Friday, May 24

A $1 billion donation will provide free tuition at a Bronx medical school

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

The donor, Ruth Gottesman, is a former professor at Einstein, where she studied learning disabilities, developed a screening test and conducted literacy programs. This is one of the largest charitable donations to an educational institution in the United States and quite possibly 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 made an early investment in Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate Buffett built.

The donation is notable not only for its staggering size, but also because it will go to a medical institution in the Bronx, the city’s poorest neighborhood. The Bronx has a high rate of premature deaths and is considered the unhealthiest county in New York. Over the past generation, numerous billionaires have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the best-known medical schools and hospitals in Manhattan, the city’s wealthiest neighborhood.

Dr. Gottesman said her donation would allow new doctors to begin their careers without medical school debt, which often exceeds $200,000. She also hoped that this would expand the student body to include people who might not otherwise be able to afford to attend medical school.

While her husband ran an investment firm, First Manhattan, Dr. Gottesman had a long career at Einstein, a renowned medical school, starting in 1968, when she took a job as director of psychoeducational services. You have long been a member of Einstein’s board of directors and are currently its president.

In recent years she has become close friends with Dr. Philip Ozuah, the pediatrician who oversees the medical school and its affiliated hospital, Montefiore Medical Center, as the health system’s CEO. That friendship and trust loomed large as she pondered what to do with the money her husband had left her.

In an interview Friday at the Einstein campus in the Morris Park neighborhood, Dr. Ozuah and Dr. Gottesman talked about the donation, how it came about and what it would mean for Einstein’s 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 – she in Baltimore, he, some 30 years later, in Nigeria – and what they had in common. Both had doctorates in education and had spent their careers at the same institution in the Bronx, helping children and families in need.

Dr. Ozuah described moving to New York, not knowing a single person in the state, and spending years as a community doctor in the South Bronx before reaching the top of medical school.

Leaving the airport, Dr. Ozuah offered his arm to Dr. Gottesman, then not yet ninety years old, as they approached the sidewalk. She greeted him and told him to “watch where he’s stepping,” she recalled with a chuckle.

In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus brought the world to a halt. Dr. Gottesman’s husband, in his 90s, fell ill with the new pathogen, and she had a mild case. Dr. Ozuah sent an ambulance to the Gottesmans’ home in Rye, New York, to take them to Montefiore, the largest hospital in the Bronx.

Over the next few weeks, Dr. Ozuah began making daily house calls — wearing full protective gear — to check on the couple while Mr. Gottesman recovered. “That’s how the friendship evolved,” he said. “I probably spent every day for about three weeks visiting them in Rye.”

About three years ago, Dr. Ozuah asked Dr. Gottesman to head the medical school’s board of trustees. She had already done that job before, but given her age she was surprised. The gesture reminded her of the fable of the lion and the mouse, she then told Dr. Ozuah, explaining that when the lion spares the mouse’s life, the mouse tells him, “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. “She left me, without my knowledge, an entire portfolio of Berkshire Hathaway stocks,” she recalled. The instructions were simple: “Do what you think is right,” she recalled.

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

When he focused on the legacy, he immediately knew what he wanted to do, he recalls. “I wanted to fund Einstein students so they could get free tuition,” she said. There was enough money to do it forever, she said.

Over the years he had interviewed dozens of Einstein’s potential medical students. Tuition amounts to more than $59,000 a year, and many graduate with crushing debt from medical school. According to the school, nearly 50 percent of its students had more than $200,000 in debt after graduation. At most other New York medical schools, fewer than 25 percent of new doctors had similar debt.

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

Not only would future students be able to pursue their careers without the burden of debt, but he hoped his donation would also enable a larger group of aspiring doctors to apply to medical school. “We have wonderful medical students, but this will open doors to many more students whose economic status is such that they wouldn’t even think about going to medical school,” she said.

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

Dr. Gottesman visited Dr. Ozuah in December to tell him she was giving her a major gift. She reminded him of the story of the lion and the mouse. This, she explained, was the mouse’s time.

“If someone said, ‘I’ll give you a transformative gift for medical school,’ what would you do?” she asked.

There were probably three things, Dr. Ozuah said.

“First of all,” he began, “education could be free…”

“This is what I want to do,” he said. You never mentioned the other ideas.

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

“I hope he’s smiling and not frowning,” she said with a chuckle. “But she gave me the opportunity to do it, and I think she would be happy, I hope so.”

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

In 2018, New York University announced it would begin offering free tuition to medical students and saw a surge in applications.

Dr. Gottesman was reluctant to have her name associated with her donation. “No one needs to know,” Dr. Ozuah recalled early on. But Dr. Ozuah insisted that others might find her life inspiring. “Here is someone who is totally dedicated to the well-being of others and wants no accolades, no recognition,” Dr. Ozuah said.

Dr. Ozuah noted that the going price for placing your name in a medical school or hospital was perhaps a fifth of Dr. Gottesman’s donation. Cornell Medical College and New York Hospital now include the last name of 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 a condition of Dr. Gottesman’s gift is that the Einstein College of Medicine not change its name. Albert Einstein, the physicist who developed the theory of relativity, agreed to name the medical school, which opened in 1955, after him.

The name, he noted, couldn’t be better. “We have that damn name: we have Albert Einstein.”