Home2019-2020Issue 1Public health program receives $6 million gift

Public health program receives $6 million gift

Sophie Smith


 Willamette University has received a $6 million endowment gift to support the new public health program, helping to fund student scholarships, internship and research opportunities, events and the creation of a new program director position. FamilyCare Health and the Heatherington Foundation provided the gift in honor of Jeff Heatherington, a Willamette alumnus (‘65). 

The newly-established Public Health Ethics, Advocacy and Leadership (PHEAL) degree program offers a multidisciplinary undergraduate program that addresses contemporary and broad issues concerning healthcare and public health. 

The program draws from several disciplines and schools on campus, offering courses in the exercise and health science, sociology, environmental science and anthropology departments, among many others, as well as courses offered at the College of Law and the Atkinson School of Management. 

Sammy Basu, professor of history, humanities and American ethnic studies, and Joyce Millen, associate professor of anthropology, African studies and PHEAL, designed and developed the public health program. They did so with the help of numerous colleagues, including Peter Harmer, professor of exercise and health science. 

The $6 million gift to the PHEAL program was placed in the University endowment. Developers of the gift placed stipulations on how the money can be used, determining that only about five percent of the gift can be spent per year.

“This ensures both that the money serves purposes intended by the funders and that the money is available to serve literally a generation of future students,” said Basu.

Among those future students will be recipients of the Heatherington Scholarship. Beginning with the incoming fall 2020 class, 10 students per year will be offered the $11,500 scholarship. 

“Endowment gifts of this sort roll out over time and are crafted to ensure that their impacts are deliberate, substantial and generational,” said Basu. He also said the scholarship program will seek particularly to aid students from historically underrepresented groups.

Money from the gift will also allow Willamette to hire a program director, called the FamilyCare Pre-Health Director. Details about the position are still being determined, but the director will likely serve as an advisor and mentor for public health students. They will help establish connections with community partners and aid students as they seek to access graduate programs, internships and careers in the field. The University will likely embark on a nation-wide search to hire the director. The position may be filled within two academic years, said Basu.

The endowed gift will also help fund programming related to public health, such as program events, guest speakers and symposia. 

Professor Millen said that student involvement is imperative as the program evolves. 

“The creation of new programs, such as PHEAL, offers students opportunities to be involved in the making of a program.” She suggested students offer input about what aspects of public health they are interested in, what kind of programs they want to see and what is or is not working within the program.

“It took a lot of work to put Willamette’s program in public health in place, and there is lots of work ahead as it unfolds,” said Basu. “However, we have been really delighted by the scale and enthusiasm of student interest from the onset, and thanks to the Heatherington and FamilyCare endowment gift, we can now look forward to very substantial support for public health students to come.”

In an article by Willamette Marketing and Communications, University President Stephen Thorsett said, “This gift is an acknowledgement of Jeff’s extraordinary commitment to public health and to public health education and will benefit Willamette and our larger community for generations to come.”

Heatherington, the CEO of FamilyCare Inc., has had his conflicts with the state. In 2017, The Portland Tribune reported that the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) drafted but did not execute a plan to publicly smear the healthcare nonprofit, resulting in the resignation of then-OHA director Lynne Saxton, who is the current chair of Willamette’s Board of Trustees and a Willamette alumnus (’76). The Portland Tribune reported in 2018 that the Oregon Department of Justice launched an investigation of the operations of the Heatherington Foundation and other nonprofits affiliated with FamilyCare Inc.


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