UCSF Looks to Better Support Students Through Philanthropy

By Dan Fost

Two man smiling while talking to each other.

Even with its research prowess and all the patients it serves, UCSF first and foremost exists to provide its students with the highest caliber of health sciences education.

“We’re here because we’re an educational institution,” says John D.B. Featherstone, MSc, PhD, dean of the School of Dentistry. “The quality of our education is excellent, and we are always striving for improvement.” 

Indeed, UCSF’s four professional schools and Graduate Division regularly rank in US News & World Report’s surveys as of the nation’s most prestigious advanced study programs in the health sciences.

As UCSF develops its 10-year financial forecast, Jeff Bluestone, PhD, executive vice chancellor and provost, reiterated UCSF’s commitment to “bringing and supporting the top caliber and diversity of students that we have across disciplines and schools.”

The recent outpouring of support for basic science education by all 20 clinical chairs at UCSF’s School of Medicine to provide $1.5 million to an endowment intended to ensure that PhD research thrives in an increasingly constricted scientific funding environment, exemplifies this commitment.

Sir Michael Moritz, KBE, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and his wife Harriet Heyman, established the $60 million UCSF Discovery Fellows Program with a gift of $30 million last fall. Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, added another $25 million in institutional funds. 

The gift recognizes the critical role doctoral students play in fueling basic biomedical research, such as cell biology, biochemistry and neuroscience, and is the largest endowed program for PhD students in the history of the 10-campus University of California. A total of 45 students were named as the first Discovery Fellows in January.

John Featherstone, Msc, PhD

John Featherstone, Msc, PhD

Elizabeth Watkins, PhD

Elizabeth Watkins, PhD

Elizabeth Watkins, PhD, dean of UCSF’s Graduate Division and vice chancellor of Student Academic Affairs, hopes more people will step up to support basic science education. She chairs the Faculty Advisory Board that serves as advocates within UCSF and to the community at large for graduate student support.

“I would love to see the social sciences come together to form a consortium for a similar fundraising mechanism to the Discovery Fellows,” she says. 

Watkins is working with David Vlahov, RN, PhD, dean of the UCSF School of Nursing, and Jaime Sepulveda, MD, MPH, MSc, DrSc, executive director of UCSF Global Health Sciences, to make this happen. 

Since taking on the position of vice chancellor of Student Academic Affairs last year in addition to her role as dean of UCSF’s Graduate Division, Watkins has been working on multiple fronts to find ways to shift resources to support education and UCSF students. Her willingness to take on the dual leadership role was itself a huge cost-saving measure that allows the University to invest more money toward education.

Watkins has her sights on several goals for the coming year that focus on offering enhanced career and professional opportunities, upgrading information technology and boosting support for students experiencing academic difficulties.

“We've done a good job with career planning and we can do even more,” Watkins says. “I’d like to expand the operation so that everybody leaves UCSF well-prepared for the job they want.”

Redefining Education Amid Challenges

Looking out how UCSF will redefine education for the future figured prominently among the big ideas discussed both in the long-term initiative called UCSF 2.0 and at the recent School of Medicine leadership retreat. UCSF has long been a leader in championing curricular reform and now sees that as an imperative to meet the evolving and complex needs of current and prospective students.

“There are some bold ideas being talked about to change the way we think about learning and training and provide information,” Bluestone says. “We are conscious of the need to innovate and be proactive in addressing the needs and desires of the next generation of students.” 

One of the thorniest issues facing current and prospective students is the rising debt of professional students in the schools of dentistry, nursing, medicine and pharmacy. 

UCSF is not alone in confronting what is now considered a national student debt crisis, as outstanding student debt in the U.S. topped $1 trillion last year. The federal government is the source and backer of most of the loans. Private loans account for about 15 percent of the market.

At UCSF, debt is highest among dental students, who graduate with an average debt of $192,000. Debt from the other professional schools can easily top $100,000 as well. 

“UCSF is losing some of the brightest students, especially underrepresented minorities, to competitor institutions because it doesn't offer merit-based scholarships,” Watkins says. 

To help provide more student scholarships, the Chancellor launched a campuswide, four-year, $100 million Education Fundraising Initiative in April 2012. This was the first initiative of its kind at UCSF, and aims to ensure that UCSF will continue to inspire future leaders in the health sciences. To date that initiative has raised nearly $88 million, with gifts from more than 4,500 donors.

Tapping into the Strength of ‘One UCSF’ 

The School of Nursing has been among the hardest hit financially at UCSF, having cut 40 percent of its faculty and more than 40 percent of its support staff, leading to a drop in students in recent years, says David Vlahov, RN, dean of the School of Nursing.

David Vlahov, RN

David Vlahov, RN


Vlahov was set to raise the fees for nursing students to help cover costs, but was halted by a mandate from Gov. Jerry Brown, who backed the tax hiking measure Proposition 30 that voters passed in 2012 to support public education. 

Vlahov is now working to make the school financially self-supporting in part by putting more nursing courses online, which would enable the school to boost enrollment. It could also increase access to education, by allowing nursing students with families and jobs to check in with their classes when it’s convenient.

To that end, the School of Nursing in January started a Master of Science Degree Program in Healthcare Administration and Interprofessional Leadership, an innovative online program that Vlahov expects to grow over the next few years.

Vlahov, an easygoing epidemiologist who joined UCSF in 2011, says the economic climate means he needs to break himself of the habit of saying “Yes” to everyone who comes to him with a request. He now keeps a red button on his desk, emblazoned with the word “No,” and when appropriate, he pushes it repeatedly, emitting a funny stream of denials of varying volume and intensity.

His gentle humor serves him well and he remains positive about the future of health sciences. Vlahov appreciates the cooperation of the other deans in working with him to address the challenges, a hallmark of UCSF’s collaborative culture. 

Joseph Guglielmo, PharmD, dean of the School of Pharmacy, says collaboration runs deep because UCSF excels when its leaders, faculty and staff, schools and medical center work together.

Joseph Guglielmo, PharmD

Joseph Guglielmo, PharmD

“It makes total sense to be ‘One UCSF,’” he says. By combining forces, each program could add a depth that would distinguish itself even more.

As competition for students and faculty grows more intense, Guglielmo says, “You have to distinguish your product.” 

He notes that the number of pharmacy schools in California alone exploded over the past 15 years, from three to as many as 14 next fall, and he points out that a School of Pharmacy that collaborates with other world-class professional schools at the same campus is a major selling point to potential students and faculty. 

A case in point is UCSF’s Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, which was created in 2010 and is the only one of its kind in the country. The program is jointly managed by the schools of medicine and pharmacy. “We take advantage of each other’s strengths to make something better,” he says. “Each school should make the whole product better,” Guglielmo says. 

Watkins agrees with this united approach. “We are very proud of the education programs and we are committed to keeping them competitive and innovative.”