Pepperdine School of Law Announces Historic $50 Million Commitment by Alumnus Rick J. Caruso

October 23, 2019  | 5 min read

Rick J. Caruso and Tina CarusoBusiness innovator, civic leader, and philanthropist Rick J. Caruso (JD ’83) and his wife, Tina, have made a generous $50 million commitment to the Pepperdine School of Law, which will be named the Rick J. Caruso School of Law in recognition of the historic gift. The contribution, made through the Caruso Family Foundation, will expand educational access to exceptional, historically underserved student populations—a hallmark of the Caruso family’s philanthropic efforts in the Los Angeles area and beyond—as well as fuel several initiatives to strengthen the School of Law’s academic programming. In addition, Rick will partner with the School of Law to raise an additional $50 million in endowment funds over the next decade to continue and expand these initiatives to cement Pepperdine’s place among America’s leading law schools.

“The lack of affordable education in our nation and the student debt crisis is not only inhibiting underprivileged students from gaining equal opportunity to education, but also discouraging potential students from exploring careers in public service, roles that have a critical impact on society,” said Rick. “My sincere hope is that this gift will be one of the first steps towards reducing the barrier to entry for these students and will inspire the next generation of public servants.”

Founded in 1969, the School of Law has remained committed to both academic excellence and its Christian faith heritage that serves a diverse student-focused community. This gift demonstrates the Carusos’ devotion to faith-based education, especially for students who are unable to access life-changing higher education of the highest quality.

“Since 1981, the Caruso family has made extraordinary contributions to Pepperdine’s rise, especially at the School of Law, through their dedicated stewardship,” said Pepperdine president Jim Gash. “This latest gift from Rick and Tina Caruso, made possible by decades of friendship between the Carusos and Pepperdine senior leadership, namely President Emeritus Andrew K. Benton and Senior Vice Chancellor and School of Law Dean Emeritus Ronald F. Phillips, will equip the School of Law to attract extraordinary students drawn to Pepperdine’s unique mission, provide them with enhanced legal training, and launch them into impactful careers that will honor God and change lives. With the Carusos’ unwavering support and the daily work of our students, faculty, and staff, I am confident that the future of Pepperdine and the School of Law is brighter than ever.”

In 1994, Rick and Tina created the Rick J. Caruso Research Fellows Program, which supports the ongoing scholarly work of the School of Law’s faculty, and in 1998 created the Caruso Family Chair in Law. They have also established the Caruso Family Loan Forgiveness Fund—an endowed fund for graduates who are dedicated to a career in public service. To date, 70 students have received financial support through the program. This latest gift will expand the loan forgiveness program, enabling more students to pursue fulfilling careers serving the public by reducing the amount of their student debt. 

“The generosity and commitment demonstrated by Rick Caruso and his family have for decades driven the entire School of Law forward,” said Paul Caron, dean of the School of Law. “With the School of Law currently enjoying its second-highest ranking among the nation’s law schools in its 50-year history, we are well-positioned with this gift to reach even higher in the years to come.”

Supporting Underserved Communities and Individuals in Need

This gift reflects Rick’s long legacy of support and deeply held personal philosophy of giving back to organizations that are transforming lives in Southern California for children living in poverty. He is a primary benefactor to Operation Progress, which guides hundreds of at-risk students in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles to and through college, as well as Para Los Niños, which provides health care, education, and social services to Angelenos living in poverty. He has also made significant donations to other academic institutions, including St. Lawrence of Brindisi School and Verbum Dei High School—schools focused on the historically underserved area of Watts, Los Angeles—as well as the Brentwood School and Loyola High School.

Tina Caruso, Paul Caron, Alex Caruso, Rick J. Caruso“My family and I have witnessed the transformation of lives through the world-class education that I and many of my fellow students and alumni received at the Pepperdine School of Law,” said Rick, whose son, Alex (JD ’17), served as the president of the Student Bar Association as a third-year School of Law student. While at Pepperdine, Alex co-created the Student Emergency Fund, an initiative that provides financial support to law students in need of critical aid during difficult times in their lives. In 2018, the Student Emergency Fund assisted students with urgent needs related to the Woolsey Fire. “Tina and I, along with the entire Caruso family, are proud to be one part of the progress and promise that emerges from a distinguished place of higher education and endows students with life-changing opportunities.”

“Since graduating from Pepperdine Law, I have worked primarily in nonprofits, including TASSC International where I provide direct representation to asylum seekers who have been survivors of torture all over the world,” said alumna Michelle Stilwell (JD ’16). “I have always known that I would work in this sector because I am so passionate about giving back to vulnerable populations who need legal representation the most. However, because of this choice, my student loans have been almost impossible to manage and keep up with. The Caruso Loan Forgiveness Fund has allowed me to continue doing the work I love.”

A Commitment to Civic Engagement and Higher Education

Rick’s deep respect for and commitment to civic responsibility extends beyond his innovative development approach. Early in his career, he served as the youngest commissioner in the city’s history following an appointment by former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. He later served as president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, where he led the effort to overhaul the Los Angeles Police Department following an appointment by former Los Angeles mayor James K. Hahn (’72, JD ’75). In 1991, Rick and Tina founded the Caruso Family Foundation—an endeavor dedicated to supporting organizations that improve the lives of at-risk children living at or below poverty levels in need of healthcare and education.

Having served as president of the L.A. Police Commission, Rick witnessed first-hand the impact of poverty and lack of opportunity in the city of Los Angeles, as well as the power of education to combat it. “As a city, we need to come together to support underprivileged kids by giving them an education so they can succeed and give back to their own communities,” added Rick. “That’s what it means to be a community.”

Rick’s philanthropic vision has also established a broad legacy of support at institutions of higher education, particularly those programs that serve the communities whose needs align with his personal values. Beyond their decades of generosity at Pepperdine, the Caruso family has made significant contributions to the University of Southern California (USC), Rick’s undergraduate alma mater, where he currently serves as the chair of the university’s Board of Trustees and leads the advisory board of the USC Caruso Catholic Center, which opened in 2012 with support from the Caruso family. In 2015, the Carusos continued their contributions with an endowment to the university’s Keck School of Medicine, creating the USC Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology. In 2013, the Carusos dedicated the Tina and Rick Caruso Community Center at St. Monica Catholic Church.

This milestone gift comes at a propitious time for the School of Law as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. The School of Law’s renowned programs include the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, which leads the nation in conflict resolution training and has been ranked Number 1 by U.S. News & World Report among dispute resolution programs for 13 of the last 15 years; the Sudreau Global Justice Program; the Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics; the Palmer Center for Entrepreneurship and the Law; and the Rex and Carrol Parris Institute for Professional Excellence.