“Life is a gift, and it offers us the privilege, opportunity, and responsibility to give something back by becoming more.” Tony Robbins
Great academic health care institutions are built on the availability of philanthropy to advance their mission through a sustained combination of support from grateful patients and grateful alumni, proud employees, and community leaders who are inspired by clinical excellence, innovative programs, and research.
Peter Buckley, MD, our new chancellor of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has firsthand experiences of the transformative power of philanthropy for the growth of public academic health care institutions like UTHSC and for their communities.
Last week, a historic $104 million transformative gift was announced by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where Dr. Buckley was dean of the School of Medicine prior to joining UTHSC earlier this month. Dr. Buckley’s leadership was acknowledged as pivotal in securing the extraordinary gift, the largest in VCU’s history, for its new Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health, which will forever change VCU School of Medicine and its already impressive research trajectory.
“This gift is the largest single gift ever for liver research, and it will advance liver research, and more broadly, translational research at VCU. This gift will also positively impact economic development in Richmond, Virginia,” Chancellor Buckley said. He also noted with pride that in 2015 another transformative gift for liver research happened right here in Memphis, when UTHSC and its partner, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, received a $40 million gift for liver transplantation clinical care and liver research led by James Eason, MD, chief of the division of Transplant Surgery at UTHSC and director of the James D. Eason Transplant Institute at Methodist University Hospital.
In 2013, while serving as the dean of the Medical College of Georgia (MCG), Dr. Buckley shepherded another transformative gift. In this instance, Harold Harrison, MD, MCG surgeon and alumnus, provided a $66 million gift to fund 48 medical student scholarships and 10 endowed chairs ($2 million each). At that time, it was the largest gift ever given to a public university in Georgia. This remarkable gift was preceded by a $10 million gift by Dr. Harrison to support a $76 million medical educational building that bears his name. These sequential gifts have forever changed the trajectory of this Southern medical school.
Chancellor Buckley is keenly aware of how scholarships are key for ensuring that students from all backgrounds can afford to pursue degrees in health care. “We need to be competitive and being competitive does not only mean offering a top-quality training, but we really want to have diverse trainees and retain a diverse workforce, so we’ve got to make sure that we have the funding support behind that,” he said.
At the VCU School of Medicine, after a Dean’s Equity Scholarship was established in 2020, the institution entered its most diverse medical school class ever. “That’s not a coincidence,” Chancellor Buckley said. “That’s all about planning and working the pipeline and providing opportunities. And so, that’s what we’ve got to do, and then if you think about doing that and a multiplier effect in communities, where communities could see the return on investment in people staying in their community because they support them on the way up, that’s the real flywheel effect of clinical workforce development, great training, great distribution in training programs across the state, and then the public and business community support to enable that. All of that going together is very powerful.”
These gifts for equity scholarships, while considerably less in amount than the other two transformative gifts of buildings and programs during Dr. Buckley’s tenure as medical dean at two prior institutions, demonstrate the fundamental principle that every gift – no matter how large or small – can be impactful and enduring. Such gifts can also demonstrate another core principle of philanthropy, that small gifts can become larger gifts over time, once the donor sees that his/her gift has had an impressive impact.
Philanthropic giving is also playing a major role now in transforming our Memphis campus, most recently with the College of Dentistry. Delta Dental of Tennessee, one of the largest institutional donors to the college, provided $6.3 million for construction costs toward the more than $45 million new Delta Dental of Tennessee Building under construction on campus and $1.4 million for equipment. Since 1997, Delta Dental, under the stellar leadership of alumnus Phil Wenk, DDS, the president and chief executive officer, has provided great philanthropic support totaling more than $16.5 million.
“This very generous support will allow us to have more space and to have state-of-the-art equipment to train the dental workforce for Tennessee and Arkansas,” Chancellor Buckley said. “In this way, philanthropic support to expand our facilities and grow our training is a win-win for the university, and ultimately, the people we serve.” It also sets a compelling example and return on investment for other institutions and individuals to follow.
“We are grateful for the many alumni and partners whose support has enabled us to provide scholarships to all of our first-year College of Pharmacy students this year,” Chancellor Buckley said. “This generosity is particularly impactful and timely now, as enrollment into pharmacy training has become highly competitive for all pharmacy colleges across the U.S.”
As UTHSC’s 11th chancellor, Dr. Buckley is the chief executive officer of the university’s statewide operation, which includes six doctoral-degree-granting health science colleges – Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Nursing, Graduate Health Sciences, and Health Professions – as well as major regional clinical health science locations in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Nashville.
Tennessee’s only public, statewide, academic health system, UTHSC and its clinical practice plans employ more than 4,000 people statewide. The university is the largest educator of health care professionals in the state, operates Tennessee’s largest residency and fellowship programs, and its faculty members are clinical care providers at major hospitals across the state. “Our mission is noble. Our mission is all the more important now, as this global pandemic amplifies the great need and enormous value the health care workforce brings to their communities,” he said.
“At UTHSC, we are proud that our home is in Memphis, yet ever cognizant that we serve all across Tennessee. Memphis is our home. Tennessee is our campus,” Dr. Buckley said.
“The opportunity to embrace multiple communities with a campus-wide strategy in Chattanooga, Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis, while actively expanding partnerships across the great state of Tennessee is tremendous,” he said. “I am very enthusiastic about realizing the tremendous potential ahead of us; particularly as this pandemic recedes and largely with generous philanthropic support from alumni, faculty, students, and friends!