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Harvard University on Monday will outline details of the largest donation in the school’s 378-year history. The $350 million gift, in memory of a Hong Kong businessman, is to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). The school will be renamed the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“My father was a refugee who came to Hong Kong in the 1940s,” says Chan’s son, Gerald, whose mother was a public health nurse. Chan’s father spoke, before he died, about starting a school. “Because he grew up during very turbulent times in China, he never had the opportunity to go for further education, so he was very committed to enabling others to be educated,” his son says.
Gerald Chan, 63, who received his doctorate from HSPH in 1979, and who has established a presence in Harvard Square, arranged the donation through the family’s Newton-based The Morningside Foundation.
The story of what Harvard calls a transformative gift begins with a transformative event for Gerald Chan. It happened 40 years ago during a biology class Chan only took because it was required for a master’s degree in medical physics at the HSPH.
“I had hated biology, because I had a horrible biology teacher in high school,” Chan says, shaking his head. But sitting in professor Jack Little’s class, something changed. “He made biology come alive for me.”
Chan was so taken with biology that he switched majors and stayed to complete a doctorate with Little.
“Gerald and I have been very close ever since,” Little says. Chan once told Little that the five years he spent in his lab was one of the best periods of his life, “so that makes me feel good in my old age,” Little says.
Chan has donated money to establish a center and professorship in honor of his teacher, has taught occasionally at the school of public health, and serves as an adviser. He delivered the commencement address in 2012. From his early years at the school, Chan was impressed by the ways colleagues in different disciplines come together, using science to solve major health problems.
“That perspective I thought was very, very beneficial,” Chan says. “So to me, the school of public health is a very special place."
In 1986, Chan co-founded a private equity, venture capital firm, Morningside Group, that invests in telecommunications, Internet and life sciences companies in North America, Europe and Asia. Forbes lists the combined wealth of Chan and one of his brothers, largely through real estate in Hong Kong, at $3 billion.
The $350 million, an endowment gift, will help stabilize finances at the school of public health, which has relied more heavily on government and private grants than other parts of the university.
“If one said the largest gift in Harvard’s history, few people would say that it went to the school of public health,” says HSPH Dean Julio Frenk, “but that is what happened here, and I think that underscores the centrality of health.” Then, with Chan nodding, Frenk adds, “without health there is nothing.”
Improvements in public health, many developed at Harvard, are tangible, says Frenk. He mentions work done at HSPH that helped eradicate smallpox and nearly eliminate polio. Research from the school supported the Clean Air Act, lead to the designated driver program, and is linked to many improvements in nutrition and preventive health. These developments, Frenk says, have added 25 years to the average life expectancy of Americans.
“To me, that is the endorsement that this gift represents for public health, both its past accomplishments, but it’s also a statement of trust in the capacity of public health to continue to invent a better future for everyone on our planet,” Frenk says.
Return on the $350 million will be targeted at four global health problems:
1) pandemics, including the recent Ebola crisis, malaria and obesity;
2) harmful physical and social environments, including pollution, gun violence and tobacco;
3) crises, natural and man-made;
4) health systems that leave residents in need of affordable, accessible care.
More specifically, the money will be used to increase financial aid, develop a loan forgiveness program for students who work in poor areas and countries, fund the research of junior faculty members, and build tools to analyze big data.
In response to prior major gifts, critics have questioned whether Harvard, with a $32.7 billion endowment, needs any more money.
Harvard President Drew Faust says there’s a clear need for more investment in public health.
"[Public health] is not an area in which resources abound. It is an area in which need is great,” Faust says. “You saw, for example, that the [World Health Organization] was unable to respond as many hoped it might to the Ebola crisis because the world’s investment in public health has not been as robust as is needed at this particular moment.”
Interest in global and public health is surging at Harvard. Faust says 56,000 people logged on for an online course at the HSPH recently, and Frenk says it is now the most common minor degree among Harvard undergraduates.
The Chan family gift to Harvard comes at a time when giving to universities is returning to pre-recession levels. It was up 9 percent in 2013 and large gifts made up a greater share of all giving, says Ann Kaplan at the Council for Aid to Education.
2014 may be on track to set a record for so-called mega gifts. “There were 36 in 2007, just before the recession,” says John Cash, board chairman at the consulting firm Marts & Lundy. “There have been 22 already this year.” That’s 22 before Monday’s announcement at Harvard.
The $350 million tops the donation Harvard received earlier this year, of $150 million, most of which was targeted for financial aid.
This segment aired on September 8, 2014.
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