reality. It's an exciting time to be at Oxy.