The University of Southern California, once considered a bastion of WASP elitism, has capped a decade of transformation by naming Stanley Gold as its first Jewish board chairman.
Gold's appointment comes a decade after USC President Stephen Sample made a number of key appointments and programming moves intended to lure Jews to a campus that was once known as a haven for the city's wealthy, white non-Jewish gentry. Today, USC, nearing its 122nd birthday, is ranked as one of the most diverse and academically elite universities in the nation.
As one of the two major universities in a city with a half-million Jews, USC historically drew a disproportionately low number of Los Angeles's Jewish students, many of whom attended USC's cross-town rival UCLA.
"Gold's appointment is a very significant event for Jewish Los Angeles," said Rabbi Laura Geller, who was the director of USC's Hillel from 1976-1990. "When I first came to USC, it wasn't a place that was known for being totally receptive to Jewish students and faculty."
But, she added, "over the 14 years I was at USC, I began to see that the university took its relationship to Jewish students more seriously and its desire to include them, along with other ethnic groups, into the fabric of the university."
Gold is an investor who rose to national prominence in 1984 as a key architect of the takeover of Walt Disney Co., in which Disney's nephew, Roy Disney, gained control of the company and placed Michael Eisner in charge. He sees his chairmanship at USC as less about his Judaism than about his abilities and business acumen. Still, Gold doesn't deny that his appointment has significant symbolic value to many Los Angeles Jews.
"I think there's a lot of symbolic value to the [Jewish] community that I got chosen," Gold said, "but I was chosen because I am qualified, not because I am Jewish."
Gold gives Sample, who was president of the State University of New York at Buffalo before coming to USC in 1991, much of the credit for his own involvement in the university. Although he had been active as a university alumni since the early 1980s, Gold said he decided to take on a larger role after Sample became president.
"I saw a dramatic change," Gold said. "I became very enthusiastic. He's very inclusive of Jews, Hispanics, blacks and Asians."
Even though Los Angeles had been transformed into a multicultural city by the time Sample arrived at USC -- with Jews prominent in politics and industry -- current and former Jewish faculty and staff said they had memories of a campus that was insensitive to Jewish concerns during the 1970s. The same faculty and staff members said that the USC's reputation among Jews reached its low point during the 1930s and 1940s under the presidency of Rufus B. Von KleinSmid, who was widely regarded as a German sympathizer.
Sample said he sought to put to rest any continuing misconceptions about the Jewish population not being welcome at USC.
"Good students, good faculty, energetic alumni, a commitment to public service -- I think the Jewish community has a sense of duty of doing things for the community, and a long tradition for reverence for scholarship and academic excellence," the USC president said.
Sample's outreach efforts to the Jewish community included appointing Rabbi Susan Laemmle as dean of religious life for USC, hiring a recruiter for Jewish students in the admissions office, establishing the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life and setting up kosher dining halls.
The number of Jewish undergraduates has risen from 4 percent to as high as 8 percent, according to freshman surveys, said Mark Pavelchak, USC's director of student research and information. Hillel's "Guide to Jewish Life on Campus" says there are 2,000 Jewish undergraduates and graduates at the 28,000-student campus.
Gold, who was raised only blocks away from USC's downtown campus, was the first member of his working-class family to attend college. A graduate of the University of California who spent a year studying at Cambridge University in England, Gold returned to Los Angeles to attend law school at USC and graduated in 1967.
Gold, 59, who is married and has two adult children, is seen as a serious and decidedly liberal player in the Jewish community. A former chairman of the board of trustees of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Inistitute of Religion (HUC-JIR), Gold is an active leader of the Israel Policy Forum, which supports a secure Israel side-by-side with a Palestinian state.
As president of Shamrock Holdings, a private investment company held by Roy Disney and his family, he has turned Shamrock into one of the major U.S. investors in Israel.
Gold's election was praised by Rabbi Jonathan Klein, USC's current Hillel director and a UCLA graduate. "It definitely signifies a changing of the old guard here at the university," he said. "We are seeing the dawning of a new era in the life of USC and multiculturalism."
The new chairman was also hailed by figures outside the university. "Stan Gold's emergence into this position has been a reflection of a decades-long institutional transformation at USC, especially accelerated during Sample's administration, in which the university has embraced the talents of people from a multiplicity of groups," said Lewis Barth, the dean of the Los Angeles branch of HUC-JIR, whose campus has been adjacent to USC's since the early 1970s.