Last week, the New York Times reported that hedge fund manager James Simons has pledged to make a gift of as much as $150 million to Stony Brook. But there's a catch. He will only do it if New York Governor David Paterson's plan to overhaul the State University of New York (of which Stony Brook is a part) is adopted. Simons, a former chairman of the math department at Stony Brook, is one smart philanthropist and his decision to stick his nose into Albany politics here is very shrewd.
For those who don't follow the ins and outs of Albany politics or the SUNY system, here are some basics. Stony Brook and Buffalo are the two standout universities in the system. They have the best reputations, the smartest students and the most accomplished professors. But they can't charge tuition that's higher than any of the other schools in the system. And the tuitions across the whole system are lower than universities in most nearby states. And their budgets are all determined by the state legislature. Just what you needed, right, Hiram Monserrate making your financial decisions. Oh, and all of the SUNY faculty belong to the same union that negotiates salaries directly with the governor (Almost no other university faculties of this caliber belong to unions at all).
Professors at UB and Stony Brook are fed up with the situation. They think students would pay more for their education than say, the one offered by Fredonia State, and they're probably right. Paterson's plan would allow for "differential tuition" and would allow colleges to do their own fundraising. The faculty unions oppose this, they say, because they don't want students to suffer higher tuition rates. Don't buy it. They just don't want anything that smacks of rewarding merit to be introduced into the system (Sounds depressingly like the K-12 situation, I know). And the faculty at Stony Brook have said that the union is not accurately representing their views.
Anyway, enter Mr. Simons, who did a rare interview with the New York Times about all this. Donors, he said, want to give to an institution that they feel has a future. “Simply plugging gaps is not a good pitch for any institution,” Mr. Simons said. “Going forward, what we would give, and what others would give, would very much depend on this bill passing, or on some other miracle.”
Many people who try to give money to higher education--public or private--have long felt like they've been dumping money down the drain. Mr. Simons has a different model in mind.