Physician, Fund Thy Alma Mater: Behind the Only Medical School Named After an Alumnus

The University of Vermont recently announced an estate commitment with an estimated current market value of $66 million from UVM dual-degree alum and Vermont native Robert Larner '39, M.D.'42, and his wife, Helen. 

If the gift sounds rather impressive—and dare we say, "historic"—that's because it is. In fact, its doubly historic. First, it's the largest gift ever to a public university in New England, a region known for its wealth, vast alumni donor networks, and esteemed public schools. Secondly—and somewhat surprisingly—the gift marks the first occasion in the United States for which a medical school is named to honor an alumnus physician and donor. 

It's worth a deeper dive, don't you think?

And when I say deep, I mean go-back-in-time-to-when-FDR-was-president deep. Larner grew up in Burlington during the Great Depression and attended UVM in part thanks to a scholarship he received when he won the state debate championship. After graduating from the UVM College of Medicine, he served in World War II, settled in the Los Angeles area to build a successful medical practice, and invested in the burgeoning Southern California commercial real estate market.

But much like say, David Geffen, another "Prodigal Philanthropist" who left the east coast for riches in Southern California, Larner never forgot his roots. "I give to the University of Vermont College of Medicine because the education I received here made everything great that followed in my life possible," he said. Indeed, when you factor in Robert and Helen Larner's new commitment, their lifetime giving now stands at a staggering $100 million—$95 million in the last 11 months alone.

As for the mechanics of the recent commitment, according to the University of Vermont, once the Larners' bequest is realized, approximately 95 percent of their lifetime giving will be secured endowment funding, so their giving will generate roughly $4 million annually to ensure that the renamed Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine remains "at the forefront of medical education for generations to come."

To that end, Larner's gift comes as the college has been migrating away from lecture-based courses and more towards team-based learning, simulation, flipped classrooms, and other engaged learning activities—a "hospital" teaching model that, interestingly enough, grantmakers like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have been pushing in areas as diverse as journalism schools. Clearly Larner approved of this transition.

Larner's gift also coincides with the University of Vermont's Move Mountains: The Campaign for The University of Vermont fundraising drive. Launched in 2015, it has raised $375 million of the $500 million goal to support four key areas: student access and affordability, faculty endowments, new and renovated facilities, and academic programs. 

The timing couldn't have been better. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, per-student funding for Vermont’s public colleges and universities is 16% below 2008 levels. What's more, since 2008, average tuition in state is up by $3,008 for four-year public colleges and universities across the state.

In related news, I encourage you to head 375 miles west (via I-90) to Buffalo, where the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences recently received a $30 million gift from Jeremy M. Jacobs, his wife Margaret, and their family. The gift will support "innovative medical education and research programs, student scholarships and construction of a state-of-the-art medical school building in downtown Buffalo." In recognition of the gift, the UB medical school will become the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.