Sinquefields donate $50 million for St. Louis University research, largest gift in school's history

A $50 million donation to St. Louis University — the largest gift in the school’s 200-year history — from area philanthropists Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield will create a new fund to finance faculty research and hire new professors.

The gift will establish the St. Louis University Research Institute. Rex Sinquefield, in an interview, said he suspected medicine might win a large portion of funding from the new institute because of the expense and prominence of academic medical research. But he said the new fund was intended to finance scholarship in the humanities, as well.

“It’s available for any discipline,” said Sinquefield, a retired index fund pioneer, SLU alumnus and member of the university’s board of trustees. “I want to see what opportunities come our way from the faculty.”

The Sinquefield gift follows SLU’s record $99 million raised during the fiscal year ended June 30, its bicentennial. It also marks a clear win in the university’s campaign to boost its standing among research universities by doubling its annual research funding to $100 million.

When SLU President Fred Pestello arrived at the school a little over four years ago, he said he was “surprised” that the dollar volume of research in fields such as medicine and engineering wasn’t higher. Faculty told him they wanted more emphasis on growing and supporting research, and Pestello said SLU leadership had since made growing its investment in research and scholarship a “major priority.”

“We intend to do everything we can to make sure these dollars are spent wisely with the goal of making SLU an even more prominent research university nationally,” Pestello said.

Details on the governance of the $50 million pool of research money are still being ironed out, but Pestello and Sinquefield said faculty would be able to apply for research funding.

The money can be leveraged to apply for external sources of funding and help scientists buy new equipment or hire graduate students.

In addition, the fund can also be used to recruit new faculty to the university by creating fellowships and paying salaries.

Pestello said the university was also working out the details on the pace of spending the Sinquefields’ donation. But he said he hoped other university donors would step up and supplement the new SLU Research Institute.

“I suspect the enormous generosity of the Sinquefields will serve as a model for others,” he said.

Though most of the gift is open-ended funding of research, it will fund two areas close to Sinquefield’s heart: economics and chess.

A new Sinquefield Center for Applied Economic Research will launch in the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business, and a new director — the Sinquefield Professor of Economics — will lead the center.

The Sinquefield gift also has a portion earmarked to support SLU’s chess program, where it will pay for student chess scholarships and team travel to tournaments.

Rex Sinquefield is known for his efforts supporting competitive chess in St. Louis, which has turned the region into a hub for the game. He’s also known for his political contributions, which often support libertarian-leaning causes and have made him perhaps the most prolific financier of candidates and campaigns across Missouri.

The Sinquefield-backed Grow Missouri nonprofit, for instance, is initially funding St. Louis’s exploration of a privatization deal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield both received MBAs at the University of Chicago — the institution SLU recently hired new vice president of research Ken Olliff away from — and worked as executives at Dimensional Fund Advisors. Rex Sinquefield made his millions co-founding Dimensional.

The couple are also prodigious funders of cultural institutions in the region, such as the St. Louis Symphony.

This isn’t their first major gift to a university, either. In 2015, they donated $10 million to the University of Missouri for a new music building on its Columbia campus.

Sinquefield said he and his wife’s gift to SLU was simply an effort to increase its standing nationally, which ultimately benefits the region.

“This is a wonderful laboratory,” he said. “This is an advantage that SLU has over a lot of universities. … It’s a big, urban laboratory.

“We’re just pursuing excellence,” he added. “Anything that moves us along that path is good.”