Raising the Sights

One-on-one with John C. Argue, chair of the Board of Trustees' Development Committee

John C. Argue, chair of the Board of Trustees’ development committee, discusses the success of the university’s record-breaking fund-raising effort -- as well as the new goals that lie ahead.
A highly respected attorney with Argue, Pearson, Harbison & Myers, Argue led the effort to bring the 1984 Olympics to Los Angeles, and is working to bring the games back to the city for 2012. His father, J. Clifford Argue, competed as a pentathlete in the 1924 Olympics and graduated from the USC Law School. His children, Elizabeth Argue Pollon and John M. Argue, are both USC alumni.

Passing the $1 billion mark two years ahead of schedule is an extraordinary achievement. How did USC reach this goal so early?
We owe this success to the support and efforts of many, many people. For one, President Steve Sample is doing a great job of leading the university and the campaign. He has behind him an excellent administration. Of course, we couldn’t have done it without the support of the Trojan Family -- one of the most loyal alumni bodies anywhere. Another factor was the strong economy, which made possible some extremely generous gifts.
But perhaps the most important reason for our continuing good fortune is the fact that USC is an easy product to sell. When individuals, corporations and foundations are looking to make a worthwhile investment in education or research, they find that our university is a natural choice.

The trustees have voted to increase the goal by $500 million. Why is the university setting its sights so high?
Having reached our $1 billion goal so early, we asked ourselves: Do we quit now? Or do we keep the campaign going? The board certainly didn’t want to increase the goal just for the sake of raising more money, so we went back and reviewed our original goals. Actually, our original plan called for funding in excess of $1 billion. This means that if we had reached each individual funding goal for scholarships, chairs, buildings, etc., we’d have brought in about $1.2 billion. As it is, some of the wonderful gifts we received, such as Alfred Mann’s $100 million pledge for the Mann Institute, had not been planned for. So although we have reached $1 billion, many important programs have yet to be funded.

What is your assessment of where USC stands with its endowment?
Our endowment – currently about $1.2 billion -- is totally inadequate. If you compare it with that of other elite research institutions, we come up short, especially in terms of per-student endowment.

Why is endowment so important?
Gifts for endowment are critical to the advancement of USC’s educational mission. Consider, for example, that we are competing with the nation’s finest universities for the best faculty and students. Endowed chairs, professorships and scholarships underwrite the cost of attracting this kind of talent -- for the life of the institution. Investing a gift in endowment provides permanent resources that are used over the long term to enhance programs and projects across the university. USC has come a long way in building its endowment, but we still have plenty of room for improvement.

In light of so many highly publicized multi-million-dollar gifts, why should alumni of more modest means feel compelled to support the campaign?
Just having a degree from USC should be enough to make an alumnus want to support his or her alma mater. For one, the value of that degree depends on the quality and reputation of the institution. Many influential organizations track the percentage of alumni who support their university. More magazines are joining the rankings business, and they each take alumni participation into account when determining their rankings. Also, foundations, government institutes and corporations consider alumni support in their decisions to award valuable grants and research dollars.
The bottom line is, in order for a campaign to be successful, you need money and participation. A gift of five dollars may seem small, but together many contributions of this size add up. Our success over the past few years has encouraged us to establish a new annual level of giving for the university -- $200 million. I liken this campaign’s progress to breaking 80 on the golf course. Once you have reached that superior level, you want to maintain it.

What do you see for USC’s future?
USC is part of the fabric of Southern California. For generations, it has trained the region’s professionals in every field and has turned out our business leaders. USC shouldn’t try to be Harvard. That’s not a knock against Harvard -- but we don’t want to imitate anyone. USC should continue to be USC, excelling in the many unique areas of teaching, research and commitment to the region that continue to make us stand out as an exceptional institution.

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Photograph by John Livzey

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