December 19, 2011

Simons Donation Lets SUNY Stony Brook Shoot For The Stars


Source: New York Daily News

New York has moved closer to creating a top-notch flagship for the state university system thanks to the generosity and advocacy of billionaire James Simons.

Simons and his wife, Marilyn, are donating $150 million to Stony Brook University, by far the largest gift to a SUNY institution and the sixth-largest donation to any public university in the country.

Coupled with state aid reforms and grants from Gov. Cuomo, the money will enable Stony Brook to hire 300 professors — slashing its student-to-full-time-faculty ratio from 28-1 to 21-1, the average for top-ranked public universities.

The Simonses’ gift also will build a life sciences facility, establish two research centers and finance scores of scholarships.

All of which gives Stony Brook a fighting chance to become the Berkeley of the East or the Chapel Hill of the North. This would be a wonderful thing for New York — a haven for smart students, a magnet for brainpower and an engine for economic development.

For too long, SUNY has suffered from a culture of uniformity and mediocrity foisted upon it by a micromanaging Legislature.

Lawmakers have imposed one-size-fits-all tuition and doled out one-size-fits-all state funding, stifling would-be standouts.

Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, meanwhile, has resisted talk of elevating flagships, preferring to pretend that 64 scattered junior and senior colleges with vastly divergent profiles and reputations are really a single, organic whole.

Thank goodness some SUNYs have begun to strive for excellence on their own.

The University at Albany has become a global leader in nanotechnology, largely through the entrepreneurial efforts of Prof. Alain Kaloyeros.

The University at Buffalo — which received an anonymous $40 million bequest in September — is pursuing its own big expansion plans.

Now, thanks to the Simonses, Stony Brook is seizing an opportunity to put its Long Island campus on the national map.

Simons is a former mathematics chairman at Stony Brook who went on to found a highly successful Wall Street hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies. Marilyn Simons, who earned a B.A. and Ph.D. in economics at Stony Brook, serves as president of the Simons Foundation.

They became a force for change when they announced last year that they were ready to give Stony Brook $150 million — but only if the Legislature passed key reforms to SUNY financing.

The bill they backed — which became law this year — authorized campuses to raise tuition by $1,500 over the next five years while promising no further cuts in state funding.

The four university centers at Stony Brook, Albany, Buffalo and Binghamton were allowed to charge a $75 tuition premium and provided with $140 million in capital funding.

All of which empowered Stony Brook — and other state university campuses with vision — to shoot for the stars.

“My hope is that it will become a truly first-class public research university . . . a place of real excellence,” James Simons told the Daily News.

“We want to be a top 25 research university,” said Stony Brook President Samuel Stanley. “There’s no reason why New York shouldn’t have that kind of flagship public university.”

No reason, indeed.