Prevention is the Best Medicine: Behind a Big Campus Gift for Public Health

UC San Diego. photo: Jim Feliciano/shutterstock

UC San Diego. photo: Jim Feliciano/shutterstock

In a recent piece looking at health-related capital project gifts at universities, I noted that medical institutions combining research and patient care are often well-positioned to attract donor support for major capital projects.

News involving UC San Diego provides an intriguing twist on this theory. The school has separate schools of medicine and pharmaceutical science. It also operates two major hospitals. But officials nonetheless cited a “missing piece” in the equation: a school of public health.

Enter optometric physician, inventor, and philanthropist Herbert Wertheim, who recently committed $25 million to create a public health school at UC San Diego. A portion of the Giving Pledge signee’s commitment will support UC San Diego’s research programs in areas like communicable diseases, as well as efforts to promote vaccinations and healthy eating.

UC San Diego is committing $25 million to the project and hopes to raise an additional $50 million toward the construction of a building.

Wertheim’s gift is but the latest manifestation of the health-related capital project gold rush sweeping American universities. It also represents a noticeable shift in his philanthropy. Up until now, most of his giving—over $100 million, in fact—had gone to charities in Florida.

I’ll take a closer look as to why Wertheim turned his attention west momentarily. But first, let’s briefly review plans for the university’s new school of public health.

“Unprecedented Health Challenges”

UC San Diego defines public health as “the science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through organized community efforts that ensure every citizen can achieve health and longevity.”

In a philanthropic climate increasingly influenced by the principles of effective altruism—the idea that the best metric to gauge the impact of giving is “the number of lives saved per dollar”—it’s easy to see why Wertheim agreed that a public health school devoted to preventative care was the missing piece in UC San Diego’s system.

After all, American society faces “unprecedented health challenges”—to quote UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla—including, most notably, the opioid epidemic, an area where funder support has been frustratingly lackluster. Life expectancy is actually dropping in the U.S. due to “substance abuse and despair,” according to Steven Woolf, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. Meanwhile, epidemic levels of obesity are driving a range of chronic health problems, include a sharp rise in diabetes. Health care costs are continuing to escalate while 10,000 baby boomers retire every day.

UC San Diego has been increasing its research and education efforts in the field of public health over the past several years. In 2014, the campus established the UC San Diego Institute for Public Health to unite public health-oriented activities across campus, foster interdisciplinary collaborations, and improve the health of individuals and communities.

“The most important thing we can achieve is making our communities healthier across the lifespan, and thus more productive,” the 79-year-old Wertheim said upon making his gift. “Prevention is, and always will be, the best medicine.”

Wertheim isn’t alone in his support for public health-related initiatives

A few years back, Dana and David Dornsife made a $45 million gift to Drexel's School of Public Health, now called the Dana and David Dornsife School of Public Health, to enable the school to expand and strengthen its operations across the board, particularly in urban health, an area of particular focus for Drexel.

In 2016, the Lee Kum Kee family gave Harvard $21 million to establish the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

And most recently, the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University received a $4.1 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support doctoral students from communities that are traditionally underrepresented in doctoral programs and policy development due to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other factors. 

Finally, let’s not forget about Gerald Chan, who, in 2014, made a historic $350 million gift to the School of Public Health at Harvard via his Hong Kong-based Morningside Foundation.

A Longtime Floridian Looks West

Herbert Wertheim is the inventor of UV-blocking eyeglass tints and the founder and CEO of Brain Power Incorporated, the world’s largest manufacturer of ophthalmic instruments and chemicals. Wertheim holds more than 100 patents, including the UV coating used on sunglasses. He also worked as a researcher and lecturer for decades with the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami.

Born in Philadelphia, his giving, as noted, has traditionally flowed to his adopted home state of Florida.

Wertheim and his wife Nicole move their philanthropy through the Miami-based Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Family Foundation, which was founded in the late 1970s. Miami’s Florida International University (FIU), in particular, has been a major recipient of the Wertheims’ largesse over the years.

Back in 2015, the family made a $50 million gift to the University of Florida School of Engineering, located 330 miles away from Miami, in Gainesville. While the gift was perfectly logical—Wertheim is a graduate of the school—it also suggested that after giving huge sums to FIU over the years, perhaps the Wertheims were looking to focus on other areas and regions.

Fair enough. But why San Diego?

The answer to this question underscores the fact that while fundraisers can attend training seminars, build relationships with donors over decades, and—most critically—subscribe to websites replete with incisive analysis on philanthropy trends, every now and then, gifts can appear out of the ether thanks to sheer serendipity.

A few years ago, David Brenner, the university’s vice chancellor of health sciences, met Wertheim at a social event in San Diego. The two became fast friends and stayed in close contact. The rest is philanthropic history.

“David Brenner has been a friend for five years,” Wertheim told the San Diego Tribune, “and we’ve talked about this initiative. David has just been fantastic to work with.”

This isn’t to say Wertheim’s gift was the product of total coincidence.

As a young man, he joined the Navy and went through boot camp in San Diego. His daughters live in California. And more recently, he has been involved with the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology.

Nonetheless, with a few exceptions, higher ed mega-donors are either alumni of the recipient school and/or have provided a consistent track record of smaller gifts preceding “the big one.” Given Wertheim’s extensive philanthropic footprint in Florida and the way in which he became acquainted with UC San Diego, his gift is somewhat of an outlier in terms of how mega-donors typically operate.

Wertheim’s gift came a few months after Andrew J. Viterbi, the Italian-born American electrical engineer, businessman, and Qualcomm co-founder, gave UC San Diego $50 million to advance research, education and eye care.

The Money Rolls In

Add it all up, and the university is firing on all cylinders in its $2 billion fundraising campaign, the Campaign for San Diego. The campaign’s honorary chairs will be familiar to loyal Inside Philanthropy readers. They are Joan K. and Irwin M. Jacobs, Ernest S. Rady, and T. Denny Sanford, who recently made a $30 million donation to the San Diego Zoo.

At the time of this writing, the school has raised a little over $1.7 billion from approximately 121,000 donors.

The campaign is yet another example of public universities raising mountains of cash in an era of flagging support from state legislatures.

In fact, earlier this year, UC regents, faculty, staff, and alumni lobbied for more state funding to avert a proposed 2.5 percent tuition increase. Their efforts worked. State lawmakers subsequently approved $117.5 million more than what Governor Jerry Brown initially proposed in January.

In July, UC regents approved the system’s first tuition decrease in nearly 20 years.