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Claremont McKenna gets huge donation

Philanthropist Robert Day gives $200 million to launch graduate degree program in finance.

September 27, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

In what is being described as the single largest donation to an American liberal arts college, Claremont McKenna College is announcing today a $200-million gift to establish a new master's degree in finance and to fund scholarships for undergraduates who show leadership potential.

The donation is from Robert Day, a college alumnus and trustee who is founder and chairman of the Trust Co. of the West, an investment management firm headquartered in downtown Los Angeles. Forbes magazine recently estimated Day's fortune at $1.6 billion and ranked him 297 in its listing of the 400 richest Americans.

His gift is unusual for its huge size in relation to the small college, which enrolls just 1,140 students and specializes in public policy and economics.

The gift, which has sparked some debate on campus, would create Claremont McKenna's first graduate program, a one-year master's for 50 students that would entail the hiring of eight professors. In addition, as many as 50 students from all five undergraduate schools at the Claremont Colleges consortium would be eligible for senior year grants requiring them to take courses in finance, accounting and leadership psychology.

Day said both programs, collectively called the Robert Day Scholars, would offer financial training to future leaders of business, government and nonprofits, with an emphasis on ethics. The goal is to create a cadre of young people "who show leadership and who have judgment, which is the hardest thing to find," he said Wednesday.

Day, the grandson of Superior Oil Co. founder William M. Keck, said he decided not to fund a new building on campus.

"Everybody wants their name on a building," but his goal instead was ongoing education, he said at his Figueroa Street office, which is decorated with photos of Day posing with presidents George W. Bush and Clinton and with a model of a 1950s oil rig his grandfather built in the Louisiana swamps.

Claremont McKenna President Pamela Gann expressed deep appreciation for the donation, saying the Day program would offer "the best possible curriculum, internships and leadership development for preparation to lead in a fast-changing world."

However, the gift has triggered debate on the 50-acre campus in Claremont. Some professors, while recognizing the generosity, said they worried that the money could tilt the college too much toward economics and financial studies. A letter to Gann, drafted by literature department chairman Robert Faggen and signed by other literature professors, said they are concerned that the gift will "distort the college into a single focus trade school."

Government professor Andrew Busch, who is an associate dean of faculty, said most people are grateful for the money and think it fits well with the college's overall mission. Still, he added, "Any time you have a fairly small college and receive such a large gift, there are some questions about the parts of the college that don't receive the gift and where this puts them."

Gann said she expected those concerns to ease as the faculty learns that the program would recruit undergraduates from all the consortium colleges and that students could retain their majors, such as literature. "This program is only reinforcing, from our standpoint, our commitment to liberal arts," she said.

The courses will appeal to some students who will never work in the business world, said Day. "Whether you become the great American painter or the great American writer, balancing the books and doing the rest of basic 101 accounting is valuable," he said.

Day, who earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Claremont McKenna in 1965, said he owes a lot of his business achievements to his education there. "I've been very successful and want to put it back in the system," he said.

Day long has been a major, if quiet, name in Southern California philanthropy. He oversees the W.M. Keck Foundation, a charitable organization with an estimated $1.5 billion in assets that has underwritten, among other things, the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences at the Claremont Colleges and the Keck School of Medicine at USC.

He also is a force in Republican politics. He has been a donor and economics advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He opened his Bel-Air home to a 2005 fundraiser, attended by President Bush, for the Republican National Committee.

In recent years, gifts to universities and colleges have hit stratospheric heights.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 American universities have received individual gifts of at least $200 million since 1994, and that does not include the $1 billion that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave in 1999 for minority student scholarships at many colleges.

The single largest gift to a U.S. college or university was the $600-million pledge to Caltech from Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore, his wife, Betty, and their foundation in 2001, the Chronicle stated in a recent list.

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