Could Harvard Medical School sell its naming rights for $1 billion?

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What’s the value of Harvard Medical School’s name: A billion dollars, or more?

That question is swirling around the school’s historic quad.

After Harvard broke with tradition last year and renamed its public health school in return for a billionaire’s record-setting $350 million gift, faculty members have been discussing whether Harvard Medical School should be next, according to Dr. John Rowe, chair of the Board of Fellows that advises the medical school.

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The suggestion has been met with enthusiasm — and some trepidation — from the Harvard community. Some call it a good way to catapult medical research forward and dig out of annual deficits at the medical school. Others balk at the suggestion of corrupting the world-famous Harvard Med brand by selling it to the highest bidder.

“If the school sells naming rights, it makes the school feel like it’s a football stadium,” said David Jones, a Harvard Med professor. Every time they appear in public or write a paper, he added, “everyone on the faculty, and all of the students, become an advertisement for whoever bought the naming rights.”

Rowe pointed out that many other medical schools have been renamed for donors in recent years, bringing in major philanthropic support.

“I think that’s a great idea,” he said.

Dr. Lee Nadler, Harvard Med’s dean for clinical and translational research, agreed.

“To meet our strategic vision of going forward into the future at the highest level, we need the money,” Nadler said. “We need to find a billion-dollar donor.”

Nadler pointed out one major hurdle: “There’s very few people who can give a billion dollars.”

Jones said some on the faculty are concerned about being associated with the small cast of characters who are rich enough to afford such a big donation.

“If they named it the Trump School of Medicine, half of the faculty would resign,” Jones said.

The decision to rename any Harvard school lies with President Drew Gilpin Faust and the Harvard Corporation. Faust’s office declined to say whether it would consider renaming the medical school in return for a mammoth gift.

Harvard, of course, is already named after a benefactor: John Harvard earned that distinction by donating part of his estate, worth about $2 million in today’s dollars, as well as 400 books, upon his death in 1638.

Since then, Harvard has named classrooms, auditoriums — and even a men’s bathroom — in exchange for gifts. It has stopped short of renaming its renowned business, law, and medical schools. But the recent renaming of its public health school for $350 million, followed by the engineering school for $400 million, has broken through to a new stratosphere of philanthropic giving, showing what’s possible.

The number of medical schools named after donors has shot up from 15 to at least 26 in the past seven years, according to Dr. Jay Loeffler, a professor at Harvard Medical School who published two articles on the subject. In the past two decades, donors have paid between $8 million and $225 million to name a range of public and private medical schools.

Among recent donations that prompted name changes at medical schools: David Geffen gave $200 million to the University of California, Los Angeles; the John P. McGovern Foundation gave $75 million to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; and Raymond and Ruth Perelman gave $225 million to the University of Pennsylvania.

Some of these larger donations rival naming deals for major sports arenas. For instance, TD Bank is paying $119 million for 20-year naming rights to the TD Garden, where the Boston Bruins and Celtics play. Citigroup is paying $400 million to put its name on the Mets stadium for 20 years.

While corporations typically rent stadium naming rights on an annual basis, gifts to universities are more complex. They could go toward a new building or initiative, to scholarships or specific areas of research, or — like the gift to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health — create an endowment of unrestricted money.

Loeffler, chair of the department of radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, said he’s ambivalent about the prospect of renaming Harvard Med.

“It’s a conflict of interest if somebody’s name is on it,” he said. “Are they going to have some influence on the school that they shouldn’t” — over admissions, or the type of research or clinical care that gets done?

Another concern Loeffler raised: What if the donor does something Harvard isn’t proud of? Wake Forest University dropped Bowman Gray’s name from its medical school to disassociate itself from the former tobacco executive, Loeffler wrote in an article published in the journal Academic Medicine. He suggested universities retain the right to drop the donor’s name in case of impropriety, without having to return the money.

Proponents argue that a major donation to Harvard Med would help the school’s financial situation.

Despite its worldwide reputation, and its dominance in scoring federal grants, Harvard Med has seen annual deficits of between $31 million and $45 million during each of the past three years.

“This is what you call a structural deficit,” said Rowe, a former president of Mount Sinai’s medical school in New York. He pointed to two factors: research grants don’t cover all associated expenses, and Harvard does not have clinical revenue because it doesn’t own a hospital.

“It’s an interesting situation that you have the leading medical school in the world, but these are the realities of the finances of the school of medicine,” Rowe said.

Harvard isn’t alone, according to Dr. John Prescott, chief academic officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges. “Medical schools in general are facing challenging times financially,” he said, due to declining grant money and state support.

Josh Boger, the founder and former CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals who also sits on Harvard Med’s Board of Fellows, noted another complicating factor: the medical school has failed to get a donor to name the New Research Building, the largest building Harvard has erected. Boger said it may be too late now: The building is over 12 years old. “People like to put their names on brand new buildings and brand new initiatives,” he observed.

The construction debt remains “a very big drag on the medical school finances,” he said.

Meanwhile, the school is in the midst of a $750 million fundraising campaign. Asked whether Harvard Med should seek a major renaming gift, Dr. Jeffrey Flier, the outgoing dean, said in a statement that the school is considering “a wide range of initiatives that have the potential to expand revenue, reduce expenses, and increase efficiencies.”

Boger said he sees no downside in renaming Harvard Med after a donor.

“It’s the greatest naming right opportunity in all of worldwide education,” he declared.

Boger said one thing is for sure: if Harvard renames the school for a donor, “it shouldn’t go cheap.”

Here’s another sure thing: The Harvard name would stay first — as in the Harvard Gates Medical School, or the Harvard Zuckerberg Medical School — not the other way around.

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