Giving Back in a Big, Big Way

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

IN THE FALL of 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed to host a small dinner party for a select circle of colleagues: fellow billionaires. Among the guests were Warren Buffett, the renowned investor and philanthropist, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, along with wife, Melinda, now co-chairs of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the evening was to persuade other attendees to sign on to the Giving Pledge, a campaign spearheaded by Buffett and Gates to encourage the wealthiest people in the world to commit to giving at least half of their fortunes to charity.

IMG_2349_smOne of the guests, Leon G. Cooperman, the chairman and CEO of Omega Advisors, a New York hedge fund, later wrote to Buffett, noting that the Giving Pledge was an “intriguing and meritorious” concept. Cooperman and his wife, Toby, who also attended the event, enthusiastically agreed to take the pledge. “Toby and I feel it is our moral imperative,” said Cooperman, “to give others the opportunity to pursue the American Dream by sharing our financial success.”

Earlier this year, the Coopermans reaffirmed that sentiment, pledging $25 million to Hunter College — the largest gift ever given to their alma mater. Both graduates of Hunter’s Class of 1964, the couple say they felt committed to contribute to organizations that made a difference in their lives. “We were both lower middle class with a high value on education,” says Toby Cooperman. “I think we were very blessed to be able to give back.”

Leon and Toby Cooperman

Leon and Toby Cooperman

The gift will be split — $15 million will go toward the completion of The Leon and Toby Cooperman Library, while $10 million will fund a named scholarship program for gifted students. With the Coopermans’ gift, the library’s $45 million renovation, under construction since mid-2012, is now only $9 million short of its goal.

“The library is one of our signature projects and a strategic effort to improve student performance in the 21st century,” says Hunter President Jennifer Raab. The newly imagined library has many innovative features, including more open spaces for communal learning and state-of-the-art student learning centers. “It’s a transformative project and funding has come almost entirely from private philanthropy,” says Raab, adding that the Coopermans’ gift made it possible.

The scholarship fund will have a similar impact on Hunter’s future, says Raab. The Coopermans’ endowment will enable the college to offer “about $500,000 every year,” Raab says. “What it allows us to do as an institution is amazing. We won’t have to turn away anyone because of need.”

Affordable education has long been of interest to the Coopermans, who attended public schools in the Bronx. Lee was the son of a plumber; Toby’s father sold bed linens. Neither set of parents went to college. “I’m all about equal opportunity,” Lee Cooperman says, “knowing that the world does not always provide equal outcomes.”

The Coopermans attended Hunter’s Bronx campus, which eventually became Lehman College. “It was a first-class education for $24 a semester,” says Lee Cooperman. “It served as an excellent foundation for the future.” Hunter also served as the foundation for the Coopermans’ long life together. They met during their sophomore year in French class: “She helped me with my French,” recalled Lee. Toby, who became class president (while Lee was vice president) says, “I came into my own in my four years at Hunter.” It was Toby who asked Lee to the junior prom, in May 1963. “I accepted the offer,” he says. “It was a night out, no cost.” They were married the following summer.

During his senior year, Lee Cooperman initially decided to pursue a degree in dentistry but quickly changed course, focusing on economics instead. He went on to earn an M.B.A. at Columbia Business School and the day after graduation he joined Goldman Sachs. At the time, he had “a National Defense Education Act Student Loan to repay, had no money in the bank, and a six-month-old child to support,” recalled Cooperman in his letter to Buffett. Still, he ended up having a successful 25-year run at Goldman Sachs, followed by the last 19 years at Omega —”years of happiness and good fortune, with a few bumps along the way.”

Toby Cooperman, who majored in history and political science at Hunter, recently retired after spending 25 years in the special education field.

Earlier this year, as the couple contemplated the 50th anniversaries of their graduation from Hunter and their marriage, they began thinking of ways to express their appreciation for their college. “We’ve always given back,” says Toby.

Lee Cooperman said that he has considered four options for managing great personal wealth: One could consume it (“we don’t have a lifestyle to do that”); give it to your children (“a reasonable sum”); leave it to government through estate taxes; or give it to needy organizations (which he prefers to do during his lifetime or through the family foundation, to be managed by his two sons and grandchildren). The case for philanthropy, he adds, has been profoundly articulated over the centuries, citing, for example, the words of Winston Churchill in the 1930s: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Raab says the Coopermans’ gift will continue to send a powerful message, not only to the wider world, but also to Hunter alumni in particular. “Lee made his career as a ‘value investor’ — putting people’s money into what he thought would yield an enormous return. To see him support Hunter in this way is a demonstration of his belief that we are a good investment for future generations,” Raab says. To Hunter’s alumni body, she adds, the gift sends the message that it’s important “to do what you can at your level. And it shows students that someone cares about your education enough to support them. Who knows, the next Lee Cooperman might be sitting in our library right now.”