SALT LAKE CITY — A "transformational" and "historic" $110 million gift from two Eccles family foundations is expected to help the University of Utah School of Medicine become an elite educational and research institution attracting top faculty and students as well as become an answer to a growing shortage of medical professionals.
The joint gift from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation and the Nora Eccles Treadwell Foundation includes $30 million for a new home for the university's medical school in Salt Lake City to be named the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine.
It also includes $40 million for an endowment to be used for student scholarships, recruiting of top-flight faculty and building innovative medical education programs. Another $40 million will go to further research in heart disease and cardiovascular science.
"This gift is truly transformational, it's remarkable," said U. President Emerita Ruth Watkins during a ceremony to announce the gift and naming of the medical school held in the John R. Park Building on Wednesday.
The university presented benefactor Spencer Fox Eccles the first white coat embroidered with the medical school's new name and a framed set of physician's instruments, which included a stethoscope and an ophthalmoscope, which is used to examine the eyes.
The gifts represent Eccles' generous heart and vision for the university, said the university's Interim President Michael Good, who is also CEO of University of Utah Health.
"Today, we find ourselves poised to transform medical education and discovery, further expanding and improving the way we care for future generations. This gift will enable the School of Medicine to join the ranks of the nation's elite named institutions and to bring our mutual vision for the future to life," Good said.
Inspired into 'giving 110%'
Watkins said university leaders approached the Eccles family with a "bold" request for a landmark gift in support of its medical school.
"Then, something that in my experience just not ever happens happened. Amazingly, the two Eccles foundations came back to us with the decision to exceed our proposed gift amount," Watkins said.
The amount of the gift — $110 million — was selected intentionally as a nod to the long-time "giving 110%" theme at First Security Bank, led by Spencer F. Eccles until the bank's merger with Wells Fargo in 2000.
Eccles said he was "stunned," "proud" and "humbled" that an institution that does "so much good for Utahns and so many others" will bear his name.
He said the university leaders "inspired our foundations to do something unique and transformational."
The two foundations are named for his uncle George S. Eccles and his aunt Nora Eccles Treadwell, who were siblings and shared an apartment in New York City apartment while they attended college at Columbia University.
"I venture to say they would never imagine a day such as this," Eccles said, suspecting they would be "over the moon."
Students look forward to reaping benefits
Talisha Tausinga, a second-year medical student, said the Eccles foundations' "incredible gift will absolutely transform how we receive our medical education."
The groundbreaking for the medical school facility is expected to occur this fall with construction expected to take two years. But other aspects of the foundations' gift should have a more immediate impact in the form of student scholarships and the ability to recruit top researchers and medical educators.
After receiving most of her first-year medical school instruction on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic, participating via an 11-inch computer screen, Tausinga said she looks forward to more typical medical school experiences with members of her cohort, some of whom she met for the first time at Wednesday's ceremony.
"I feel like my class has been very resilient and I'm very appreciative of the school for supporting us. Most of all I'm just happy for our future. There's so many great things ahead and it's due to this gift and generous donations like that," she said.
While attending medical school during a pandemic was hardly ideal, Tausinga said it further illuminated the health disparities experienced by people of color, those in rural communities and other underserved populations, which are valuable lessons for doctors in training, she said.
Tausinga said she previously worked as a medical assistant and witnessed the challenges some patients experience accessing care.
"Something you or I might take for granted, something as simple as asking a question about a prescription, is very difficult because there is a language barrier," she said.
Hoping to alleviate shortage of doctors
One goal of the gift is to increase the number of students the university can train as physicians. Currently, the class is limited to 125 students, but the medical school is being designed to accommodate larger cohorts, said Katie Eccles, vice chairwoman of the Nora Eccles Treadwell Foundation.
Increasing the number of slots requires the approval of state lawmakers as well as the medical school's accreditors and will be gradually implemented, said Good, who is also executive dean of the medical school.
Good said the gift sets the course for the future of the medical school at a time the state needs more physicians, particularly in rural Utah.
As the only academic medical center in the Intermountain West, University of Utah Health provides patient care for nearly 10% of the geographic area of the continental United States, so its reach is regional, he said.
"This gift presents a unique opportunity: We will provide the most advanced education to raise new generations of health care professionals who will, in turn, improve health for our state and region. Our newly named school will join the ranks of the nation's preeminent named institutions. We will not just adapt to the future of medicine — we will define it," Good said in a statement.
The Eccles family foundations have a long tradition of philanthropy in Utah, particularly to public and private colleges and universities.
But the university holds a special place in Spencer Eccles' heart. It's where he met his wife of more than 54 years, Cleone Peterson Eccles, who died in 2013. Eccles said his wife's love for the University of Utah knew no bounds.
"As always, she is standing with me right now," he said.
Eccles, who grew up in Ogden, was an all-American on the University of Utah ski team and was active in Beta Theta Pi fraternity.
The self-described "Utah man" said he's marveled how the university started by Brigham Young in 1850 has evolved into a world-class institution.
"This (gift) is going to assist in that evolution. That's going to be pretty exciting for this institution," he said in an earlier interview.
Eccles said the $40 million endowment "spells opportunity" for students because it will fund scholarships.
"These students will not be building up all of that debt and they can get that education and start off on the right foot," he said.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said the ceremony was an opportunity to "celebrate the unwavering generosity of the Eccles family."
The gift will enable the university to train more health care providers to meet the needs of a growing state and also attract top students and residents.
Cox, who was born and raised in Fairview, Sanpete County, said the future Cleone Peterson Eccles grew up across the street from his grandparents' home in Fairview.
"She married this Ogden kid and we all were a little skeptical," Cox joked, adding that he was certain she would have been proud of what is the Eccles foundations' largest gift to the university's health sciences over decades of giving.
The endowment will also help the university attract world-class medical researchers and faculty who will enhance the quality of student education and advance medical science, Cox said.
A new medical school building will replace a 60-year-old facility, parts of which are not useable due to unreliable plumbing and heating systems.
"For as proud as I am of this medical school, it's hard to have a great medical school in a very tired and crumbling facility," Good said.
A new facility will enable the university to locate training programs in a single location. For example, the medical school's gross anatomy lab is in an aging building in Research Park. Patient simulators are scattered about the campus for the lack of a single training facility with rooms built to look like delivery rooms or emergency rooms.
Ayesha Patil, a fourth-year medical student at the university, grew up in Utah and plans to further her medical education in ophthalmology.
Patil said the Eccles foundations' gift "is really incredible. I mean the Eccles family is so well respected in Utah, even nationally. For them to give such a generous gift to the University of Utah, it's only going to bring the ranking and the caliber of the school and the students that come out of it that much higher."
With Utah's population expected to grow substantially over the next 50 years, the university needs more capacity to train physicians, she said.
"This gift will hopefully be able to provide scholarships for more diverse students to attend the university," she said.
The timing of the gift also holds special meaning for the Eccles family and the medical school. It comes 50 years after the opening of Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library, named for Spencer F. Eccles' father, also a gift to the university.
Since then, family and associated charitable foundations have supported the School of Medicine and health sciences in cardiovascular and genetics research, nursing, ophthalmology, orthopedics, pharmacology and critical care.