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What one university in LA can teach another about investments

UCLA and USC both recently received significant donations. One will invest in faculty, and the other one will use the money for buildings and public affairs.

By Matthew E. KahnGuest blogger / March 10, 2011

Crowds gather at the University of Southern California in LA in October 2010 to see President Obama speak. Guest blogger Matthew E. Kahn writes that the university could serve as an example to UCLA of how to use donations.

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I am in Rome. The cars are small, the dog poop is on the sidewalks is large, and the air smells of diesel fuel and cigarette smoke. Traffic laws do not appear to be enforced. Noisy ambulances and car horns remind you of the cost of urban density. To a guy from West Los Angeles, these infringements add up but I'm still happy to be here. Every time I visit another nation, I consider defecting. I can't predict what decision I will make.

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Switching subjects --- UCLA and USC have a healthy ongoing competition. Just as NYU's recent rise has forced Columbia to stop being complacent and relying on its monopoly power (the only Ivy League School in the World's "greatest city"), the rise of USC will help UCLA to reinvent itself. Competition is a good thing!

It is interesting to contrast, two recent extremely generous endowment gifts to the two universities. These respective 9 figure gifts will be transformative for both universities. USC has chosen to focus its new endowment gift on improving its College of Arts and Sciences. USC appears to recognize that attracting and retaining excellent faculty is the key to a University's "brand name". All of their $200 million dollar gift will be focused on improving their faculty.

In the Case of UCLA, my school has also received an extremely generous gift. Half of this gift will help to transform the UCLA School of Public Affairs. This is a brilliant investment. The other half of the money is being allocated to building a new hotel and conference center.

While this project has potential merit, the USC vision of how to spend an extremely generous gift is much more compelling. Look at my University of Chicago. It's building (excluding the new business school) stink but it continues to be a great university. At the end of the day, a university's "greatness" is determined by who works and studies there --- the actual buildings are the icing on the cake ---- but a nice set of building does not equal "good cake".

In this case study of comparing the investment choices using the new endowment gifts, UCLA can learn from USC's wisdom.

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