Late last week, Gerald L. Chan made Harvard history by donating a mammoth sum to what was formerly known as the Harvard School of Public Health. The $350 million sum marks the largest single donation in Harvard’s history. In recognition of this generosity, the school will be renamed the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. This will be first time a school at Harvard University has been renamed in recognition of a donation.
As with all groundbreaking events, Chan’s donation is not without controversy. In particular, there has been some concern regarding the explicit way in which the renaming rights were sold.
In reality, renaming in response to financial gifts is quite common within higher education, and is part of a long tradition at Harvard. Buildings such as Pforzheimer House and the Malkin Athletic Center have been named to honor generous donors. Johns Hopkins has the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Clare College, one of the constituents of Cambridge University in the UK, was named after its generous benefactor, Elizabeth de Clare. The renaming of the School of Public Health is no different.
Further, renaming the school seems a reasonable exchange for a historic donation that will benefit both Harvard and the broader community. Given the recent crises in public health, including the massive outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa and ongoing concerns about access to health care in America, education in public health is crucial.
The School of Public Health has historically lagged behind the College, Law and Business Schools in alumni donations, and it will be exciting to see whether Chan’s gift will encourage further donations to schools at Harvard with traditionally smaller endowments.
It is also admirable that the leadership of the School of Public Health is dedicated to using the donation to make their programs more accessible. Julio Frenk, dean of the School of Public Health, stated that relieving student debt is his “number one” priority. The generosity of Chan’s gift will hopefully allow many students—especially students of underprivileged backgrounds—to pursue careers and research in public health. Financial aid initiatives have been crucial to making Harvard a meritocratic and diverse institution. We hope that under Frenk’s guidance, Chan’s gift will make an education at the School of Public Health accessible to all.
In the end, research by students and faculty is what makes Harvard great. If alumni are willing to donate such generous amounts, Harvard’s administration is right to take note.