Saturday, July 10, 2010

Dr. James Simons -- A Former Professor Who Gives Back Big to State University

Dr. James "Jim" Simons is an amazing man.

He is a mathematician and a financier and the President of Renaissance Technologies, a well-known, very successful private investment firm and hedge fund. As the former chairperson of the Department of Mathematics at SUNY Stony Brook in the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, he built up this department to one of the top in the country.

Since leaving SUNY Stony Brook, where his service and contributions were laudable enough, he and his wife have not stopped supporting that state university.

His wife Marilyn, who has a PhD in economics from SUNY Stony Brook, has served since 1994 as President of the Simons Foundation, a charitable organization supporting researchers and institutions conducting advanced work in the basic sciences and mathematics, with a major emphasis on autism. In February 2008, the foundation gave $60 million to this state university, which is one of 64 institutions in this public university system. The press release can be read here.

Interestingly, SUNY Stony Brook offered me a tenure-track Assistant Professorship in the Department of Applied Math and Statistics, after my interview there, while I was completing my PhD in Applied Math with a specialty in Operations Research at Brown University, but I declined. Our new Provost at UMass Amherst, Dr. James Staros, came from SUNY Stony Brook.

James Simons is now one of the world's wealthiest men (see where knowing and loving mathematics can take you) and the Simons Center at SUNY Stony Brook carries his family's name. He is the son of a shoemaker from Massachusetts and received his degrees from MIT and UC Berkeley.

The New York Times has an interesting and timely article on private donations to state universities. Today many state universities in the US are suffering from shortfalls of support from their respective states. Dr. Simons believes that donors do not want to support failing institutions and have their donations simply used as plugins and patchups for state funding gaps (or should I say, "gorges"). He is supporting/proposing different tuitions for individual state university institutions and this has resulted in some serious debates. You can read the article in the Times here.

What Dr. Simons has done and continues to do in support of his State University, although he is not even an employee (nor a student there and not even an alum), is outstanding and laudatory.

I wish that more would have his vision and his courage and that others would see and understand the essential role that public, in addition to private ones, universities play in our nation.

I give annually to my state university and employer for a scholarship fund for students and the best thank you that I get is the excellence of our students and their joy in learning.