Billion-dollar donation will provide access to free tuition at Bronx medical school

Billion-dollar donation will provide access to free tuition at Bronx medical school

The 93-year-old widow of a Wall Street financier donated $1 billion to a Bronx medical school, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, with instructions that the donation be used to cover the cost of education of all students in the future.

The donor, Ruth Gottesman, is a former professor at Einstein University, where she studied learning disabilities, developed a screening test and led literacy programs. This is one of the largest charitable donations to an educational institution in the United States and probably the largest to a medical school.

The fortune came from her late husband, David Gottesman, known as Sandy, who was a protégé of Warren Buffett and had invested early in Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate built by Mr. Buffett.

The donation is notable not only for its staggering amount, but also because it will go to a medical facility in the Bronx, the city’s poorest neighborhood. The Bronx experiences a high rate of premature deaths and ranks as the unhealthiest county At New York. Over the past generation, a number of billionaires have given hundreds of millions of dollars to better-known medical schools and hospitals in Manhattan, the city’s wealthiest neighborhood.

Dr. Gottesman said his donation would allow new doctors to begin their careers without having to take on medical school debt, which often exceeds $200,000. She also hoped it would expand the student body to include people who otherwise could not afford to go to medical school.

While her husband ran an investment company, First Manhattan, Dr. Gottesman had a long career at Einstein, a renowned medical school, beginning in 1968, when she accepted a position as director of psychoeducational services. She has served on Einstein’s board of directors for a long time and is currently its chair.

In recent years, she has become friends with Dr. Philip Ozuah, the pediatrician who oversees the medical school and its affiliated hospital, Montefiore Medical Center, as chief executive officer of the health system. This friendship and trust was important as she considered what she would do with the money her husband had left her.

In an interview Friday on the Einstein campus in the Morris Park neighborhood, Dr. Ozuah and Dr. Gottesman talked about the donation, how it was made and what it would mean for Einstein medical students .

In early 2020, the two sat next to each other on a 6 a.m. flight to West Palm Beach, Florida. It was the first time they spent hours together.

They talked about their childhoods – his in Baltimore, hers, some thirty years later, in Nigeria – and what they had in common. Both had doctorates in education and had spent their careers at the same Bronx institution, helping children and families in need.

Dr. Ozuah described moving to New York, knowing no one in the state, and spending years as a community physician in the South Bronx before moving up the medical school ladder.

Leaving the airport, Dr. Ozuah offered his arm to Dr. Gottesman, then just 90 years old, as they approached the sidewalk. She waved him off and told him to “watch his step,” he recalls with a laugh.

In just a few weeks, the coronavirus brought the world to a standstill. Dr. Gottesman’s 90-year-old husband became ill with the new pathogen and his case was mild. Dr. Ozuah sent an ambulance to the Gottesmans’ home in Rye, New York, to take them to Montefiore, the largest hospital in the Bronx.

In the weeks that followed, Dr. Ozuah began making daily home visits – in full protective gear – to check on the couple while Mr. Gottesman recovered. “That’s how the friendship evolved,” he said. “I spent probably every day for about three weeks visiting them in Rye.”

About three years ago, Dr. Ozuah asked Dr. Gottesman to lead the medical school’s board of trustees. She had done this work before, but given her age, she was surprised. This gesture reminded him of the fable about the lion and the mouseshe told Dr. Ozuah at the time, explaining that when the lion spared the mouse’s life, the mouse said, “Maybe one day I will be useful to you.” »

In the story, the lion laughs haughtily. “But Phil didn’t say ‘ha, ha, ha,'” she noted with a smile.

Dr. Gottesman’s husband died in 2022 at the age of 96. “He left me, without my knowledge, an entire portfolio of Berkshire Hathaway stocks,” she recalls. The instructions were simple: “Do what you think is right,” she recalls.

It was overwhelming to think about it, so at first she didn’t do it. But her children encouraged her not to wait too long.

When she focused on the legacy, she immediately understood what she wanted to do, she recalls. “I wanted to fund Einstein students so they would have free tuition,” she said. There was enough money to do it in perpetuity, she said.

Over the years, she had interviewed dozens of Einstein’s prospective medical students. Tuition costs more than $59,000 a year, and many graduate with crushing medical school debt. According to the school, nearly 50 percent of its students owed more than $200,000 after graduating. At most other New York City medical schools, fewer than 25 percent of new doctors owed that much.

Almost half of Einstein’s first-year medical students are New Yorkers and nearly 60 percent are women. About 48 percent current medical students at Einstein are white, 29 percent are Asian, 11 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are black.

Not only could prospective students launch their careers without the burden of debt, but she hoped her gift would also allow more aspiring doctors to apply to medical school. “We have excellent medical students, but this will open the door for many more students whose economic circumstances are such that they wouldn’t even consider going to medical school,” she said.

“That’s what makes me very happy about this gift,” she added. “I have the opportunity to not only help Phil, but also to help Montefiore and Einstein in a transformative way – and I am so proud and so honored – both – that I was able to do it.”

Dr. Gottesman went to see Dr. Ozuah in December to tell him she would be making a large donation. It reminded him of the story of the lion and the mouse. It was, she explained, mouse time.

“If someone said to you, ‘I’m going to give you a life-changing gift for medical school,’ what would you do? ” she asked.

There were probably three things, Dr. Ozuah said.

“First,” he began, “you could make education free –”

“That’s what I want to do,” she said. He never mentioned the other ideas.

Dr. Gottesman sometimes wonders what her late husband would have thought of her decision.

“I hope he smiles and doesn’t frown,” she said with a laugh. “But he gave me the opportunity to do it, and I think he would be happy – I hope so.”

Einstein won’t be the first medical school to waive tuition.

In 2018, New York University announced that it would begin offering free courses to medical students and saw an increase in applications.

Dr. Gottesman was reluctant to associate his name with his gift. “Nobody needs to know,” Dr. Ozuah remembers saying at the beginning. But Dr Ozuah insisted others might find his life inspiring. “Here is someone who is totally dedicated to the well-being of others and who does not want any distinction, any recognition,” Dr. Ozuah said.

Dr. Ozuah pointed out that the going price for getting your name into a medical school or hospital was perhaps a fifth of Dr. Gottesman’s donation. Cornell Medical College and New York Hospital are now named after Sanford Weill, the former head of Citigroup. New York University Medical Center was renamed in honor of Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot. Both men donated hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Dr. Gottesman’s gift is conditional on the Einstein College of Medicine not changing its name. Albert Einstein, the physicist who developed the theory of relativity, agreed to name the medical school opened in 1955 after him.

The name, she noted, couldn’t be beat. “We have this damn name – we have Albert Einstein.”

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Eric D. Eilerman

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