Editorial: Simonses' transformational gift

James and Marilyn Simons, who donated $150 million, James and Marilyn Simons, who donated $150 million, after the press conference at Stony Brook University on Dec. 14 Photo Credit: Photo by Randee Daddona

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In making the largest gift ever to a State University of New York campus, James and Marilyn Simons are not just breaking their own previous record, but blazing a path for Stony Brook University to reach the highest levels of medical research excellence. It's not hard to imagine an exciting day when a professor hired with part of this $150-million gift, working in a lab that it helped build, announces a stunning breakthrough that will forever change medical history.

The Simonses' gift was not the only good news for Stony Brook and job growth on Long Island yesterday. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who attended the announcement on campus, brought state dollars as well: a $35 million challenge grant. It will help Stony Brook hire top professors and, together with the Simons funds, build a life sciences research center called the Medical and Research Translation building, for medical imaging, neuroscience and cancer research. The goal of Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., Stony Brook's president, is for the National Institutes of Health to designate this center as a prestigious national cancer institute.

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More than four decades after Stony Brook hired James Simons in 1968 as math department chairman, and after he became one of the world's richest men from quantitative hedge fund investing, Simons' gratitude to the university remains strong. In 2008, the Simons Foundation's $60 million gift was also the largest given to a SUNY school. It built and endowed the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics.

This new donation -- $100 million of the family's own, plus a $50 million matching grant from the foundation -- will be focused primarily on human health. It will help Stony Brook become a leader in cancer, neuroscience, infectious diseases and medical technology. But there's ample flexibility to endow professorships in other areas of need as well. The grant, plus the matches it attracts, will exponentially increase Stony Brook's ability to hire game-changing faculty.

In fact, this gift began giving months before its announcement. Stanley was able to use the promise of this funding to hire Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, a nationally prominent hematologist, as senior vice president for health sciences and dean of the medical school, and Dennis Assanis, a University of Michigan engineering professor, as provost.

When Stanley, a top medical researcher from Washington University in St. Louis, became president, his intent was to bolster Stony Brook's research. Fortuitously, his vision intersected with the philanthropic goals of the Simons family. But James Simons was concerned about the devastating cuts to SUNY in recent years. He wanted evidence that his family's gift wouldn't be overwhelmed by continuing state-imposed austerity. So he spoke to the last three governors, including Andrew M. Cuomo. Cuomo helped deliver a new tuition plan to bring SUNY more revenue, and he proposed challenge grants for the four university centers, including the one he announced yesterday for Stony Brook. That made Simons comfortable in going ahead with the gift.

The Simons family has done something truly transformational for the university, our region and the advancement of science. Generosity on this scale, offered in support of Stanley's strategic vision for the university's future, merits the highest possible praise.

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