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Wednesday, Feb 28, 2024

Doti Did It

Chapman University President James Doti is our 2015 Business Person of the Year.

He is the longest serving president in school history—he retires in August, capping a 25-year tenure that has remade a small liberal arts college into a focused university with a much more substantial profile in Orange County, Southern California and the nation.

Chapman had about 1,900 graduate and undergraduate students when Doti became president. Today it has some 8,000.

“I had a vision to build the most exciting and vibrant environment for learning we could,” Doti said.

That vision has led to many new benchmarks for Chapman, including:

• 13,670 freshman applications, up 1,867% in 25 years;

• a six-year graduation rate of 79%, double 1991 numbers;

• 418 full-time faculty compared with 105 in 1991;

• a $301 million endowment, more than 10 times that of 1991.

The school has ballooned in size from 38 acres to 90 acres and from 13 buildings to 64. Its portfolio ranges from classroom and administration buildings to single-family homes near the Orange Plaza and its quaint traffic circle. A half-dozen more buildings are set to open or are in the planning stage.

Capping the growth this year will be the debut of the Hilbert Museum of California Art opening Feb. 26 and the Musco Center for the Arts opening March 19.

Still in design and fundraising: the school’s Center for Science and Technology.

Simon Scholars

Chapman in 1991 ranked no higher than No. 49 in three U.S. News & World Report categories—Western regional schools, academic reputation, and student selectivity.

It’s now in the top 10 of each.

“We have become much more selective,” Doti said.

Students and professors—and high school applicants—had to adapt to a changing Chapman.

Doti ended the popular “Chapman Access” program for underprepared high school seniors.

“Guidance counselors were sending us the weakest students,” he said.

When Chapman works with students from underserved groups now, they’re as likely to be Simon Scholars on four-year, full-tuition scholarships funded by OC entrepreneur Ronald Simon.

Doti also ended Chapman’s Division I and II sports programs—moving $1.5 million in athletics dollars to academic-focused funding. It now plays Division III sports, for which scholarships aren’t permitted.

“We spent a lot of money, but few students participated,” he said. “Now students play sports because they love to.”

He said athletic participation has climbed from about 120 students in 1991 to about 500 today.


Chapman’s reputation changed gradually.

“It’s like climbing a mountain,” said Doti—who has climbed several of the planet’s tallest peaks. “You climb, you acclimate yourself to the new level, you climb, and you acclimate again.”

The school also has declined to enter areas that stray beyond its focus.

Doti said it once turned down a donation to start a hotel and restaurant management program.

“We decided that’s not something we can do well.”

Chapman formed a separate entity for adult education, Brandman University, and moved it to Irvine.

“We were a two-headed beast” before that, Doti said. “Schools like that tend to drift.”

The school has pushed deeper into film, health sciences, and science and technology education.

“We have a few more things up our sleeve,” Doti said.

He places the process squarely as an economics question, which is his academic background. His wife, Lynne, is also a Chapman economics professor.

Doti should be well prepared to return to the classroom after he steps down as president—he’s spent his time in the role applying the basics of his background to growing the school.

“It was about becoming an educational economist, so to speak,” he said. He looked at the numbers and where the university could have the most impact. “We signaled we were a different kind of school.”

Tough Decisions

The push to draw higher achieving students to Chapman led to a bigger campus, larger library, and more programs.

“If that’s your goal, you make the tough decisions to get there,” he said. “Everything you do each day is about that. Once you know where you’re going, the choices are easy.”

A series of five-year plans guided Chapman.

“I never thought I’d be here 25 years,” Doti said. “I thought maybe 10. But in my 10th year, we weren’t done, so we kept moving.”

The last five-year plan included terms of his eventual departure.

“Five years ago I realized I’d be turning 70, and I had to start thinking about that,” he said.

Chapman Chancellor Daniele Struppa had been at the school for five years, and Doti undertook succession planning with him, integrating Struppa’s work more and more with donors and the board of trustees.

“He’s a great scholar, nationally known,” he said. “Most importantly, he’s a good person who treats people with respect and dignity.”

The search for a replacement for Struppa—Chapman will change the job title to provost in August—also figured into the plan.


Doti joined the Chapman faculty in 1974, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, was dean of Chapman’s business school, and twice served as its acting president in the late 1980s.

He holds Chapman’s Donald Bren Distinguished Chair of Business and Economics.

“That means as much to me as being president,” he said.

The Bren chair is an endowed professorship—another category that’s grown at the school since 1991.

The school had one endowed chair when Doti became president.

He was in Rome, training for a marathon, when he wondered, “how we could hop that up more?” He came upon a series of statues along the route of a run, and the light bulb went off.

Now donors who give at least $2 million to endow a chair can also select a bust to place on campus. Donors have chosen to honor people ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. and Benito Juarez to Abraham Lincoln and Margaret Thatcher.

The school now has 60 such likenesses around campus, including one given by Doti and his wife in honor of his late mentor, Milton Friedman.

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