Should Med Schools Be Renamed for Donors?

Generic Diplomaby Danielle Ofri
New York Times

Medical journals are fairly dry reading, and it isn’t often that I come across an intriguing headline like “Green Eggs and Ham.” But there it was in a recent issue of Academic Medicine, with a story noting how Dartmouth’s medical school had been renamed in 2012 for one of the university’s most famous graduates, Theodor Geisel, or Dr. Seuss — a doctor, of course, of a different kind. Dartmouth Medical School had been rechristened the Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine, joining a growing list of medical schools that had been renamed after benefactors.

Since the authors’ earlier article on the topic in 2008, 10 more medical schools changed their names. Now 24 of the country’s 141 medical schools sport a donor’s name rather than the plain old university name. This trend is modest compared with the business schools — a whopping 80 percent are named for donors — but the pace is increasing, as are the number of eyebrows being raised.

The lead author of the article, Dr. Jay Loeffler, became interested in the topic while interviewing medical students for residency positions after the first few medical schools had changed their names. “These students were embarrassed that there was a rich person’s name on their diploma, with the university name tucked below in small print,” he said. Dr. Loeffler was concerned that medical schools were giving away their legacies — legacies often built up over a century or two — for one-time donations.

What does it actually cost to buy the name of a medical school? Ivy leagues and big ticket academic centers commanded the highest prices: The medical schools of Cornell and the University of California, Los Angeles, became the Weill Cornell Medical College and the David Geffen School of Medicine for $200 million each. East Carolina University became the Brody School of Medicine for a comparative bargain at $8 million. But the stakes just went up this fall when the Harvard School of Public Health became the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health for $350 million.

The influx of cash that comes with the benefactors’ names can certainly help expand medical and educational resources at medical schools, especially during more difficult economic times. But is there an inherent conflict of interest in renaming medical schools?

There are practical issues to consider. For instance, what if the benefactor desires a certain direction of the institution’s research, or a particular focus of medical care that may not be what’s really needed.

There are also intangible effects. Medical trainees, who are already bombarded by the pharmaceutical industry, get the clear message that everything is for sale. That same message may also be disconcerting to patients who might plausibly wonder if their medical care is in any way influenced by the institution’s fealty to the donors.

Then there is the question of how much the ideals of the benefactor must align with those of the medical school. For the greater part of the 20th century, the article’s authors noted, the Bowman Gray School of Medicine comfortably bore the name of the president of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company whose estate funded its expansion. By the 1990s, though, it became increasingly awkward to have an emblem of the leading cause of preventable death headlining an esteemed medical institution (nearly a half-million Americans per year die from tobacco). The school quietly went back to being just the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The larger issue is whether medical school names ought to be bought and sold at all, since medical schools function in the public service in a way that business schools may not. Academic medical centers traditionally offer a significant amount of medical care to underserved communities, and it is the students and residents who are the engine of this care. Moreover, residency training programs are nearly entirely financed by public funds, mainly via Medicare.

Renaming a school is different from naming a building, or an auditorium, or even a hospital. A school embodies a philosophy, a history and a spirit that is different from the physical buildings in which it is housed.

Reading these articles brought to mind the recent debate over whether Avery Fisher Hall should be renamed for a new donor with more capacious pockets. One letter writer mused whether a selfless donor might do more good by renaming the building Leonard Bernstein Hall for the person who embodied and imbued the spirit of the New York Philharmonic.

If a medical school is to be renamed, perhaps it should be named for the greatest physician or teacher who most influenced its students, rather than the person with the largest checkbook. There is no shortage of possibilities: Elizabeth Blackwell, Michael DeBakey, Benjamin Spock, C. Everett Koop, Charles Drew, Albert Sabin, Jonas Salk, Alfred Blalock, Virginia Apgar, Tinsley Harrison, to name just a few.

Interestingly, though, if you ask physicians who were their most influential teachers, they will almost always say their patients. Perhaps it should be the patients whose names are emblazoned on the hallowed portals of our nation’s medical schools.