When Stony Brook University was brand new in the 1960s, James Simons, who headed its math department, undoubtedly got his shoes dirty walking across a campus known for becoming a mudfest every time it rained. Stony Brook was part of the state’s public university system, greatly expanded by then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, but its future was uncertain.
Simons went on to use his mastery of math and quantitative methods to form his own hedge fund firm, Renaissance Technologies in East Setauket, which turned into the wellspring of one of America's biggest fortunes — estimated at $25 billion. Along the way, Simons, 85, and his wife, Marilyn, an alumna, have provided numerous gifts worth millions for important programs at Stony Brook.
Now, in a sense, the mud has turned to gold.
Stony Brook recently received a $500 million donation from the Simons Foundation, one of the largest gifts ever to a public university in American history. Its no-strings-attached nature lets the university spend as it sees fit, and will be supplemented over time by another $200 million in matching funds from the state, more than doubling Stony Brook’s current $370 million endowment.
We applaud the generosity of the Simons family, and rejoice with Stony Brook in its potential benefits for the university community, especially its students. This gift — $200 million upfront, the rest paid over seven years — could be a major turning point for Stony Brook and its benefits could be felt throughout Long Island. But as with all big fortunes, we believe this comes with questions about how it can be best spent.
Stony Brook president Maurie McInnis says this unrestricted gift will catapult Stony Brook into the top tier of public universities and make it competitive with private Ivy League schools like Harvard and Columbia that have much larger endowments. Stony Brook will be able to attract and pay for top teachers who will further enhance its reputation in STEM disciplines.
Some money can be used to help defray student costs. Stony Brook is one of the best bang-for-your-buck values in higher education, with half of New York undergrads paying no tuition. In the best first-generation college tradition, Stony Brook has attracted many students from immigrant families. More funding and an even greater stress on excellence will increase Stony Brook’s reputation as a steppingstone to the American dream.
For Long Island, the gift could spur economic growth far beyond the Stony Brook campus, affecting places like Brookhaven National Lab and medical institutions and businesses across Long Island, says Kevin Law, chair of the Stony Brook Council, an oversight board. While advisers like Law need to make sure big donors don’t have too much influence on school policy, the Simons donation seems like a remarkable boon to all at Stony Brook, one that could prove transformational to a truly great university known around the world.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.