Like so much west of Boston, the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester can sometimes be overlooked, despite a history of accomplishment and even a Nobel laureate.
Gerald Chan, the billionaire investor, counts himself among those who had not given much thought to UMass Medical, simply because he’s been focused on the research happening in the Boston area. But after a tour about five years ago, he came away surprised and impressed.
“I had no idea so much was going on there,” Chan said. “In terms of being noticed, it really suffers from being overwhelmed by the institutions of the Boston area.”
Chan called the school “an undervalued asset.” On Tuesday, his family’s charity, the Morningside Foundation, will announce a $175 million donation to the medical school, an infusion of funding for science and medicine amid a global pandemic and the biggest gift ever to the UMass system.
The state’s only public medical school will be renamed the UMass Chan Medical School, and its three graduate schools will be called the T.H. Chan School of Medicine, the Tan Chingfen Graduate School of Nursing, and the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
The names honor Chan’s parents: his late father, T.H. Chan; and his 101-year-old mother, Tan Chingfen, who used to work as a nurse.
Gerald Chan grew up in Hong Kong and moved to Massachusetts to attend Harvard University in the 1970s, earning master’s and doctorate degrees. He’s had a successful career as an investor in biotech ventures. His family’s wealth, though, started with his father, who built a real estate company in Hong Kong.
In 2014, the Chan family’s foundation donated $350 million to Harvard’s school of public health, renaming it for T.H. Chan. That gift was intended to help the school respond to global health threats; in light of the current pandemic, Gerald Chan called that focus “prescient.”
Harvard has a mighty endowment, valued at about $42 billion, built with gifts from wealthy benefactors. Public universities such as UMass don’t attract the same level of philanthropy as prestigious Ivy League schools, though they educate more students.
At UMass, Chan’s gift will more than double the medical school’s endowment and boost the overall university endowment of about $1 billion.
“It makes a lot of sense to support the public universities,” Chan said during an interview in Harvard Square, where he owns several properties.
“The private [universities] have such abundant resources,” he said. “On the margin, any incremental giving probably won’t mean as much as it does to the publics that are so starved for resources.”
The $175 million donation is unrestricted — Chan said he doesn’t believe donors should tell university leaders how to spend their money — so the medical school can direct it toward any number of initiatives, from attracting and retaining faculty, to providing more financial aid to increase the diversity of its student base, to expanding research programs.
“This is going to allow us to dream what our future can be like at UMass Medical School,” said Dr. Michael Collins, the school’s chancellor. “It’s an incredible statement of confidence.”
Collins said he was intrigued by Chan after reading a 2015 profile of him in the Globe Magazine and wrote a letter asking him to visit UMass Medical.
Chan said he doesn’t recall the letter but became interested in the school around the same time, learning about it from an acquaintance. Chan and Collins have been in frequent contact since then.
UMass Medical, which enrolled its first class five decades ago, has 1,300 students pursuing careers in medicine, nursing, and biomedical science. It has a particular focus on primary care, a specialty that suffers from a shortage of doctors.
Collins said the donation will help “substantially” expand enrollment.
The medical school has an annual research budget of $400 million and hosts the lab of Nobel laureate Craig Mello.
The Chan family donation comes just several days after the previous biggest gift to UMass, $50 million from Rob and Donna Manning, that aims to reduce health inequities.
“We are experiencing a transformational moment for UMass, and a seismic event that will reverberate for generations to come,” said UMass president Marty Meehan.
“This is going to have a dramatic impact on the medical school,” he said of the Chan family’s donation. “When you attract this kind of a gift, faculty from all over the world pay attention to it.”