USC alumna’s transformative $15 million gift puts history department on a path to preeminence
USC Dornsife history alumna Elizabeth Van Hunnick and her family have long been USC supporters. (Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Van Hunnick.)

USC alumna’s transformative $15 million gift puts history department on a path to preeminence

Elizabeth Van Hunnick’s endowment gift, one of the largest to a university history department, is intended to support the development of more informed leaders.
ByDarrin S. Joy

A USC alumna has donated $15 million in her family’s name to the Department of History at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the single largest gift to a USC humanities department.

The landmark gift from Elizabeth Van Hunnick follows her donation in 2016 to establish the Garrett and Anne Van Hunnick Chair in European History. Combined, Van Hunnick’s gifts to the department represent one of the largest endowment contributions to any U.S. university history department.

“Elizabeth Van Hunnick’s generosity to our history department speaks to her passion for the humanities and history scholarship, as well as their importance at a research university like USC,” said USC President Carol L. Folt. “With this gift, she is ensuring new opportunities for both faculty and students whose scholarship rigorously examines and illuminates the history that shapes our communities and our world.”

In brief, the gift to USC Dornsife’s Department of History will:

  • Endow three faculty chairs
  • Establish a faculty research fund
  • Create a graduate student fellowship
  • Name the department the “Van Hunnick History Department”

The three new faculty chairs in the department will be named after Van Hunnick and her late father and sister: the Elizabeth J. Van Hunnick Endowed Chair in History; the Garrett Van Hunnick Endowed Chair in History; and the Wilhelmina Van Hunnick Endowed Chair in History.

The previously established Garrett and Anne Van Hunnick Endowed Chair in European History was named in honor of Elizabeth Van Hunnick’s late parents. It is held by Professor Anne Goldgar, an expert on the social and cultural history of early modern Europe.

“This landmark gift will not only provide essential support for our researchers to pursue cutting-edge scholarship, it will help the department become a magnet for outstanding new faculty, propelling this already strong department to a position of national preeminence,” said USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller. “It will enable our history department to broaden and deepen our understanding of the past, helping our students and society better address today’s most pressing problems. I’m incredibly grateful to Elizabeth for this extraordinary, transformative gift.”

Excellence across time and geography

Van Hunnick, an alumna of USC Dornsife’s history department and resident of San Diego County, said she hopes her gift will help elevate the department to even greater prominence and support the development of more informed leaders.

“I am encouraged by the fact that we’ll have an outstanding history department, hopefully known nationwide and attracting many prominent scholars,” she said. “That’s important because you can see what’s happening in the world today; you see leaders and politicians making the same mistakes over and over again.

“Things could be different,” she said, “if they would just look at history and understand what happened in other cultures and civilizations. You can truly learn a lot from the past.”

Jay Rubenstein, professor of history, chair of the newly renamed Van Hunnick History Department and director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Premodern World, reaffirmed Van Hunnick’s belief, noting that the “astonishing” gift will transform the department.

“The world has always been a highly interconnected place, and the story of its past is a tangled and serpentine tale,” he said. “To tell that story properly requires history departments with great geographic and chronological reach. Thanks to this gift, USC Dornsife’s history department can attain that degree of wide-ranging excellence and prepare our undergraduates to face the world with a better grasp of its complexities and challenges than ever before.”

In addition to the endowed chairs, the gift establishes a $2 million faculty research fund and a $1 million graduate student fellowship.

“Our faculty and graduate students will be able to conduct research at even higher levels of sophistication and ambition than we ever have in the past,” Rubenstein said.

Teacher and world traveler

Van Hunnick’s parents, Garrett and Anne, emigrated to the United States from the Netherlands in the 1920s and established a dairy farm business and home in Cypress, California, where their daughters, Elizabeth and Wilhelmina (Willi), were born and grew up.

Unable to pursue higher education due to the demands of their business and lives, the Van Hunnick parents instilled in their daughters the importance of learning. This ethic included university studies and extended to a broader view of the world, something the Van Hunnicks hoped to give their daughters through firsthand experiences.

“Since both my parents were born in the Netherlands, we were raised learning about European culture and history, and we traveled frequently to Europe,” Elizabeth Van Hunnick said.

Her worldly travels continued after she and her sister, who graduated with a degree in business administration from the USC Marshall School of Business, became high school teachers.

“We went on a big trip every year,” said Van Hunnick. “It was just so interesting to me. I wanted to go to these places and know about them.”

Van Hunnick journeyed to dozens of storied locations around the globe, documenting her excursions on film and sharing them in her classroom.

“I was interested in going to centers of ancient cultures,” she said, including Greece, Rome, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. “I took thousands of 35mm slides, and I would show them to my students. Or maybe the term is ‘bored them,’” she added, laughing, “but I thought it was valuable to share what I saw and learned.”

This spirit of seeking broader knowledge led to Van Hunnick’s support of USC Dornsife and the history department.

“I agree with the Greeks that in order to be a well-educated person you should study many, many different things,” she said. “It’s not just taking a course to get a job. That’s fine, but it’s important to be, I guess the old-fashioned term is ‘well-rounded.’”

William Deverell, professor of history, spatial sciences and environmental studies and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, has known Van Hunnick for years through a mutual interest in the history of Southern California. He shares Van Hunnick’s enthusiasm for a broader education and said her gift will “reverberate widely across the academy.”

“This remarkable gift shows faith in the university, in USC Dornsife, in the department and in the discipline,” Deverell said, “and it will pay intellectual and pedagogical dividends for decades to come.”

For history department chair Rubenstein, the gift is nothing short of historic.

“This moment is — and as a historian, I don’t use this term lightly — a revolution.”