Old Problem, New Thinking
Just before Thanksgiving, I returned home from a three-week trip to Hong Kong and Singapore. As president of an institution whose strategic goals include producing students who are actively engaged with, and at ease in, many different countries and cultures, you could say I was trying to lead by example—or at least trying to keep up. As is always the case when I travel, this was a recruiting trip—not only for students, but for potential donors. This is the reality for modern college presidents: Ours is a job description increasingly defined by our ability to excite donors with a vision of the impact their giving will have on young people's lives.
We're off to a good start. During my first four years at Oxy, we've raised somewhere north of $65 million—the original dollar goal for the capital campaign mounted under John Slaughter. I say "we" quite deliberately, since so much of the credit belongs to my hard-working colleagues in institutional advancement, to our poised and persuasive student callers in TeleFund, and to the dedicated faculty members who pitch in as well. Despite this initial success, the real heavy lifting is ahead of us. We still have a long way to go to move Occidental's endowment up to the level where it belongs.
Anxiety over the size of college endowments is nothing new. As Bowdoin President Joshua Chamberlain wrote to a prospective donor in 1873, "for lack of anything like an adequate endowment, the College has not been able to keep pace with the advance of the times." For decades, Oxy has faced a similar situation. Our endowment has lagged behind those of our peer institutions, most notably of our traditional rival, Pomona. As the story "After the Perfect Storm" makes clear, there are a number of reasons why this is so. More recently, the picture has brightened considerably, thanks to a remarkably talented group of alumni trustees who serve on the Board's investment committee (several of whom got their introduction to investing via the Blyth Fund, our student-run investment pool). Under their expert guidance, Occidental's endowment has outperformed the national average for a decade. Yet chair Chris Varelas '85 and his market-savvy colleagues are the first to admit that we cannot invest our way to an endowment of $500 million or more—a pool of invested capital that would throw off enough income to significantly reduce the College's unhealthy dependence on tuition revenues. Simply put, we have to become better, more compelling fundraisers.
Before the market crash of 2008 slammed charitable giving nationwide, Oxy posted three consecutive record-breaking years of fundraising. As we have slowly regained our momentum, we have recognized the need to improve our basic infrastructure—from ensuring we have accurate addresses for alumni to taking a more systematic and strategic approach to identifying and cultivating potential donors. Improving alumni and parent engagement with the College is one of our chief goals. It's no coincidence that we opened the Samuelson Alumni Center last year. Shelby Radcliffe, our dynamic vice president for institutional advancement, has reorganized her office, hired a new associate vice president for alumni engagement, and successfully lobbied trustees for more personnel that will bring us more in line with the kind of resources our peers dedicate to fundraising. There's nothing flashy about these moves, nor will most members of the Oxy community likely notice. But they are essential for us to be able to step up our game.
And step up our game we must. Building the endowment through a significant increase in endowed scholarships is one of our top priorities, and a lot of work must be done to make that happen. That requires us to do more than merely ask for support. To be successful, we need to make a persuasive case that we are worthy of support, that a liberal arts education is in fact more valuable than ever in this digital age, and that Occidental's historic commitment to access—in 1916, half of Oxy's male students were working their way through school, doing everything from selling neckties to running a dairy—is still central to our mission. Larry Caldwell, our distinguished professor of politics who has often focused on budgetary issues during his almost half-century at Oxy, recently called for "new thinking and aggressive leadership" to build the endowment. That's precisely what we are providing.
Jonathan Veitch, President