Michelle Jacobson, Director of Development, Discusses Supporting the Success of the Cotsen Institute

If you are an archaeologist, you are familiar with analyzing the impact of variable conditions, such as the movement of people, changes in the climate, death practices, or the availability of resources. Present-day students of archaeology face their own challenges in the availability of resources, those required to support their work, whether in the field or in the laboratory. In fact, the success of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology has created a greater need than ever before for student support; a need that has been compounded by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the associated challenges of remote education, as well as the budget cuts that are anticipated to result from this.

Finding funding solutions for the Cotsen Institute to maintain its mission and priorities as one of the top archaeology graduate programs in the world is the job of Michelle Jacobson, our director of development. Although the Cotsen Institute was named after the extraordinarily generous endowment by the late Lloyd Cotsen, we have been so successful and grown so much that the original endowment is not enough to keep up with the expanding needs and challenges of the Cotsen Institute, Jacobson explained. The funding for the programs that Lloyd Cotsen originally envisioned has been robust, and the Cotsen Foundation continues to contribute to various programs.

However, “there are actually archaeologists who do not excavate anymore, and many discoveries are made in the laboratories,” according to Jacobson. The Cotsen Institute is a so-called interdisciplinary organized research unit, bringing together more than 30 UCLA faculty members from 11 departments, with a number of laboratories dedicated to research in specific geographic areas and disciplines. “What we are looking for now is permanent funding for those laboratories that serve the broadest archaeological community, such as the Digital Archaeology Laboratory, the Experimental and Archaeological Sciences Laboratory, the Ancient Agriculture and Paleoethnobotany Laboratory, and the Zooarchaeology Laboratory (the Bone Lab)” she explained.

These laboratories, several of which were created after the original Cotsen endowment, have become increasingly important for both students and faculty in helping them continue their research on finds made in the field. The work does not stop once archaeologists leave the field, as many finds must be analyzed using cutting-edge technology under the guidance of dedicated laboratory managers. Although most graduate students now cannot be in the field or teach in person, they may be doing research for faculty who have a great deal of data from years of research. “So our laboratories are a priority,” Jacobson emphasized. As an example of the laboratories reaching out during the current pandemic, she noted that Deidre Whitmore, director of the Digital Archaeology Laboratory, has put together virtual workshops in skill-building being held this summer. “So far, these workshops have been very successful and well-attended,” according to Jacobson. “Doing digital archaeology takes a lot of time, but they are making exciting advances in the laboratory.”

Cotsen Institute Director Willeke Wendrich explains that “there is a ‘laboratory fund’ in the Cotsen endowment, but it only covers materials for the two laboratories that existed a decade ago (the Zooarchaeology Laboratory and the Paleoethnobotany Laboratory,for the study of animal bones and plant remains respectively).” The model of the laboratories has changed from being regional and linked to individual faculty members, to laboratories that serve specific analytical techniques and are used by everybody: the Digital Archaeology Laboratory, the Architecture Laboratory, the “Cotsen bench” in the Pasarow Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, and the Experimental and Archaeological SciencesLaboratory. “Our most urgent needs now and in the near future are funds to cover the salaries of the laboratory directors for each of these,” Wendrich noted. The directors are those who do analysis for faculty and teach students relevant techniques; e.g., how to prepare samples for isotope analysis. They are also responsible for keeping abreast of the latest developments to make sure that this aspect of their facilities and education remains current.

With students unable to go into the field, they are dealing with the high cost of living in Los Angeles year-round, compared to spending time in the field during the summer. “We support our students by hiring them as Graduate Student Researchers, and now they need even more assistance,” Jacobson continued. “Many people do not realize that graduate students are what elevate your program. They teach. They do research. They publish. Part of our success as the Cotsen Institute is the success of these top students,” she added. Because of its unique interdisciplinary nature, the Cotsen Institute has no shortage of applicants for its program. However, “we have to stay competitive with the packages that we offer to graduate students. We have factors to consider, such as the cost of living in Los Angeles, tuition, research, and travel,” according to Jacobson.

“These endowments allow us to do a number of things,” according to Greg Schachner, chair of the Interdepartmental Program in Archaeology and associate professor of anthropology. “Most importantly, we use them for summer funding support. This enables us to compete with programs (mostly at private universities) that typically offer more generous fellowships, as well as to support our students while they are in the field. Summer support is crucial not only for enabling our students to participate in research projects all around the world, but also to pay the bills back home in Los Angeles while they are away.”

Working proactively with individual donors is a major part of Jacobson’s job as director of development. Thanks to the recent Centennial Campaign and the 50% matching fund of the Chancellor, the Cotsen Institute now has well over $1,000,000 in newly endowed funds for fellowships. “These were transformative gifts,” according to Jacobson, however, “only the interest generated by the endowments is used for students. The principal is never touched, which ensures that the endowment is in place in perpetuity and available to provide financial assistance now and in the future. Student support was a top priority, and we have made a huge dent in that need. The next priorities are endowing the laboratories,” she added.

Jacobson explained that the other half of her job is outreach and planning events. “These are all tied together because you want to try to get people interested in what the Cotsen Institute is doing. We invite the public and donors to these events, because when people are engaged, they begin to feel like part of your community. That is when they start to ask what they can do to help,” she explained. “Our donors have expertise in so many different areas,” she added. “The magic happens when the priorities of the Cotsen Institute and the interests of an individual align.” Many donors join the Friends of The Cotsen Institute, which helps address the financial priorities of the Cotsen Institute.

“We also have a very dedicated group that we call the Director’s Council. They make a three-year commitment at a minimum of $10,000 a year. We have quarterly meetings where we bring in top researchers to talk to them about the latest findings and breakthroughs in archaeology. This year the Cotsen Foundation for Advanced Research gave us a $50,000 matching grant, and the Director’s Council is helping us to raise the matching funds. So far, we have $41,500. With an additional $8,500, we will get the matching funds,” she continued.

“Hopefully in the future we will be able to create a similar board for our conservation program. Willeke (Wendrich) is very enthusiastic about better integrating conservation and archaeology, and there is now a lot of crossover. Our conservation program works very closely with the archaeology program. They are in the field with the archaeologists, and there is a great deal of interaction among the students and faculty,” according to Jacobson.

The pandemic has created many obstacles for students, faculty, and even donors. “We have no events that we can all go to. So people are not as in touch with what is going on,” she explained. “But there is still research that needs to be done and students in Los Angeles who are making discoveries in the laboratories. While we all battle this together, we could use more financial support to make sure that the hard work that is going on continues.”

To support our laboratories, research, and teaching in archaeology and conservation, or for more information, please contact Michelle Jacobson at mjacobson@ioa.ucla.edu.

Published on July 23, 2020.