Harvard Trumpets Gift, But Mutes The Details

October 2, 2014       Patrick Sullivan      

A recent $350 million donation is the largest gift ever received by Harvard University. There was a press conference that was also live streamed. But, the school really doesn’t want to answer any questions about its details.

The gift to Harvard’s School of Public Health is from the Morningside Foundation, based in Newton, Mass., and founded by the family of Harvard alum Gerald Chan. It eclipses recent gifts from Harvard alumni Kenneth Griffin ($150 million) and Hansjorg Wyss ($250 million in two gifts).

Harvard’s School of Public Health (HSPH) will be renamed the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in honor of Chan’s late father.

“This extraordinary gift from the Chan family will enable Harvard’s School of Public Health to tackle intractable health problems and to translate rigorous research into action and policy worldwide,” said Harvard University President Drew Faust via a statement. “The Chan family’s generosity sends a signal to the world: This is the public health moment. We are honored by this gift; it will inspire a new generation of public health leaders.”

The gift will be an unrestricted endowment, HSPH Dean Julio Frenk said during the press conference. “This gift will put the school on a very sound financial basis that ensures sustainability,” said Frenk. “The principal will not be spent, it will be there in perpetuity. We will reap the benefits of that investment.”

Frenk specifically called out more financial aid, a loan forgiveness program and early-stage research funding as possible uses for the gift. He also outlined four broad purviews for the gift: old and new pandemics; harmful social and physical environments; poverty and humanitarian crises; and, failing health systems. “People, pathways to ideas, and research will be the priorities of this gift,” said Frenk.

Harvard officials declined to discuss the gift any further than the announcement and the press conference, citing privacy concerns and donor confidentiality. Officials would not discuss the gift’s timeline for implementation, stewardship of and relationship building with the Morningside Foundation or more specific uses for the gift.

The Morningside Foundation’s gift was awarded in the midst of a capital campaign to support the HSPH, which began in 2013 and is part of a $6.5 billion capital campaign for the university. Officials did not respond to a request for a history of million-dollar gifts during the capital campaign.

The campaign for HSPH had an original goal of $450 million by 2018, and raised $167 million during its quiet phase, which began in 2011. As of this past May, the university-wide campaign had raised $3.8 billion in total from about 100,000 donors. Harvard officials did not respond to requests for more recent numbers.

The Morningside Foundation endowed a professorship in radiobiology at the school in 2012. The school celebrated its centennial last year.

Chan received his doctorate in radiation biology from HSPH in 1979. “On behalf of my mother and my brothers, I want to express how pleased we are that the legacy of our late father can be honored by this gift to HSPH,” Chan said. “He was a generous man who was a staunch supporter of education. He also wanted to support scientific research to alleviate human suffering. He would be very pleased with this gift today and all the good works that this gift will enable.”

Chan described how his father, a Hong Kong real estate developer who died in 1986, visited him at Harvard during the 1970s when he was a graduate student and was “awed” by the university. Chan’s mother, a registered nurse, instilled in him from a young age the value of public health by inoculating neighborhood children against cholera in the Chans’ kitchen during the 1950s, and sterilizing tableware when the family went out to dinner.

“I offer these two vignettes to show that it was sanitation and hygiene, and vaccinations that gave rise to the largest increase in life expectancy in human history,” said Chan. “Before modern medicine, public health was the chief source of human health improvement. Ironically, we’ve come full circle. I heartily echo President Faust’s statement that this is the public health moment.”

According to published reports, the Morningside Foundation donation is tied with gifts to Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University for the 10th largest gift in higher education since 1967. The top spot is shared by the Gates Millennium Scholar Program and Vedanta University in India, both valued at $1 billion.

An analysis of $1 million-plus gifts conducted in 2011 by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University (now the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy) uncovered more than 61,000 gifts valued at $1 million or more between 2000 and 2010. Higher education received about two-thirds of the gifts, and about one-quarter of the total dollars.

Another report from the Lilly Family School showed that 1,449 higher education institutions received a gift valued $1 million or more between 2000 and 2012. Donors made more than 10,000 of these gifts for a total of approximately $90 billion. Older universities and those with large endowments tended to attract more large gifts, according to the report. Harvard, founded in 1636, is both the oldest higher education institution in the U.S. and the wealthiest: its endowment was valued at $32.7 billion in 2013, followed by Yale’s $20.7 billion. NPT

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