Harvard University is receiving the biggest gift in its history — $350 million to the School of Public Health to help fight global health threats, university officials plan to announce Monday.
The donation comes from the Morningside Foundation, the family charity of Hong Kong billionaire Gerald Chan. It will substantially bolster the endowment of one of the university’s lesser-funded schools.
“Let us hope this will be a signal to the world about how important public health is,” Harvard University president Drew Faust said in an interview. The public health field in general “has been underresourced,” she said, as evidenced by the world’s slow response to the Ebola outbreak, which has become a scourge in western Africa.
The school will be renamed the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in honor of Gerald Chan’s late father.
The gift will be added to the public health school’s endowment, which was valued at $1.1 billion in 2013, a sliver of the university’s $32.7 billion total endowment. Among the schools at Harvard, Public Health drew the smallest proportion of its budget from its endowment. Seventy percent of the school’s income has come from federal research grants, a variable and shrinking source.
By providing a reliable flow of income, the gift will enhance the public health school in several ways, said Dr. Julio Frenk, its dean.
Financial aid to students will increase, attracting a more diverse student body, including those from poor nations abroad. The school plans to start a loan-forgiveness program for those who commit to working in underserved parts of the United States or in impoverished countries.
The school will also be better positioned to recruit faculty and offer sabbaticals to younger faculty. Also, it plans to provide seed money to help professors launch research projects that they hope will later qualify for competitive federal grants.
“The Harvard School of Public Health is such a hidden gem,” said Gerald Chan. He noted that Harvard’s business and law school graduates go on to lucrative careers, enabling them to make substantial donations, while public health graduates tend to “take the oath of poverty” and pursue lower-paying work.
Chan is an exception. He earned master’s and doctorate degrees from the public health school in the 1970s but made his fortune in real estate and other investments. His family foundation previously funded a professorship at the school.
“So much good has come out of this school,” Chan said. “While medical doctors give health benefits to individual patients, public health is a field that helps to give benefit to the whole population.”
The Harvard School of Public Health, which celebrated its centennial last year, has had a role in the creation of the polio vaccine, the eradication of smallpox, the “designated driver” campaign to prevent drunken driving, the underpinnings of the Clean Air Act, and research that linked trans fats to heart disease — all among the public health advances credited with adding 25 years to Americans’ lifespan in the 20th century.
In the 21st century, the school, which enrolls 1,000 students, plans to focus on pandemics, ranging from malaria to obesity; harmful physical and social environments, such as pollution and gun violence; humanitarian crises, including poverty, war, and natural disasters; and failing health systems that make care inaccessible to many.
“As we embark on our second century,” said David Hunter, the school’s dean of academic affairs, “the world faces unprecedented, fast-growing public health threats. This gift vastly increases the odds that we can respond to them effectively.”
The gift will yield roughly $15 million a year through the endowment, adding to the school’s $300 million budget, according to Frenk. But its value is greater than the dollar amount involved, Frenk said, because the money is unrestricted and, unlike grants, not targeted to a specific project.
The school can direct the money to “its most pressing priorities. We don’t know what those will be,” he said.
Starting next year, the school will offer a master’s of public health program in which two-thirds of the coursework takes place online and in the field, enabling people to study while holding jobs.
“Today, we’re also finding ways of freeing ourselves from the constraints of physical space,” Frenk said.
A glimpse of the potential came two years ago, said Faust, when a Harvard online course in epidemiology enrolled 56,000 people around the world. “There were entire hospitals where relevant staff all got together and took it together,” Faust said. Some students organized flash mobs, using social media to gather people to do the coursework.
“It’s important to think about the School of Public Health as more than the students who are there,” Faust said.