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SDSU has raised over $750 million to benefit our students, faculty and staff. (Illustration: Courtney Harmon) SDSU has raised over $750 million to benefit our students, faculty and staff. (Illustration: Courtney Harmon)

Milestones in the March to $750 Million

The Campaign for SDSU has begun a physical and aspirational transformation.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

“Moving forward with purpose is the essence of the campaign.”

This story appears in the spring 2017 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

There’s a certain mojo on the San Diego State University campus these days. It’s a mix of pride and satisfaction at having not only achieved but surpassed a goal that the university set for itself nearly 10 years ago. 

The circular Aztec Proud logos affixed to buildings all over campus tell the story: SDSU has raised over $750 million to benefit our students, faculty and staff.

The success of The Campaign for SDSU has unified the Aztec community. Gifts from alumni, faculty, staff, friends, parents and students are helping to secure SDSU’s future and strengthen its resolve to become a top 50 public research university.

Landmarks such as the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center, the Donald P. Shiley BioScience Center, the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union and the Fowler College of Business have become magnets for alumni engagement and student pride.

Heightened aspirations

Spring 2017 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
Fall 2017 Cover of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
Shortly after President Emeritus Stephen L. Weber took the helm in 1996, university leaders began to address the importance of philanthropy to SDSU’s future. What they may not have realized was the extent to which philanthropy would transform SDSU, changing not only the physical face of the campus, but also its aspirations.

“This campaign, ultimately, is not about dollars,” said President Elliot Hirshman. “It is about the academic excellence, life-changing research, community engagement and innovative spirit that define a leading public university. Moving forward with purpose is the essence of The Campaign for SDSU.”

A massive accomplishment engaging 69,203 donors, including more than 48,000 who had never given to SDSU before, The Campaign for SDSU reached its original $500 million goal in seven years. With momentum rising, the university then set a new goal of $750 million and annual fundraising accelerated. The additional $250 million was raised in just 28 months.

Despite its success, The Campaign for SDSU did not unfold according to script. Neither this university nor any other in the California State University system had ever mounted a campaign of this magnitude, and many CSU alumni weren’t aware of the precipitous decline in state funding for higher education.

Before a comprehensive campaign could begin, the university would have to reach out to alumni and invite them back to campus. In 2003, SDSU announced plans for construction of an $11 million alumni center. It would be a meeting place and an event venue for the entire Aztec community of 350,000 alumni, faculty, staff and students.

Fundraising for the center reached the halfway mark in 2006. Just when the initiative needed a push, the “three amigos” stepped up to the plate. Robert Payne (’55), Jack Goodall (’60), and Leon Parma (’51) are alumni united by their shared Aztec history and appreciation for their SDSU education.

“At some point, you recognize that you’re very fortunate to have achieved success,” said Payne, president and CEO of Multi-Ventures Inc. “It was payback time.”

The trio’s gratitude became a conduit for their $2.7 million gift to name the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center, which opened in 2009. Inside, the Fowler Family Ballroom, the Pierce Family Foyer and Rotunda and the Art and Gwen Flaming Alumni Association Wing bear the names of other major donors to this early fundraising effort.

Landmark gifts

Two years earlier, in July 2007, SDSU had launched the silent phase of the campaign with an original goal of $500 million. As luck would have it, the U.S. housing bubble was about to burst. With property prices falling and investments eroding in value, even committed philanthropists scaled back their giving.

Enter the Lamden family in 2008 with a crucial $10 million gift, among the largest ever received by SDSU. Gertrude Lamden’s gift named the School of Accountancy for her late husband, Charles Lamden, who had been chair of accounting and the first dean of SDSU’s Fowler College of Business. A hallmark of the school is the consistent career-boosting interaction of SDSU students and faculty with accounting professionals—a model established by Charles Lamden decades ago.

The Campaign for SDSU reached $250 million in 2011. The following year, SDSU received two milestone gifts that would chart its path as a leader in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Leonard Lavin, former chair of the company Alberto Culver, endowed SDSU’s Entrepreneurship Center, expanding its scope with new initiatives such as a speaker series, an entrepreneur-in-residence program and a micro-venture fund for student startups. The center was renamed in his honor.

A gift from Irwin Zahn created the Zahn Innovation Center, home of a new commercial and social incubator to guide teams of enterprising students from concept to business plan to market. In 2015, the Zahn family, through the Moxie Foundation, funded expansion of the center and the addition of two faculty positions to integrate design thinking into the curriculum.

Raising the stakes

As the pace of fundraising accelerated in 2014, SDSU received an unprecedented gift from one of San Diego’s leading philanthropists. Conrad Prebys created a $20 million scholarship endowment to support at least 150 students annually. In gratitude, SDSU’s newest campus structure was named the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union.

Prebys’ gift was the single largest ever made to SDSU up to that point, and it put the university within reach of its $500 million fundraising target. However, campaign leaders had begun to set their sights on a more ambitious figure.

Conventional wisdom holds that successful fundraising initiatives bring in big gifts at the start. But SDSU turned that maxim on its head with the announcement in 2016 of a $25 million endowment from Ron and Alexis Fowler that pushed the campaign past its $750 million goal.

The Fowlers are among SDSU’s most committed donors. Their gifts to SDSU Athletics, the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center and the university’s first Entrepreneurial Management Center date back as far as 1986. Ron was also the inaugural chair of the Campanile Foundation, SDSU’s philanthropic auxiliary.

The Fowlers’ most recent gift creates scholarships and professorships, provides international experiences and supports expanded programming in the newly renamed Fowler College of Business. Established as a matching gift, their endowment challenges the university and its supporters to raise an additional $25 million for the college.

“If we reach the numbers that I think we can reach in a relatively short time it will be a difference maker for the college,” Fowler predicted. “And that’s what we want it to be…a launching pad for greatness.”

The Campaign for SDSU officially comes to a close on June 30, 2017, but the university’s need for philanthropic support is ongoing. State funding provides only 20 percent of annual operating expenses. Private giving is the bedrock of SDSU’s ambitions to advance academic excellence, hire and retain top-tier faculty, and develop its research agenda.

While the Aztec Proud building logos are not permanent, Aztec pride certainly is.

The Campaign for SDSU began in 2007 as an effort to generate philanthropic support for SDSU students, faculty, staff and programs. More than 70,000 donors have contributed to help SDSU surpass its campaign goal of $750 million and close in on $800 million.