Mayor Michael Bloomberg Becomes First Person to Donate $1B to a US University

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NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg
NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg
According to an AP report, New York City Michael Bloomberg has become the first person to donate more than $1 billion to a single US university. On Sunday, January 27, he made a $350 million contribution to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, bringing Bloomberg’s lifetime donations to JHU to a staggering $1.118 billion. His latest gift makes Bloomberg JHU’s “largest-ever philanthropic benefactor”, according to university officials and philanthropic tallies.

In a statement, Bloomberg said, “Johns Hopkins University has been an important part of my life since I first set foot on campus more than five decades ago.” He added that, “Each dollar I have given has been well-spent improving the institution and, just as importantly, making its education available to students who might otherwise not be able to afford it.”

During his undergraduate days at Johns Hopkins, Bloomberg worked his way through school by taking out loans and working as a parking lot attendant. After he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, his first gift to the university in 1965 was $5. Now a multi-billionaire, Bloomberg graduated from Hopkins in 1964. He earned his fortune creating the global financial services firm Bloomberg LP.

“Michael Bloomberg is a visionary philanthropist, a force for social good on the order of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Leland Stanford and our own founder, Johns Hopkins,” said Ronald J. Daniels, president of The Johns Hopkins University.

Most of the latest gift, $250 million, will go towards a variety of cross-disciplinary subjects, including research on water resources, health care, global health, the science of learning and urban revitalization. The remaining $100 million will go to need-based financial aid for undergraduate students, awarding 2,600 Bloomberg scholarships in the next 10 years.

The mayor has stayed closely involved with the university from which he graduated in 1964, including stints on its board of trustees from 1996 to 2002 and as chairman of the Johns Hopkins Initiative fundraising campaign. Among his past gifts was $120 million toward the construction of a children’s section at The John Hopkins Hospital in honor of his late mother. “This latest initiative allows us to greatly accelerate our investment in talented people and bring them together in a highly creative and dynamic atmosphere,” university President Ronald J Daniels said. “It illustrates Mike’s passion for fixing big problems quickly and efficiently.”

“I know of no other institution that can make a bigger difference in lives around the world through its groundbreaking research – especially in the field of public health,” Bloomberg also said in his statement released by the university on Saturday, January 26, according to the AP.

At Hopkins, Bloomberg transformed himself from a mediocre high-school student to a campus star, becoming the president of his fraternity, his senior class and the council overseeing Greek life, according to a report in the New York Times. “An all-around big man on campus,” as he puts it.

“It’s the first time that I ever headed something,” he told the New York Times. “The first time I got a chance to pull people together.”

The New York Times reported that Bloomberg arrived on campus as a middling high school student from Medford, Massachusetts, who had settled for C’s and had confined his ambitions to the math club. By the time of graduation Bloomberg left Johns Hopkins with a smattering of A’s and a lust for leadership.

As the mayor’s third term draws to a close, the timing of his latest donation offers a glimpse of the magnanimous philanthropy that he and his aides say is going to define the trajectory of his life after City Hall. The 70-year old mayor has pledged to give away all of his $25 billion fortune before he dies, and has built up a foundation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to implement the task.

The donations put a national spotlight on the unusually close relationship that Mayor Bloomberg shares with Johns Hopkins. According to interviews in the New York Times, the university has played an unseen role in several of his significant undertakings as mayor.

Bloomberg said in the interview that he was making his donations public to encourage greater charitable giving toward education. “In our society, we are defunding education,” he ruefully observed.

Expressing his fealty to the university in deeply personal terms, Mayor Bloomberg said in the Times interview that Johns Hopkins was a place where he could escape the boredom of Medford High School and where he discovered an urban campus of stately Georgian buildings brimming with new people and ideas.

“I just thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he said. “If I had been the son of academics,” he added, “maybe I would have been on campuses and would never have been as impressed as I was when I was here, because it’s the first time I really was walking among people who were world leaders, who were creating, inventing.”

Without the benefit of Mayor Bloomberg’s largesse over the years, Johns Hopkins as it exists today would be inconceivable. His extraordinarily large donations have fueled major improvements in the university’s reputation and rankings, its competitiveness for faculty and students, and the appearance of its campus.

Along with a cadre of personally selected architects, art consultants and landscape designers, some of Bloomberg’s donations have gone to molding the handsome brick-and-marble walkways, lamps and benches that dot the campus; along with the construction of a physics building, a school of public health, a children’s hospital, a stem-cell research institute, a malaria institute and a library wing, according to the Times report. Bloomberg has also commissioned giant art installations by Kendall Buster, Mark Dion and Robert Israel; and has financed 20 percent of all need-based financial aid grants to undergraduates over the past few years. (Even his ex-wife and in-laws make a campus cameo, on the dedication plaque for a science building he financed.)

As he walked around the campus recently, JHU’s president Ronald J. Daniels said of Bloomerg, “The modern story of Hopkins is inextricably linked to him. “When you look at these great investments that have transformed American higher education, it’s Rockefeller, it’s Carnegie, it’s Mellon, it’s Stanford — and it’s Bloomberg.”

Hopkins, in return, has become something of a brain trust for Mayor Bloomberg, shaping his approach to issues like cigarette smoking, gun violence and obesity. As a donor and as a trustee, it was faculty members at Hopkins who introduced Bloomberg to a growing body of science linking behavior and disease. Alfred Sommer, the dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health from 1990 until 2005 said, “That is when he discovered public health.”

During his days as an up and coming entrepreneur, Bloomberg was at times reluctant to finance such research, arguing that some of the most intractable health problems were best left to government. “That’s policy; that’s politics,” Sommer recalled him saying.

As mayor of New York, however, Bloomberg exerted pressure on the City Council to institute a ban on smoking in city parks, and insisted that the Board of Health require fast-food chains to post calorie counts and for restaurants to stop selling oversize sodas.

According to Sommer, “He was in a position to act on things he had once told us we really shouldn’t be bothered with. He has been the public health mayor ever since.”

While In high school in Medford, Bloomberg worked at an electronics company whose owner happened to have a doctorate from Johns Hopkins. Despite his less than stellar academic record, she urged him to apply.“ Let’s be serious — they took a chance on me,” Bloomberg said.

As an engineering major at JHU, Bloomberg transformed into a charismatic figure, eager to organize those around him. He even persuaded his fraternity brothers to pay for a chef to replace a chaotic dinnertime routine, and he doled out assignments to lab mates. “He was like the project manager, at 19 years old,” recalled classmate Jim Kelly.

While on campus, Bloomberg challenged a local judge to a public debate over his decision calling for an end of Greek life at JHU due to a large number of cases coming his way over misbehavior by Hopkins’ fraternity brothers. A healthy crowd showed up for the occasion. “Mike not only held his own,” Kelly recalled, “he beat him.”

Bloomberg’s auspicious status as the university’s top donor has afforded him tremendous sway at Hopkins, as deans routinely travel to New York to pitch him new programs and research.

Dr. Peter Agre, a Nobel-Prize winning professor at the university says that Bloomberg’s latest interest is in the field of genetically engineering mosquitoes to prevent the transmission of malaria. “He always asks about the mosquitoes,” said Dr. Agre. As such, Bloomberg has earmarked part of his donations for a temperature-controlled center to cultivate the bugs. He now speaks of “building a better mosquito.”

A large percentage of his latest donation, about $250 million, will be used to hire 50 new faculty members who will hold appointments in two departments as they pursue research in areas like the global water supply and the future of American cities and the remaining $100 million will be devoted to financial aid.

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