The State University of New York’s campus at Stony Brook might be in line for a huge gift from billionaire James Simons—as much as $150 million—but only if the whole SUNY system changes the way it does business. According to a New York Times article by former Monthly editor Nicholas Confessore:

Such a gift would be the largest ever made to any of the 64 components of the State University of New York and would more than double Stony Brook’s endowment. University officials hope that support from Mr. Simons and others will jump-start efforts to turn Stony Brook, one of SUNY’s flagship research institutions, into a world-class one.

But Mr. Simons and school officials said that in order to raise more private money, SUNY units first needed to win independence from the ebb and flow of Albany’s annual budget process, which in recent years ended with significant cuts in state aid to higher education. Mr. Paterson’s plan would allow each campus to raise tuition each year and use that additional revenue as school officials see fit, providing some stability to the schools’ general operating budgets from year to year.

So basically in order to get the money, New York would have to implement Governor David Paterson’s plan to have New York’s public universities essentially set and raise their own tuition at will. A similar Louisiana bill was signed into law by the state’s governor two weeks ago. Currently New York’s legislature must approve tuition increases for public colleges.

Simons, who began his career as math professor at SUNY Stony Brook, became very rich as a hedge fund manager. Earlier this year Forbes estimated that Simons has a fortune north of $8.5 billion. Simons has given very generously to the school. He gave $60 million to Stony Brook in 2008 to create a lavish math and physics center on campus.

Critics contend that SUNY’s “independence from the ebb and flow of Albany’s annual budget process” would result in large tuition increases, pricing some New Yorkers out of higher education and saddling others with debt.

SUNY schools are currently among the nation’s most affordable public universities. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer