Gerald Chan at UMass Chan Medical School. PHOTO: UMass Chan Medical School
Gerald Chan at UMass Chan Medical School. PHOTO: UMass Chan Medical School

Safe to say it’s been a pretty good September around the fundraising offices of the University of Massachusetts. The month started with news of a $50 million gift from alums Donna and Rob Manning (a UMass trustee). The gift is intended to curb the inequities in health that became even more starkly visible during the COVID-19 pandemic, when communities of color were slammed with a disproportionate burden of illness and fatality. Some of the money will establish an endowment at UMass Boston’s College of Nursing to diversify the nursing profession and close gaps in care; Donna Manning was an oncology nurse for three decades at Boston Medical Center.

The Mannings’ $50 million gift was by far the largest donation in the UMass system’s history—a record that held for nearly a week. On September 7, UMass announced a $175 million gift from the Chan family’s Morningside Foundation to the state university’s medical school—henceforth to be renamed the UMass Chan Medical School. The unrestricted gift will more than double the medical school’s endowment, and delighted UMass leadership has been calling it “transformative.”

“We’re going to take some time to consider what it means to have a transformative gift like this,” said Michael F. Collins, chancellor of the medical school. “We’re going to be able to recruit more renowned and innovative faculty, conduct more groundbreaking research, provide more support for highly qualified and diverse students, and be more expansive in fulfilling public service.”

The Chan family, originally of Hong Kong, have long been important benefactors in Massachusetts medical education and research. Some will remember their 2014 gift of $350 million to Harvard’s school of public health, which was then renamed the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. That gift was the largest gift in Harvard’s history, and like the UMass commitment, unrestricted. At the time, some questioned the sense of making such a large gift to Harvard, whose $41.9 billion endowment makes it the wealthiest university in America, when there remained so many other needs in higher education in Massachusetts and across America.

This new gift to UMass, on the other hand, is a big score for a public university. And Gerald Chan, who spoke for the Chan family and the Morningside Foundation, underscored that point in his published remarks about UMass donation. (The foundation is the charitable arm of the family’s Morningside venture capital and private equity group.)

“The present gift from the Morningside Foundation is intended to draw attention to the urgent need for supporting our state universities at a time when resources available to them lag far behind the resources available to the elite private universities,” said Chan, “notwithstanding the fact that it is the state universities that educate the vast majority of college students in this country. We as a society must renew our support for the public universities now.”

If the Chan family’s philanthropic gifts are important for the sheer volume of support for educational institutions like UMass and Harvard, among other giving, they are also part of a broader trend in philanthropy: the rising impact of Chinese and Chinese-American giving. A few years ago, Inside Philanthropy’s Mike Scutari wrote about a report by the Global Chinese Philanthropy Initiative, which noted particularly fast growth in the number of Chinese and Chinese-American foundations during the last two decades, with a similar rise in giving. Chief among the beneficiaries of this flow of money were American universities and colleges.

For a mega-wealthy donor or foundation to support medical institutions with big dollars is not unusual. But if Chan’s previous statements and speeches are any indication, he (and presumably others in his family) sees big gifts to educational institutions making a positive impact far beyond the immediate realm of researchers, medical professionals and their patients. In a 2016 speech at University College London, Chan discussed his vision of how the modern research university serves not just as a knowledge and research hub, but as a regional force for economic growth.

“For most of the university’s existence since the first universities were founded in the 11th century, the subjects taught were Greek and Latin, theology and the classics,” Chan said. “The modern university emerged when it turned from looking backward to looking forward, and it was the introduction of research that caused the university to make this momentous turn. Research, therefore, fundamentally changed the character of the university.”

Chan describes universities as “engines of progress” in society, with research in medicine and health making improvements to human life and driving economic growth.

“With innovations come jobs and strength of the economy. So tight is this linkage that there is now a new geography of jobs that is distinct from the former geography shaped by manufacturing and finance. Cities with strong research universities will be strong economic centers of the future… Even jobs for carpenters and taxi drivers grow at five times the rate in the brain hubs than in other cities in America.”

According to the Morningside Foundation website, significant support from the Chans has gone to research centers at other universities around the U.S. and around the world, including Emory University, the University of Melbourne in Australia, Hong Kong University, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The family has also backed other educational causes in Massachusetts, China, and other regions.