"And So It's Time." A Tech Donor Cements His Legacy in Southern California

  photoJS/shutterstock

 photoJS/shutterstock

After decades of giving to various causes, the 83-year-old Andrew J. Viterbi, the Italian-born American electrical engineer, businessman and Qualcomm co-founder, solidified his philanthropic legacy in his adopted home of San Diego with a $50 million gift to the University of California, San Diego to advance research, education and eye care.

"Our family has been in San Diego for 45 years. I've seen UC San Diego transform the city, the county and the southernmost region of California," said Viterbi. "I've supported universities including MIT, Technion in Israel, USC and UCLA. And so it's time for UC San Diego."

The gift, which honors Viterbi's father, the celebrated ophthalmologist Achille Viterbi, contributes to the Campaign for UC San Diego, the university’s $2 billion fundraising effort.

Studies will focus on curing glaucoma blindness, restoring vision of those blinded by retinal degeneration, and providing sight to individuals who have reversible vision loss due to cataracts or infections, among other research.

Viterbi's donation comes at a time when the fight against blindness would seem eminently winnable, given that the World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of blindness is avoidable. At the same, though, there aren't nearly as many major funders focused on preventing blindness as you might think. Very few of the largest U.S. foundations have made this a priority, and one key player in the blindness space, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, recently announced it was winding down its grantmaking here.

Related: Philanthropy vs. Blindness: What's the Latest?

"This enduring and extraordinary gift by Andrew Viterbi will be transformative," said Robert N. Weinreb, MD, chairman and distinguished professor of ophthalmology at UC San Diego School of Medicine. "It will accelerate the pace of discovery and innovation of our vision research that is focused on preventing vision loss, restoring vision, and most importantly, curing blindness."

The gift will name the Viterbi Family Department of Ophthalmology and the Viterbi Family Vision Research Center, and create six new endowed chairs for faculty.

Viterbi's giving has always been ambitious in scope, and $50 million toward a blindness cure certainly fits a larger pattern of support for big-ticket items. 

In 2004, he made a $52 million donation to the University of Southern California School of Engineering. Ten years later, Viterbi and his wife Erna followed up with $10 million for the USC Viterbi School and $5 million to USC Shoah Foundation. The former provided support for USC Viterbi’s $500 million initiative, which aimed to bolster endowment funds for faculty chairs, research, student scholarships, academic programming and capital projects.

A year later, he announced a $50 million gift to secure and enhance the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s leadership position in electrical and computer engineering in Israel and globally.

And in 2015, he pledged $20 million to his alma mater MIT, bringing the total he has committed to the institute to $30 million. "Biotech is where we are going to see the newest and most exciting innovations emerge in the coming years," he said at the time.

In 2012, Viterbi spoke to the San Diego Tribune about his philanthropy. 

"I feel I owe a lot to education," he said, "so I’ve given to middle and high schools, starting with my own, and then those of my children, who all went to public schools and universities, and my grandchildren, who are in private ones. We have given to public universities—UCSD, Berkeley’s institute for advanced mathematics—and private, too—MIT and USC. Also the health sciences in San Diego."

He was also prescient in his assessment of the larger philanthropy and political landscape.

Regarding philanthropy writ large: "The biggest problem in technology is that we don’t train enough people and we don’t have enough respect and interest in science and technology or as they call it today, STEM," he said. Donors heeded his concerns in the subsequent years: STEM giving is now one of the hottest funding areas for individual donors as well as tech and non-tech companies.

And with regard to the political landscape: "We’re still shy on talent in telecommunications and electronics in general, the internet, networking, even biotech, which is blossoming and blooming. We need to find a way for talented, foreign-born students to stay in San Diego and the U.S. once they get their advanced degrees, especially in science and engineering. We fail to give them green cards, and they go back, and it is a tremendous loss to our society and commerce."

Things have only gotten worse since those comments, following the 2016 election. 

Beyond his STEM giving, Viterbi also has a soft spot for the arts, particularly San Diego's Old Globe theater and opera, which, according to his chat with the Tribune, "comes from my Italian tradition."

The city's arts organizations could use the help.

Last year, San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer proposed slashing arts and culture funding by $4.7 million to fill an $81 million budget deficit. The city's arts stakeholders protested, and the mayor ultimately backed down. His proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1st keeps arts funding relatively stable.

This, of course, can change quickly, prompting Michael Rosenberg, managing director of La Jolla Playhouse, to note, "I think until San Diego votes for a dedicated tax for arts funding, like Denver for example, we’re unfortunately going to have to do this fight every single year."

The state of San Diego's arts ecosystem may seem slightly discursive, but it underscores the growing role of regional donors like Viterbi as government agencies dial back—or threaten to dial back—public support for arts organizations.

Viterbi isn't a Giving Pledge signee, but recent developments point to an impressive surge in giving. He's donated at least $140 million since 2014, and landed on the Chronicle of Philanthropy's Philanthropy 50 ranking of the biggest donors of the year. 

So where may his giving flow next? For an answer, we turn to Viterbi himself, and the idea that the best barometer for future giving rests in the past.

"If I were to estimate what percentage my philanthropy went to education—K-12 through graduate schools and university research—I guess it would probably be three quarters," he said in the UCSD press release.

"Education is how anyone, immigrants in particular, or a child of sharecroppers in the South, or any other modest beginning, can succeed in our society."