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Billionaire Alum Unveiled as Cornell's $350M Donor for Tech Campus

By Amy Zimmer | December 20, 2011 4:56pm
Charles F. Feeney, founder of the Atlantic Philanthropies, announced Monday that he gave $350 million to Cornell, his alma mater, for its tech campus.
Charles F. Feeney, founder of the Atlantic Philanthropies, announced Monday that he gave $350 million to Cornell, his alma mater, for its tech campus.
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Atlantic Philanthropies

MANHATTAN — Big Red's winning bid to build a tech campus on Roosevelt Island got a major boost last week when an anonymous donor announced a $350 million gift for the project — Cornell's largest donation in history.

Amid rumors about who could have donated such a huge chunk of money, the shroud of secrecy was lifted Monday night after the city's official announcement anointing Cornell and its partner, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

The deep-pocketed benefactor turned out to be Charles F. Feeney, an 80-year-old Cornell alumnus who made his billions by co-founding Duty Free Shoppers and has been giving his money away through the Atlantic Philanthropies since 1984.

"This is a once in a generation opportunity for Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, together with the city of New York, to create economic and educational opportunity on a transformational scale," Feeney said in a statement.

Cornell plans to build a massive 2 million square-foot, $2 billion eco-friendly campus that will eventually house 2,500 students and nearly 300 faculty members, complete with classrooms, dormitories and research laboratories.

The campus is slated to move onto the site of the current Goldwater Hospital, which is slated to close in 2014.  The campus will include the largest net-zero energy building — one that creates as much energy as it consumes — in the eastern U.S.

Cornell and Technion said Monday that they plan to start teaching at an off-site location in 2012, with the first phase of the new campus for applied science and engineering to open on Roosevelt Island no later than 2017.  The Ivy League school was dogged in its pursuit of the campus — which comes with $100 million in city money for infrastructure development — effectively knocking out its main contender, Stanford, last week.

The Atlantic Philanthropies has a deep history of supporting higher education and medical research projects around the globe, according to the foundation.  At have gone to Ireland's Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions, the University of California San Francisco's Medical Center and toward Vietnam's health care infrastructure, among elsewhere. Atlantic has also been a long-time donor to Cornell.

Feeney, who graduated from Cornell's School of Hotel Management in 1956, has given more than $600 million to the university over the years, according to the New York Times, which said the billionaire from New Jersey is known for flying coach, wearing a $15 watch and other frugal ways. The paper also said he didn't own a house or car.

The city is still considering the possibility of addition partnerships with other applicants, including Columbia University, which hopes to expand its footprint uptown with a new Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering, New York University, which applied to build a Center for Urban Science and Progress in Downtown Brooklyn's Metrotech Center, and Carnegie Mellon, which had been eyeing a new campus on the abandoned Navy Hospital at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.