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Writing a Surprising Chapter in University's History

Education: Chapman's chief and a key alumnus help transform an institution that lacked money and reputation.

October 22, 2000|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — Not long ago, Chapman University was the kid snoozing in the lecture hall, unmotivated and without prospects.

If anyone outside Orange County had heard of Chapman, it was usually because of its World Campus Afloat, a cruise ship that used to take students on semester-long trips. But the ship was let go in the 1970s to help pay debts.

Without much of an academic reputation and with little money in the bank, Chapman made what was probably the biggest decision of its life: It would aspire not just to survival, but to excellence.

The little college in the middle of Orange embarked on a program of self-improvement so ambitious that it has surprised even itself. Guided by its business-minded president's calculated, sometimes controversial plan, it worked through the '90s to make itself a school that people would think of, if not first, then certainly not last.

Today it has $101 million in the bank, half a dozen new buildings, 28 endowed faculty positions--in everything from entrepreneurship to Holocaust studies--and attracts students for academics, not cruises.

Most of the credit, say observers inside and outside the university, goes to the leadership, public relations savvy and fund-raising ability generated by the partnership of two men: James Doti, Chapman's president since 1991, and a loyal alumnus, Orange County multimillionaire developer George Argyros.

Doti, 54, who trained at the University of Chicago under Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman and George Stigler, took office with an economist's analytical eye. He raised tuition, so an education at Chapman would feel as if it were worth more. He took money earmarked to attract athletes and used it instead to recruit brains. He pushed the school into specialty areas--film and law and, most recently, high-tech--that would appeal to new students and donors.

Although no one would confuse Chapman with Stanford, the University of California or the Claremont Colleges, it has gained a reputation it could only imagine a decade ago. Freshmen SAT scores have climbed in each of the last nine years, and the college just established a joint engineering/math/chemistry program with UC Irvine, a rare partnership undergraduate effort between a UC campus and a private school.

"Our newer college presidents are sort of going to school on Jim Doti," said Marty Hammer, who heads the Independent Colleges of Southern California, which includes Chapman among its 17 members. "They're watching what he has done in the last several years and saying, 'I wonder if I can do that here.' Boy, they hold him in high regard."

But improving a university, even a small one like Chapman, costs money--for faculty salaries, new buildings and financial aid. And that's where Argyros, 63, came in. The former owner of Air Cal and the Seattle Mariners baseball team has been chairman of the university's board of trustees for 25 years.

Not only has he given Chapman tens of millions of dollars, he has cajoled friends in the Orange County business community, many of them prominent Republicans like him, to donate millions.

Said Argyros: "We're all here for one reason--for future generations and to continue to grow a private university in Orange County that is different from public institutions."

Argyros brought in people such as trustee Donald P. Kennedy, chairman of First American Financial Corp., who gave $10 million for the law school building named after him, and Doy Henley, former president of the politically conservative Lincoln Club, who has given Chapman close to that amount.

Chapman has grown up on the old campus of Orange High School, where it moved in 1954 from Los Angeles. It has 3,000 undergraduate and 1,100 graduate students. Founded as Hesperian College in 1861, Chapman is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but only 5% to 10% of its students are members of the denomination.

In 1975, a year after Doti joined Chapman as an assistant professor, the college almost went under. It had debt of more than $4 million and couldn't pay its taxes. To stay open, Chapman got rid of its ship, laid off more than 5% of its employees and cut everyone's salary 10%.

"We thought the end was near," Doti recalled in an interview in his first-floor office in the center of campus. "It was touch and go."

Although Chapman stabilized its finances, its admissions policies remained a shipwreck. College counselor Cynthia Cooper said the school was so desperate in the mid-1980s that students could turn in their applications a week after school started and still gain admittance.

"We'd bring in kids who maybe had the ability to pay but weren't prepared for the rigor of the Chapman faculty," said Mike Drummy, chief admissions officer and a Chapman alumnus. "So a lot were not making it."

In 1991, the year Doti became president, the school changed its name from Chapman College to Chapman University. Attracting smarter students became the cornerstone of Doti's plan for improvement.

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