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A Toast and a New Beginning: The Dornsife Gift

A transformative gift from Alumna Dana Dornsife MBA ’83 and her husband David brings a new name and new possibilities to the school of public health at Drexel

President John Fry, Dana and David Dornsife, Dean Ana Diez Roux
President John Fry, Dana and David Dornsife, Dean Ana Diez Roux

October 27, 2016

By Karyn L. Feiden 

The sparkling waters of San Francisco Bay and lights from the Oakland-Bay Bridge were in full view from the restaurant table where Dana Dornsife was celebrating her birthday with her husband, David. Three senior members of the Drexel University community – President John Fry; Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH, Dean of the school of public health; and Christopher Brittin, MEd, vice president of development – were with them that last day of summer 2015. Dana lifted her glass to make a toast, and then a breathtaking announcement: We intend to give Drexel University’s School of Public Health a gift of $45 million.

That decision launched a new era in the extraordinary history of the place. “It is a game changer,” declared President Fry. The school has been renamed in honor of the donors: Welcome to the Dana and David Dornsife School of Public Health.

Early Philanthropy

The Dornsifes had been generous to Drexel before. Their first gift of $2.5 million in 2011 allowed the LeBow College of Business, where Dana had graduated in 1983, to establish the Dana and David Dornsife Office for Experiential Learning. That office leverages Drexel LeBow’s expertise in experience-based education to shape the academic experience for LeBow students.

“The Dornsife Center really gave us an insight into what Drexel University was capable of.”
- Dana Dornsife

Then, in what Brittin calls “a $10 million leap of faith,” they made a commitment to establish the Dana and David Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. In 2014, after renovating three historic, but dilapidated, buildings on a 1.3 acre site, Drexel opened the resource center as a bridge between the community and the university. From dance and music classes, a community kitchen, and health and wellness programs to career services, a legal clinic, and free computer repairs, a rich array of programming for all ages is strengthening the social fabric of the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Everything we dreamt the Center could be has come true,” says Brittin. “When you build that kind of trust with people who want to make an impact in the world, they are going to be looking for the next big idea.” And indeed, the Dornsifes asked Drexel’s leadership to think about just that.

A Journey to Africa

Dana and David Dornsife have been working in Africa for decades to improve water, sanitation and hygiene, mostly through World Vision, an international agency that tackles the root causes of poverty. “Water is really life, that is as basic as it gets,” says Dana Dornsife.

In 2013, with their ties to Drexel growing closer, the Dornsifes invited Fry and Shannon Marquez, PhD, MEng, director of Global Public Health Initiatives, to accompany them on one of their frequent field trips to Ethiopia and Ghana.

“You don’t really know what the need is until you are out in the field. We want to witness firsthand the effect of our philanthropy and you can’t do that until you have spoken to the people who are benefitting from it.”
- Dana Dornsife

Marquez, who has advanced degrees in environmental engineering and public health, shares the Dornsifes’ passion for using the technical tools of the trade to improve lives. “During our field visits, I observed first-hand how their projects were providing access to clean water, improving livelihoods and health, and transforming communities.”

As their SUV bounced along rural African back roads, the Dornsifes mentioned that they had approached other American universities with the idea of engaging students in their work, but had been unable to overcome bureaucratic barriers. Marquez immediately recognized the opportunity. “That would be a great fit with our study abroad, international programs, and our focus on coop and experiential learning,” said Marquez. “Drexel can absolutely make this happen.”

The Dornsifes glanced knowingly at each other. “We were both thinking ‘here we go again,’” Dana Dornsife recalls with a laugh. This time was different. Marquez returned home and worked closely with Julie Mostov, PhD, senior vice provost for Global Initiatives, to craft a proposal designed to give students a hands-on opportunity to work on water and sanitation-related development projects. Within six months the Dornsife Global Development Scholars Program was in place. The first cohort was inaugurated with just two students, but by the fourth cohort, 20 scholars were assigned in 10 countries across Africa.

Another stepping stone of a powerful partnership was in place.

Investing in an Idea, and a Team

The Dornsifes had always thought of their global efforts in humanitarian terms, rather than as a strategy for improving population health. They gained a broader perspective in deep conversations with Ana Diez Roux, who framed public health as a bridge between the local neighborhood work and the global work they were already doing. “They started to see the connections there, rather than viewing them as two different things,” said Diez Roux. “We talked about how a gift could tie those ideas together.”

“I tried to provide a vision of public health as creating the conditions and environments and policies that allow people to be healthy.”
- Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH, Dean

Eager learners and active listeners, the Dornsifes were intrigued by the opportunity to apply the principles of public health locally, regionally and globally to create transformative change. “Public health as a formal topic was not really in our nomenclature and we have a lot to learn,” Dana Dornsife acknowledges. “But because we are hands-on people, we will learn as we go. For us, it is an education process.”

In ultimately deciding to make the naming gift, something personal was involved as well – the Dornsifes had developed great respect for Drexel’s leadership. “We understood that John Fry is not only a visionary, but he is an implementer,” says Dana Dornsife. “Ultimately, we really invested in John, Ana, and her team to get the job done. They have the audacious goal of being the trendsetter and creating a margin of excellence in public health.”