Businessman and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has given the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health $300 million to focus on five challenges the school's experts say are contributing to a decline in Americans' life expectancy.
The gift, which coincides with the school's 100th anniversary, is the largest donation ever made to the school, and the first to focus solely on domestic health challenges, rather than the global illnesses, such as HIV and malaria, on which the school has made its mark.
The gift brings Bloomberg's total donations to Johns Hopkins institutions to $1.5 billion. The media magnate earned a bachelor's degree at the university in 1964.
The $300 million is to fund new faculty positions and fellowships, research and scholarships as part of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative.
The initiative is to target drug addiction, obesity, gun violence, adolescent health and environmental threats — challenges now understood as public health problems that are killing and sickening people around the country.
One major part of the initiative is a planned network of community groups to share data and strategies. Organizers plan to spend $100 million for 50 public health fellows from such groups to earn master's degrees in public health at the school and take what they learn back to their communities.
Their groups will become part of the network, to grow each year.
"By spreading smart public health strategies that save lives and bringing people together to try new approaches, we can make the same strides in the 21st century against health threats like air pollution, gun violence, and obesity that we did in the 20th century against polio and other infectious diseases," Bloomberg said in a statement.
University President Ronald J. Daniels said the approach could transform responses to public health challenges.
"It signifies a recognition of the monumental public health challenge we face in this country and the role the Bloomberg School of Public Health can play in addressing it," he said.
Organizers plan to spend $125 million on 25 faculty positions and research in the focus areas and $75 million to establish scholarships for those entering the school's new doctoral program in public health.
A biennial public health summit will bring fellows, faculty and partner organizations together to share findings and proposals.
While much of the research is to be done in Baltimore, organizers said, the initiative will span the country.
"We will not be able to work in all the cities in the U.S. and all the states," said Dr. Michael J. Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School. "What we hope to do is pick partners, be very effective and develop models where other cities and other states can do the same things. And by doing that have others imitate us."
Klag said recent crises nationwide, including the water contamination in Flint, Mich., and the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, have reinforced the need to address the topics that the Bloomberg School will tackle.
The initiative is to be built over time.
"These are very difficult challenges, so this isn't a project for quick fixes," said former Maryland Health Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein, who helped put together the initiative. "It is a project that will build over time and hopefully result in new understanding and solutions."
Maria DiMento, a staff writer with the Chronicle of Philanthropy, said Bloomberg seems to be alone in tying his donation to falling life expectancy in the United States.
"He's the only person who seems to be directly addressing [that] with a gift," she said. "He's really focusing on the United States when so many other big initiatives aim to tackle problems that are global."
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the investment is significant at a time when research funding is shrinking and the public health employee pool is aging.
"It is one of the few real serious investments we have had in this country to a public health school to invest in the idea of really building capacity," Benjamin said. "It will go right to the heart of some of the core problems we have in our communities."
Bloomberg served as chairman of the Johns Hopkins board of trustees from 1996 to 2000 and has chaired the Johns Hopkins Initiative fundraising campaign. The school of public health was renamed for Bloomberg in 2001, and the children's center that opened in 2012 was named for his mother.
There have been more than a half-dozen donations to universities of $100 million or more so far this year, according to DiMento, including two donations of $400 million.
"Three hundred million isn't unusual these days," she said. "But the $1.5 billion figure Hopkins says is the cumulative amount given to Johns Hopkins since [Bloomberg] graduated, I think that is unusual. I think it's probably rare that one U.S. donor has given that much money to their alma mater, but it's really difficult to get at superlatives. …
"I can say the $1.5 billion in donations is something special and unusual. It seems every few years he gives one to several hundred million to [Hopkins]."
The $300 million dwarfs gifts to other local medical institutions.
The largest gift to Sinai Hospital was in 1989, $15 million from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. In 2013, Peter Angelos announced a $2.5 million gift to MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center, the largest in the hospital's history, to open the Angelos Center for Lung Diseases.