Two successful men—one a renowned cardiologist and former president of Boston University, the other a celebrated clarinetist for the Boston Pops—changing the course of Boston University history.
Lifelong friends Aram V. Chobanian and Edward Avedisian will now be connected forever as the namesakes of BU’s medical school. Thanks to a $100 million gift from Avedisian that will support scholarships, endowed faculty chairs, and cutting-edge research and teaching, the school is being renamed the Boston University Aram V. Chobanian & Edward Avedisian School of Medicine.
University President Robert A. Brown called it “one of the most remarkable grants in the history of higher education” at a private signing ceremony at his residence in late August to accept the gift and formalize the school’s name change.
The gift was announced to the public recently at the school, before invited guests under a tent on Talbot Green, where both men shared the podium with Brown, Ahmass Fakahany, BU Board of Trustees chair, and Karen Antman, dean of the medical school and provost of the Medical Campus. Avedisian received a standing ovation and cheers before the sign with the new name was unveiled.
“This is a historic day for the medical school and for Boston University,” Brown said. The gift “gives an extra tailwind and boost to our aspirations that will benefit so many,” Fakahany said.
Avedisian retired after nearly four decades of playing the clarinet with the Boston Pops and the Boston Ballet Orchestra. But it was the stunning success of his personal investments that afforded him the opportunity to give back to others. He has never forgotten his parents’ hard work and sacrifice, or the emphasis they placed on education, and he became a generous philanthropist to both the United States and Armenia in his later years. “I felt very fortunate, for BU and others that helped along the way,” he says.
Avedisian never wanted anything named after himself, and he didn’t want his gift to BU to be any different. But when he proposed that his donation instead honor his childhood friend Chobanian, president emeritus of BU and dean emeritus of the School of Medicine and provost of the Medical Campus, as well as a nationally renowned cardiologist, the plan hit a bump. Chobanian, showing the same humility as Avedisian, firmly declined the honor when first asked—and a few more times after. Neither man, it seemed, wanted his own name up in lights.
“Both men are very, very, humble,” Brown says. “Really old-school.”
Brown persisted with the pair, until finally they agreed as long as both their names were included. Brown calls it “the grand compromise.”
“How could I obstruct a gift of $100 million to the medical school that I spent my life at?” Chobanian says. “That was obviously a big factor, but I still felt it should be named after him, and my name didn’t have to go on there.”
“I didn’t want anything named after me,” Avedisian says. “But he said, ‘I’ll only do this if your name is attached.’ So, we’re attached.”
The gift “will transform the medical school,” says Antman, dean of the medical school and provost of the Medical Campus. The Aram V. Chobanian & Edward Avedisian School of Medicine Endowed Fund will provide:
$50 million to support scholarships for medical students
$25 million to support endowed professorships
$25 million to the Avedisian Fund for Excellence to keep the school at the forefront of research and teaching
“I am glad that much of the support will support scholarships,” Antman says. “Medical school debt is a problem across the United States.” A study on the Class of 2021 by the Association of American Medical Colleges found the average medical school debt among students attending a public school was $194,280. That contributes to the growing shortage of primary care doctors in the United States, since the much higher salaries for specialists make it possible for them to pay off student loans more rapidly. Some aspiring pediatricians and primary care doctors simply may not be able to afford to do so.
The cost also affects who can choose medical school, Antman says. “If you are first-generation American or first-generation in college, the idea that you are going to graduate with $200,000-plus in debt is unconscionable. They are afraid to take on that much debt.”
Avedisian’s gift, she says, “will approximately double the endowed scholarship aid we can offer.” The funds will come in over a period of at least five years.
One of the endowed professorships from the fund will be created in the name of Richard K. Babayan, a BU School of Medicine professor and chair emeritus of urology and former chief of urology at Boston Medical Center, BU’s primary teaching hospital and Boston’s safety net hospital. A friend of the Avedisians, Babayan is the former director of the medical school’s Armenia Medical Partnership Program, a post now held by Aram Kaligian, an assistant professor of family medicine.
Another endowed chair will support the director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), who will be a professor at the medical school.
“The endowed chairs will help us recruit the best and the brightest faculty,” Antman says, “which also helps attract the best students. The best students really resonate with the best faculty. The two together are synergistic—and then getting better equipment for both of them.”
Expensive equipment such as a cryogenic electronic microscope or a research MRI suite can cost millions. Granting agencies that support such purchases, such as the National Institutes of Health, often like to see matching dollars, Antman says.-
“Then they’re more likely to give us the grant, so again we can attract the best faculty and students doing the most exciting cutting-edge research,” she says. “With these funds, we can renovate labs and attract students who might have gone elsewhere.”
“Dr. Chobanian, although he led the medical school, he is a person who is highly invested in the arts personally,” says Young. “In his retirement, he moved into composition, working with members of the CFA music faculty. That love for medicine and love for the performing arts is distinctive about him.
“Too often we create a false divide between the sciences and the arts, as if people come from totally different worlds or inhabit different planets,” Young says, “and what these two individuals demonstrate is that those are essentially one and the same.”
“You think about the deep discipline that’s required to be a high-level professional musician, the years of self-study and attention to detail—he applied that same skill set to become a masterful investor,” says Harvey Young, dean of CFA.
From previous gifts that he’d made, many people knew Avedisian had done well—but hardly anyone knew just how well until the magnitude of this year’s gift was revealed. A clarinetist donating $100 million?
“Ed has done just phenomenally as an investor,” Brown says with a smile. “And as in most cases for investors, unless they’re dot-com founders, so you can see their founder stock, you really don’t know. You just do not know. He’s done phenomenally well, and when you think about the generosity of giving $100 million and the other gifts he’s given, he’s just an incredibly generous human being.”
Chobanian says that when he retired from the BU presidency in 2005, they grew closer.
“I had more time and we started to socialize, and we became very good friends, and our wives became friends, as well,” he says. “He’s done unbelievable amounts in his lifetime. It’s amazing how he’s such a fine musician of the highest caliber, but still is able to become a philanthropist—I don’t think there are many musicians who can say that.”
The admiration goes both ways.
He “can’t do enough for people, and does it all with great ease and graciousness, really exemplary,” Avedisian says of Chobanian. “His personality has never changed—that’s just the way he is.”
Both men have been particularly determined to help their families’ homeland.
Chobanian joined the board of directors of the Fund for Armenian Relief. He also focused on improving medical education and care through a variety of programs, including training physicians, nurses, and other health professionals in emergency medicine and health-care management, and the development of medical residency and postgraduate educational programs in Armenia.
For his part, Avedisian became a trustee of the American University of Armenia, supported construction of its Paramaz Avedisian Building, named for his brother, and the new Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School and Community Center, named for his parents. Recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Rhode Island in 2019, he is also a trustee for the Armenian Missionary Association of America and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.
At the late afternoon signing event last month, Chobanian and Avedisian arrived separately and greeted BU officials and others cheerfully. But they both lit up simultaneously when they saw each other, grinning as they bantered, lifelong friends making a difference in the world—together.
A few days later, after Chobanian had time to reflect on the naming gift, he said that he was beginning to appreciate the significance of it: “I think it’s wonderful for the medical school and the University. It’s still uncomfortable for me, but very satisfying at the same time, very beautiful.”
One last note about that new name for the medical school: that’s a lot of syllables to stitch onto the traditional spot on all those white coats that medical graduates receive. “We were trying to figure out how to fit it in the pocket,” Antman says with a smile. “It would have to be a very tiny print.” The solution? Two lines on the left breast.
Richard Reidy, vice chair of the BU Board of Trustees, who attended the signing event, told the small gathering that Avedisian’s gift is “a spectacular milestone in the history of Boston University.”
“There is an Armenian aphorism that says, ‘Once we give shoulder to shoulder, we can turn mountains,’” Reidy said. “The members of the BU medical community are going to wake up every morning and turn mountains to reach the underserved, to innovate new treatments and breakthrough cures, and to never stop learning.”