True Believers: A Controversial Campus Donation and the Brave New World of Mega-Giving

UC Irvine. photo: Jim Feliciano/photo

UC Irvine. photo: Jim Feliciano/photo

There's an old Seinfeld episode in which George mocks the legitimacy of the chiropractic profession. "I was in there for two minutes. He didn't do anything. Seventy-five bucks!" he complains to Jerry.

The bit culminates when George is sitting in the waiting room for a follow-up visit. When the receptionist finally says, "Mr. Costanza? The doctor'll see you now," George turns to Jerry and sarcastically says, "Yeah... doctor."

Detractors of a massive $200 million gift last month from Susan and Henry Samueli to the University of California, Irvine, can relate to George's cynicism.

Earmarked for a new health program dedicated to integrative medicine, the gift seems, at least on the surface, like yet another higher ed mega-gift. But by promoting "unproven therapies into mainstream medicine," some established medical experts are finding a lot to dislike, suggesting that pushback to higher ed philanthropy isn't limited to millions for college marching bands or football scoreboards.

The gift is yet another example of the "earthquake in modern philanthropy" that finds billionaire mega-donors, including some with unusual views, casting a long shadow in one sector after other—and perhaps nowhere more so than in higher education. In the case of the Samuelis, the goal is nothing less than a fundamental reexamination of Western medicine and—to quote Susan—"get the world to believe" in integrative medicine "as we do."  

Let's start with the basics.

A Couple Drawn to "Entrepreneurial Ideas"

With a net worth hovering at around $3 billion, Henry Samueli is best known as one of the co-founders of Broadcom Corp. and as the outspoken owner of the Anaheim Ducks NHL hockey team. And while he may not be one of the richest people in Silicon Valley, he is among the most generous, having donated more than $280 million to various philanthropic endeavors through the Samueli Foundation and the Broadcom Foundation.

With an eye toward education, social services, Jewish causes and anti-cancer research, the Samuelis' philanthropy aims to "create societal value by investing in innovative, entrepreneurial and sustainable ideas."

The Samuelis' giving also adheres to an emerging giving trend from "tech couples." While male entrepreneurs (almost always) make the money, the collective giving is partly—or even largely—directed by their spouses. And sure enough, Susan is a lynchpin to understanding the couple's enthusiastic financial support for alternative medicine.

"Susan has completely converted me into an advocate for integrative health," Henry said while commenting on the recent gift. "When I feel a cold or flu coming on, rather than run to the doctor, I run to Susan to figure out which homeopathic remedy or Chinese herb I should be taking."

Susan earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, worked as a systems engineer for IBM, and earned a doctorate in nutrition from the American Holistic College of Nutrition. She also serves on the board at Orangewood Foundation, which provides services to some 2,000 foster youth in Orange County.

In 2001, the Samueli Foundation donated $5.7 million to establish the UC Irvine Health Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine. In an April interview with the Orange County Register, Samueli was asked, "what's next?" A renewed focus on integrative medicine, she responded. "Our next challenge is to get the world to believe in it as we do." 

A $200 million gift to a school with an integrative medicine center bearing the Samueli name should help.

"A Very Bad Thing"

The new infusion will create the Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences to "educate medical students in holistic practices as well as traditional ones, and treat patients with a wide-ranging perspective."

It all sounds innocuous enough. Who could argue with private citizens using their money to find out if such practices work, and to what extent they can be integrated with traditional medical practices?

Dr. Steven Novella and Professor Tim Caulfield, that's who.

A neurologist at Yale University and longtime critic of alternative therapies, Novella calls the gift a "very bad thing." And University of Alberta health law professor Tim Caulfield, who has debunked such therapies as “energy healing” and homeopathic bee venom, said the new school "is more of the same, and I find it very frustrating," adding, "I worry this legitimizes practices that aren’t valid." 

An article in the Los Angeles Times, channeling these views, warned: "A $200-Million Donation Threatens to Tar UC Irvine's Medical School as a Haven for Quacks."

Far be it for me to argue with medical professionals—after all, I'm a simple philanthropy blogger—but I think it's important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, here. Allocating money to fund research to, say, study the effect of mindfulness to help patients cope with stress—an idea floated in UC's press release—is quite different than throwing millions at "homeopathic bee venom" therapy.

Indeed, the Center for Integrative Medicine's director, Dr. Shaista Malik, said the center will likely phase out Chinese herbal treatments while acupuncture, which has been shown in some studies to lower blood pressure, will remain an "active area of interest."

Dr. Howard Federoff, a board-certified internist and Ph.D. who serves as CEO of UC Irvine’s health system, was also quick to defend the center's approach. "We take patient safety as our highest calling, and we will never deploy any approach—integrative or not—that put patients at risk," he said.

"No University is Going to Turn Away $200 Million"

Unmoved, Novella frames the gift as another example of billionaire donors foisting their vision on the general public by making universities—to paraphrase Vito Corleonè—an "offer they can't refuse."

"You have true believers with a lot of money trying to put their thumb on the scale to influence medicine," Novella said. "No university is going to turn away $200 million."

And so Novella's criticism underscores a far larger theme.

The point of this piece isn't to argue the merits of Chinese herbs or homeopathic remedies, but instead to reiterate ongoing themes here at IP about the "new normal," in which an ever-growing class of donors, equipped with millions, if not billions of dollars, seeks to mold key institutions and issue areas in accordance with their beliefs.

The upside of this trend is that good ideas outside the mainstream can find support. The downside is that bad ideas, ones marginalized for very good reasons, can also find support. As this trend plays out in higher eduction, it's creating more controversies like that triggered by the Samueli gift.