The Daily Gamecock

USC launches $1 billion campaign

Black tie gala honors university's top donors

Throngs of the university’s top donors flocked past the recreated gates of the Horseshoe into a darkened ballroom of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center Friday night, where they were gleefully thanked for their previous donations and treated to seared French lamb chops adorned with a red wine demi-glace.

The kickoff gala for the $1 billion Carolina’s Promise capital campaign, with its setting designed by USC’s theatre department to mimic the Horseshoe, had quite the backdrop. On the wall behind the stage was a massive painting of McKissick Museum. A faithful replica of the Maxcy Monument greeted guests just inside the gates. Real trees even flanked both sides of the room, but don’t worry — USC remains committed to sustainability, and the trees will be replanted.

Of course, the actual Horseshoe isn’t normally filled with tables upon tables with individual servers, and campus meal plans don’t include black and white ribbon mousse with fresh raspberries, Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvingnon and Charles de Fere Blanc de Blancs Brut. But the guests didn’t seem to mind.

The 480 or so in attendance were treated to a night of speeches and entertainment to kick off the $1 billion crusade. The fundraising campaign is the most ambitious in the history of South Carolina higher education, and only about 36 other universities nationwide have set such a goal. In his keynote speech at the event, President Harris Pastides officially dubbed the campaign Carolina’s Promise.

Such a campaign is necessary, officials say, if USC is to continue rising in ranks despite state budget cuts.

“There is simply not enough in the state budget to fuel our ambitions, and relying on our students’ families to be the only source of new fuel through their tuition payments will disadvantage some who need a Carolina education most,” Pastides said. “So we have to rely on the support of donors who have benefitted from the University of South Carolina, and others as well.”

Donations now make up a larger portion of USC’s annual budget than state funds. At a press conference earlier Friday, Michelle Dodenhoff, vice president of development and alumni relations, said USC had set goals for one $100 million single contribution, two $50 million donations and 45 $1 million donations. The university hoped to impress such giving individuals that night.

The campaign began in July 2007 and had raised about $530 million before going public. University capital campaigns usually stay in the “silent phase” until at least half of the fundraising goal has been raised in order for the institution to gauge how large a goal can be achieved and to encourage donors that they won’t be putting their money toward an unfeasible goal. USC plans to raise the full billion by June 30, 2015.

Friday’s event was largely an in-house affair that was put on by and showcased students and alumni, Tyron McFarlan, a ’96 graduate and former ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, emceed the event. Dinobrite Productions, founded by ’11 alumni Joey Thompson and Fabio Frey, premiered its campaign video. Walsh Family Media, founded by ’88 alumnus Patrick Walsh, also premiered the national campaign kickoff video, which featured a computer-generated Cocky. The virtual national kickoff will take place in 20 cities from Sumter to Chicago on May 10.

The night also featured vignettes from students, including Elizabeth Wilson, a fourth-year quintuple business student and “business humanitarian,” who received raucous applause after saying “promise to innovate” in five different languages.

USC baseball player Michael Roth followed the tough act and ironically had a Texas Gov. Rick Perry moment while telling his story about coming through under pressure to win two back-to-back College World Series. But he recovered and slid home nicely.

“Well, you know how this story ends,” Roth said, looking at a hand covered with championship rings.

The crowd laughed and applauded.

“I walked into Spanish class and aced that final!” Roth said.

Once the program ended and the dancing and music began, the night became somewhat surreal. Simply Irresistible, the band commissioned to play the event, aptly launched into “We Are Family” and McFarlan coaxed guests into dancing as the band transitioned into the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” Student Body President Joe Wright was among the first on the floor.

A magician with a real rabbit weaved among the crowd, at one point doing tricks for a small group that included Vice President for Communications Luanne Lawrence, Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies Charles Bierbauer and Associated Press Correspondent Susanne Schafer.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin took a break from the dance floor to say whether he thought USC could hit a billion.

“Absolutely, we’re going to ring the bell,” Benjamin said. “If the university prospers, it’s an indication that the state is going to prosper. Tonight is an indicator.”

William and Lou Kennedy — who donated $30 million to the College of Pharmacy, the largest contribution to the campaign so far — said they thought Carolina was a solid investment.

“It’s like we’ve been an underdog for so many years, but I feel like now we’re at a point that the school can grow, and the school’s attracted so much attention that I think it’s an opportunity for the school to really advance into the future,” William Kennedy said.