Dr. & Mrs. P. Roy Vagelos, Simple Philosophy: Give Back

Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and his wife, Diana. (Photo by TNH/Costas Bej)

NEW YORK – Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana Vagelos have a simple philosophy that governs their philanthropic generosity,the pure notion of “giving back.”

“We spontaneously without any plans decided that our contributions will be to those organizations that supported us – the University of Pennsylvania, Barnard College, and Columbia University,” Dr. Vagelos said and in that sense, without having been conscious of it, he did what his parents did by supporting the school in his father’s home town of Erisos in Mytilene.

They are literally giving back to those places that were important in their lives, but there is a powerful practical dimension to the decisions of the retired President, CEO, and Chairman of Merck & Co. and his wife, who majored in economics at Barnard College. It’s also important to them, Mrs. Vagelos said, “to give to the institutions where we are currently engaged, and where we can see what’s happing, how it’s happening, and whom they have selected as leaders.”

Dr. Vagelos is both a business leader and a leading scientist, attracting researchers to Merck who developed major new drugs, and writing more than 100 scientific papers.

The one commercial relationship Vagelos continues is with the top biotech company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, where he is Chairman of the Board. He said of its Chief Scientific officer George Yancopoulos, “He is quite a genius at what he does. He’s a wonderful scientist and human being and we have been working together since I have retired from Merck. I am very close him and the CEO, Lenard Schleifer, and I Iike working with the two of them. They are on their way to becoming a significant biomedical institution.”

The company is headquartered in Tarrytown, NY and last year added 310 employees, bringing the total to1,325 people. The Albany Times Union reports that is “in the process of acquiring land off Interstate 90 for a second campus in the town of East Greenbush…The new campus — with 500,000 square feet of office, manufacturing and lab space — would be just as large as its current site adjacent to the University at Albany’s East Campus.”
She has a passion for the arts, which combined with his scientific and business acumen makes them a dynamic philanthropic team.

“We tend to concentrate on education” he said.

The couple had occasion recently to look back at their humble origins. “Our families were not wealthy at all,” he said, and noted that his family had a small restaurant and she was in the coffee business.

“They were not wealthy in any sense, but what my dad did with his four brothers was to support the building of a schools in Mytilene in the 1920s…It looks remarkably modern” he said, “and quite large” she added.

“There is a big plaque on the wall with the names of the people who built it – all from America,” he said with pride.

It was never talked about so it was not part of his thinking growing up, but it might be in the genes they said. Certainly compassion, which found expression as concern for future generations, could have a genetic basis.

The have been champions of promoting both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) initiatives, and the arts.

“We have had wonderful experiences, contributing to individuals and programs. We see the products. You support your country and community because these people have the capacity – and now the background through the programs – to make a big difference. It’s great to see them later,” he said with even greater excitement, some of the physicians and scientist they’ve helped, “become supporters of my high school in Rahway.”

Recently, their donations to the high school was in the news, as was their latest donation to College. “We recently started a Future Scholars program” with a $1.75 million donation for scholarships that cover the cost of tuition at Rutgers University.

“It helps us have a view into the future” she said, “and it gives us the feeling that we are somehow influencing the future. The return is that we know a little bit more about what’s going to happen later, maybe even when we’re not even around. That gives us a connection to our children and grandchildren.”

Diana Vagelos continues to be involved with her alma mater Barnard College where she is vice chairman of the Board and her husband chairs the Board of Advisors of Columbia University Medical Center.

They are also very excited about the helping build a Teaching and Learning Center at Barnard. It’s not “just a library” because “libraries are different now and if you don’t build a new one you won’t have one.”

It is very important that there will be a computational center in the library given the data that is being collected on such a vast scale in almost every field of study, she said. “They will have their own. They won’t have to wait in line to use someone else’s,” thanks to their $20 million donation.

They are also thrilled to have just endowed a chair in chemistry at Barnard. “It’s very important. It happens to be a crucial training round for women considering careers in medicine and basic sciences…It’s nice because it brings Roy into his element as well, although he didn’t attend Barnard,” she said.

Vagelos was delighted to say that programs they established at U. Penn, including one founded about 17 years ago in the molecular life sciences, contain 50 percent women. “There are 30-40 students required to major in two sciences…They don’t all finish in both sciences, but they all major in at least one. 100 percent end up majoring in science…half go to medical school and half straight into PhD’s. The schools are among the best in the world. They are superstars.”

He is also proud to support the program in life science management. “The students are much more sophisticated than I was. They come to Penn with the idea of starting a business based on science…they take classes in science at Wharton and end up with two degrees.”

The latest program they are supporting there is the Dr. Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER) where students major in one of the physical sciences and simultaneously take a full load in engineering.

He hopes some of them will be involved with technological breakthroughs but he emphasized that there needs to be a greater shift to currently available renewable energy. “But there’s a big gap between what is needed and what we have today and that’s what the program is for.
Vagelos beamed as he opened the brochure for the Medical and Graduate Education Building that will open in June at the Columbia University Medical Center in Washington Heights. The Vageloses are the lead contributors to the strikingly modern tower designed by Elizabeth Diller. “It’s a wonderful breath of fresh air in the corner of that campus” his wife noted.
Dr. Vagelos recently lost a dear friend in the late Michael Jaharis, but they were also partners in philanthropy as the latter was also a major supporter of programs at Columbia. He was a major donor to the new building.

“Mike Jaharis, to me, was the most important Greek-American philanthropist of our generation,” he said, before they agreed that he was perhaps the greatest of all time.
And like Michael and Mary Jaharis, “We don’t forget the arts,” Mrs. Vagelos said, who is a former overseer of the U. Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

That would be impossible amidst their wonderful art collection in their apartment overlooking Central Park.

The building they had helped build for Barnard, the Diana Center, houses the school of architecture and offers space to the visual arts department. “It has been very significant in training many of the art curators of New York,” she noted.

She has instigated the formation of an alumni group to foster conversations in contemporary art. “It helps people overcome ignorance of what’s happing in modern art, which is so different from what most have been brought up with…and Some of them are extremely insightful about our society and help you understand what is going on,” she said.

He added “it stimulates curiosity, but you don’t necessarily want to go in and buy one,” and he expressed deep pride in the Hellenes around the world who are top scientists in all fields. “The sad thing is they all leave Greece,” he said. “There are two reasons for that, a lack of support, and second, the system is not entirely straightforward. It’s very hard for someone to succeed on the basis of performance. It’s infested with nepotism. Greek-Americans and Greek immigrants who come to America for training are not welcome…they are threatening.”

That deprives Greece of people who can help build industries and research institutions.
Asked, as an industrialist committed to making a positive impact in society, his thoughts about the candidacy of Donald Trump and his claim that his business success qualifies to be president, Vagelos, while noting he is not familiar with the real estate business, said his friends in the industry raise doubts as to how successful a real estate developer he is. “He is terrific at selling his brand,” he admitted, but they are not fans.

Mrs. Vagelos said that “We are probably in agreement that the debates and the conversations among the candidates have really been a circus and the public is not being given a chance to learn about the issues and hear viable solutions other than just generalizations.”

They are disappointed there aren’t new faces among Democrats, either. “Last time we had Obama and we had high hopes…he was a wonderful speaker but was inexperienced, and he has been something of a disappointment,” Dr. Vagelos said.