By Arielle Dollinger and Trevor Christian
Stony Brook University has received a $150 million donation from “one of the world’s most accomplished investors,” Dr. James Simons and his wife, Dr. Marilyn Simons, along with the Simons Foundation, President Samuel L. Stanley announced yesterday.
“It is a historic gift,” Stanley said, “the largest ever to Stony Brook University, the largest ever to a public university in the state of New York, and one of the top ten gifts ever given to a public university.”
The Simons’ donation comes at a time when the university has suffered through more than 75 million dollars worth of budget cuts in a three-year period and lost the majority of the funding to its teaching hospital. It also comes after a plan to keep revenue in the State University of New York system while gradually raising tuition on its students.
According to Stanley, the gift will be used to hire “no fewer than 250” new faculty members over the next five years and to advance the university’s research facilities.
The sum will be buttressed by the newly-approved NYSUNY 2020 plan, an effort to increase student access, attract new faculty and staff hires and foster economic development partnerships with industry in the Long Island region, according to a press release sent out by the university’s Office of Media Relations. The plan will also provide $35 million in capital challenge grant funds toward the construction of a new Life Sciences research building, the Medical and Research Translation (MART) center, which will be directly connected to the university’s hospital.
The Simons gift and the NYSUNY 2020 plan will work together as $50 million of the Simons gift will be put toward building the MART center.
The Simonses, SUNY Chancellor Dr. Nancy Zimpher and Gov. Andrew Cuomo were among the others who spoke at the press conference, which was held in the university’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology building.
Mr. Simons, board chair of Renaissance Technologies LLC, a hedge fund management company, and chair of the Simons Foundation, joined the Stony Brook faculty as chairman of the university’s department of mathematics in 1968 at the age of 30. His wife is an alumna of Stony Brook University and president of the Simons Foundation.
According to Mrs. Simons, the pair has “always been contributing to Stony Brook.” She made her first donation to the Alumni Association the year after she graduated in 1974.
“We’re fortunate, and Jim was successful, so we just continued our gifts, and they kept growing,” she said. “So my first gift was maybe a thousand dollars, it’s grown from there. It might have even been $250, I don’t even know what my first gift was.”
For a while, Mr. Simons said, he and his wife were hesitant about making such large donations to the university for fear that the kind of enthusiasm necessary for the institution to “flourish” was not there.
“Gradually, indifferent state support began to get me down,” Mr. Simons said.
But former NY Gov. Eliot Spitzer personally assured Mr. Simons that he was “committed to building a state university,” and Simons and his wife were convinced. They decided to make two large donations to SBU: the $60 million that the couple donated in 2008, which was used to build the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, and the $150 million donation that they announced today.
“The stars are now aligned,” Mr. Simons said. “We have a solid financial base.”
Mr. Simons said that he hopes the gift will serve “to build up the research atmosphere in the university, bring in additional research funding, to help attract a better faculty and more faculty in different areas, and certainly to provide some scholarship aid to the less financially empowered kids.”
For those reasons, Cuomo said he felt the donation was more well thought-out than most philanthropic acts.
“It’s not a gift,” said Cuomo. “Jim is not in the gift business; he is in the investment business.”
The governor, who also touted the grants provided by his regional economic development plan, said that SUNY was among the best places he could think to invest.
“If you look at any region in the country where the economy is coming back, it’s always linked to higher ed,” Cuomo said.
Professors and faculty also reacted to the donation, but many did so from across campus.
Georges Fouron, the chairman of the Department of American Studies, attended a simultaneous broadcast of the announcement shown in the Student Activities Center. He, like the 30 other faculty and staff in attendance, said that the gift would be a great opportunity for the university.
“Things were looking really gloomy,” Fouron said of the last four years’ budget cuts. “It think it’s a turning point in the history of Stony Brook.”
Ellen Driscoll, an Assisstant Dean of Students, not only appreciated the gift, but how the Simones went about giving it.
“I liked how they worked with the State of New York,” she said, before adding that it would be the students, not the faculty, who would gain the most from the donation.
The overall tone of the event was one of gratitude. Stanley, Zimpher and Cuomo thanked the Simonses, the Simones thanked the politicians and SUNY leadership, and even politicians from opposite sides of the aisle thanked each other for their cooperation and support.
“We thank you, Jim and Marilyn, from the bottom of our hearts for your generosity,” said Cuomo, igniting what was one of many rounds of applause for the couple over the course of the press conference.