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Editorial: The importance of philanthropy

The University of Minnesota Medical School should pair with corporate and foundations to help fulfill its mission.
Image by Sarah Mai

If you have a son, daughter, or friend at the University of Minnesota Medical School, you know graduation is coming on Friday. It is a time to celebrate and reflect.

A lot has happened in the last year or two.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board penned compelling pieces advocating for government funding to the medical school, including paying for a much-needed new hospital to the tune of about $1 billion.

The medical school’s ambitious Dean Jakub Tolar wrote an op-ed describing concrete and intangible benefits the M Health partnership provides to Fairview (which gives a 1% annual expenditure back to the U). Sanford Health Corporation essentially threatened a hostile takeover of MHealth Fairview, which did not occur.Afterward, Gov. Tim Walz called together a commission to investigate the financial health of our academic medical system. We live in a state where healthcare access is equitable, medical graduates are mission-oriented, the state government is a functional provider of services to the population and institutions are under compromising financial pressure.

My reflection on this situation is one of gratitude for outstanding training and concern for the future. I believe obstacles to our medical training pipeline will arise. Already, our school diligently sends emails informing students working part-time during medical training that they are eligible for food stamps, while Mayo medical students hold in their wallet a Bank of America corporate card for research and career-development expenses. 

This state of affairs is not acceptable.

As a fundraiser in a previous life, I learned a three-part community engagement strategy: one that includes individuals, corporations/foundations and government support. These are the traditional categories that bring dollars to the mission of a public benefit organization.

What can we achieve?

My college alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, went from being ranked near last in terms of socioeconomic diversity in 2014 by a New York Times Report, to announcing need-blind admissions in 2021. Now, that well-funded private institution is essentially a standard-bearer by committing to graduate a more diverse group of students debt-free. Wash U did this with a promise and philanthropy, raising several billion dollars and allocating endowment gains to their commitment.

What might be lost?

In December 2023, the University announced graduates now will not even get to keep their alumni email addresses, including because of the “costs associated.” With this, alumni will all lose contact information, personal letters and a quick way to identify themselves as community members when e-mailing others at the U.

And even if we get our email addresses back, where are the Target Cancer Center, Siemens full-tuition scholarships and General Mills Professorship in Family Medicine? Today, donations total only 2.5% of the medical school’s funding. We are not engaging in philanthropy at the level our excellence deserves. Students who will serve the underserved as a calling often are rising stars from those communities themselves. If affirmative action or DEI in admissions is under attack, we need to find more resources for the populations of students who deserve a boost.

While some students scrape by, corporations in Minnesota thrive because of what the University produces.

Former Dean Dr. Deborah Powell, in 2007, had the foresight to award the rarely-conferred honorary MD to Earl Bakken, co-founder of Medtronic. Bakken invented the first battery-powered pacemaker at the U. Dr. Powell understood synergy between educational institutions, the private sector, and state government as mutually contributing partners to meet human needs. Medtronic simply would not exist without the University.

Today, we can envision a new bridge to philanthropy. That is, calling forward corporations who receive as much benefit from the University’s M Health Fairview partnership for the medical care of their employees and an environment of medicine and innovation in which companies operate profitably.

I invite Medtronic (as well as 500+ medical device and pharma corporations plus 15 Fortune 500 companies with their HQ in MN) to join an ambitious $1 billion, 5-year campaign to recruit and support the best trainees and faculty in medicine nationally. Medtronic Cardiovascular Division could make history by giving 1% of annual expenditure (about $100 million) as a tax-deductible gift to this campaign. What would the late Dr. Bakken say? In fact, the original mission statement of Medtronic he wrote begins with “To contribute to human welfare.” (Current Medtronic giving and medical school donors are reported hereA Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing is affiliated with our nursing school.)

As a nation, we are grappling with the unanswered question of what corporate civic responsibility should be. If corporations are people, in that peculiar legal abstraction, they ought to take ownership of their American and Minnesota citizenship by contributing from deeper pockets to institutions that support their company home – a home where, I promise, you have a friend and advocate in the community of the medical school, dedicating our lives to service in healthcare.

Zachary M. Linneman is a graduating medical student at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

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