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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Gerald L. Chan and his brother Ronnie wrote their names in Harvard history books when they made a $350 million gift to the since-renamed Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in September—the largest single donation Harvard has ever received.
But although the Chans made history by becoming, not without controversy, the first donors to rename one of Harvard’s graduate schools, the brothers are not being nearly as stipulative with their money. The record pledge falls into the unrestricted category, giving school leadership the authority on how to disburse it. The Chans’ one requirement is that the School of Public Health does not spend the money all at once. Instead, funds will be given to the endowment over a five-year time span in order to endow the school far into the future.
Eight months after the historic gift, Harvard’s public health researchers and professors say they have not seen a significant jump in their funding, as the vast majority of the pledge remains to be disbursed. And yet even as School of Public Health Dean Julio Frenk prepares to leave Harvard to lead the University of Miami, the Chan gift, and its lack of strings and stipulations, has inspired a fresh sense of optimism at the school’s Longwood campus.
A School of Public Health alumnus with a degree in radiation biology, Gerald Chan is known, particularly in the Longwood Medical Area, as a science enthusiast.
“When I meet him for coffee, he just wants to talk about science,” said longtime faculty member and friend Myron “Max” Essex. “‘How do you make a vaccine for this, what do you think about that particular epidemic?’”
Even between his graduation and making the gift in 2014, Chan was involved at the School of Public Health, sitting on an advisory board with input on the school’s ongoing capital campaign. But since the donation, Chan has taken a backseat advising role, at least in some respects.
“[Chan] is one voice of a group of alumni that gives advice and guidance to the dean, but the dean is not bound by any advice,” said Mitchell L. Dong ’75, who also serves on the Public Health School’s campaign committee. “Having said that, [Chan] is a pretty important guy.”
Regardless of Chan’s influence, professors and administrators agree that he is not using his superstar status to sway the school’s research agenda.
“It is unusual, but I think the Chan family agreed to this because Gerald Chan, as a graduate of the school, understands the school and the value of something that is unrestricted,” School of Public Health professor Walter C. Willett said.
Recently, though, School of Public Health affiliates looked to Chan for leadership when Frenk announced his departure just seven months after the gift was announced. Chan had been enthusiastic about Frenk’s capital campaign vision, which sought to advance four major threats to public health: old and new pandemics, harmful physical and social environments, poverty and humanitarian crises, and failing health systems.
“Gerald really liked the vision that Julio had for the school,” Dong said. “He wanted to make a gift for the school and bought into the vision.”
In a speech two days after Frenk announced his departure, Chan energized a crowd of supporters and boosted morale, according to Dong.
“We just lost our leader, but Gerald is here, and he’s supporting us,” Dong said.
ON THE WAY
Though Frenk and his team have worked to allocate the money as they see fit, the pledge’s disbursement timetable means that there will be a “very gradual ramp up” in the amount of funds available, according to faculty member Meredith B. Rosenthal, who serves as an associate dean at the school.
Frenk expects the gift to generate about $15 million in revenue each year, accounting for almost 5 percent of the school’s $340 million total annual operating income “over a number of years.”
The money is coming at a good time. Since 2003, federal funding for scientific research has been put on the chopping block, particularly for the National Institute of Health, which has seen more than a 20 percent decline in its budget in the past 12 years. The Chan gift will allow the school to not only make up for some of those lost funds and stabilize the school but also relieve some of the stipulations of federal funding, Rosenthal said.
“What’s so exciting about this money is that over time it will give a lot more flexibility to future deans to enable them to look for the leading edge and encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and encourage risk-taking,” Rosenthal said.
This year, the school increased funds in “modest but meaningful” ways that targeted student financial aid and faculty support, according to spokesperson Julie F. Rafferty. Because most of the money is yet to be allocated, though, professors are making plans to improve some of their existing projects. Professor Dyann F. Wirth, who leads the Harvard Malaria Initiative, said plans to use the funds are in the works.
“We certainly are planning to have both additional students working in this area, and we are developing pilot projects that faculty from my department and from other parts of the University are working on,” Wirth said.
Until the money accrues, professors and administrators hold onto the optimism the promise of Chan’s gift brings.
“The changes are certainly more in perspective,” Rosenthal said. “We can think bigger. We can think in ways that are more creative and know that in the coming five years we will have an opportunity to do things a bit differently.”
—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.
—Staff writer Melanie Y. Fu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MelanieYFu.
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