Entrepreneur and philanthropist Ross Stevens, PhD’96, has made a gift of $100 million to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s PhD Program to advance the frontiers of academic business research. In recognition, the school’s PhD Program will be renamed the Stevens Doctoral Program.
“Thanks to Ross’s extraordinary generosity and bold vision, the Stevens Doctoral Program is poised to accelerate and broaden the impact of its scholars now and long into the future,” said Madhav Rajan, Chicago Booth dean and the George Pratt Shultz Professor of Accounting.
Stevens’s gift continues his track record of innovation in philanthropy, which includes establishing the first fintech center at a major business school and empowering human rights activists in authoritarian countries with bitcoin.
“Ross’s business innovations are at least matched by his philanthropic innovations,” Rajan said. “He’s exceptionally generous, but he also brings focus and clarity of thought regarding how the multiplier effect of educational excellence, economic liberty and free markets can transform lives.”
Booth’s PhD Program holds a unique place in history. Established in 1920, the program itself was entrepreneurial at the time, as the first doctoral business program in the nation. In the century since, it has become known for academic excellence and pathbreaking ideas. Booth PhD dissertations have fundamentally redefined business theory and practice, and the program’s graduates include Nobel Prize winners, university deans, renowned professors and iconic global business leaders.
The program is highly selective. In its 100 years, the program has awarded just 968 degrees, reflecting its graduates’ outsize impact on the business world relative to their numbers. Today, the program has 150 students across seven areas of study.
“Graduates from the first 100 years of the Booth PhD Program changed the world,” Rajan said. “It is inspiring to think about what the program can achieve in its next 100 years, building on its storied history, now amplified by Ross’s generosity.”
This unprecedented gift will further enhance the school’s ability to attract the very best doctoral students, based solely on their potential for excellence. It will materially increase stipends for all matriculants, more than double research support for data and computing, and provide additional financial support via Stevens Fellowships for the top incoming students.
While Chicago is known for academic rigor, the gift will also go beyond academics to support the “full person.” Stevens Doctoral Program students will benefit from personalized coaching programs in wellness, public speaking and professional development, as well as full-time mental health support.
Finally, the gift will establish a new alumni mentoring initiative—formally connecting current PhD students with PhD alumni across academia, government and industry—which Stevens himself will co-chair. For his co-chair, Stevens has recruited Cliff Asness, MBA’91, PhD’94, Stevens’s classmate, mentor, coauthor and first boss.
“I believe that, over time, the quality of a business school’s PhDs determines the quality of its faculty, which, in turn, determines the quality of the school itself,” said Stevens. “Booth is already in an exceptionally strong position, but the students of tomorrow demand we don’t rest on our laurels today. By making Booth the unquestionable destination of choice for the very best PhD applicants, this gift adds rocket fuel to Booth’s long-term mission.”
Stevens credits much of his success to a series of fortunate events. First, as an undergraduate senior, he convinced his school to let him take the entire first-year finance PhD coursework. “I was in over my head and had to work twice as hard as everyone else to keep up, but it was an invaluable experience because it was my first exposure to what I ultimately fell in love with—research in finance.”
Second, he applied and was accepted, off the wait-list, into Chicago’s Finance PhD Program. “I had a system. I read every assigned paper in every class exactly 10 times. That was my only way of getting through the program. The first couple of times I was lost. The next few times I started to get the main ideas. The next few times things started to click. The last one or two times, the information was truly imprinted. I remember every one of those papers to this day.”
Third, he had the good fortune to be the teaching assistant of future Nobel laureate Eugene F. Fama, MBA’64, PhD’64, who also co-chaired Stevens’s dissertation committee with Rob McCulloch, visiting professor of statistics.
“When I was applying to PhD programs, I asked each of my five finance professors at the time for advice. They had each done their PhDs at Chicago, and each independently told me the same two things: First, if you get into Chicago, go. Second, even the remote chance of being able to work with Gene Fama, and the certain opportunity to watch him in the finance seminar every week, is reason enough to go. They were right.”
Fourth, after Chicago, Stevens went to work at Goldman Sachs with Fischer Black—former Booth professor and one-half of the groundbreaking Black–Scholes equation—and with Cliff Asness. “It was incredible. Two of the greatest minds in finance. I felt so lucky and would physically pinch myself every morning on the way to the office. Plus, working with Fischer and Cliff made me feel like I never left Chicago.”
Finally, when Stevens founded his firm, he built it squarely upon the principles he learned at Chicago. “Chicago and Fama teach you that risk and return can be linked and that certain common factors are priced,” Stevens said. “They also instill humility about markets. While that was foundational, the most influential research on me, by far, was Fama’s work on the principal-agent problem.”
“I’ve quietly built my career based on my discovery and development of priced risk factors in a world of non-zero agency costs. If that sounds like a PhD thesis, it’s because it is, or could be. I’m an academic at heart, in practitioner’s clothing. My career has essentially been a 25-year extension of what I learned during the PhD Program. I’ve yet to find an upper limit in my gratitude towards the school and the incredible faculty. There is no amount of money I could donate to Booth such that I didn’t get the better end of the deal.”
Stevens’s gift, Fama said, “shows his appreciation for the deep background in UChicago finance and economics that has been the foundation of his professional life.”
President Paul Alivisatos said: “Recognizing the impact his experience at the University has in shaping his life, Ross offers a profound testament to the transformative power of being immersed in Booth’s distinctive intellectual culture as a student. With the establishment of the Stevens Doctoral Program, he has enabled the school to deepen and extend the quality of its already world-class doctoral program for the next generation of scholars and business leaders.”
Stevens is the founder and CEO of Stone Ridge Holdings Group, based in New York, which focuses on alternative asset management, reinsurance and bitcoin.
—This story originally appeared on the Chicago Booth website.