Zeta Psi honors Scott Pedersen ’89 and his wife Susie with an ORIE scholarship
It may seem unusual for a government major to use terms more typically associated with operations research, such as maximizing utility, diminishing returns, and asymptotic curves. It is even more unusual that a recent Arts and Sciences graduate, Jason Kats ’10, has led the establishment of a scholarship honoring an alum of Operations Research and Information Engineering, Scott Pedersen '89, and his wife Susie.
Scott Pedersen returned to Ithaca a few years after graduation to work for the university and serve as facilities manager for his fraternity, Zeta Psi. The scholarship recognizes Pedersen’s positive impact on Kats and his fellow fraternity members, and was announced at the Zeta Psi Founders Day celebration in April, 2012. It also honors the fact that Pedersen is retiring from his managerial role at the fraternity house to devote more time to Susie, “which I thought was an very admirable position to take,” said Kats.
Leaving the woodpile higher
"From the day they first set foot in the fraternity house," Zeta Psi members are imbued with the theme of “leaving the woodpile higher,” according to Kats. “The owner gives you the key to a cabin in the woods that you can use, provided that you leave it in a better condition for the next people to come along. Over 10 to 15 years it will be the nicest cabin in the woods.”
According to Matthew Escovar, a 2008 graduate of the Industrial and Labor Relations School, Pedersen has been a “father figure in the house” and the “herald of the woodpile philosophy” in his speeches to members during Zeta Psi rituals. Escovar, who now works in Manhattan for the Australian investment bank Macquarie Capital, said that Zeta Psi’s Thurston Avenue fraternity house “wouldn’t exist in its current strength if Scottie hadn’t been involved. He sustained long term projects through a cyclical downturn in membership.”
Pedersen works for Cornell’s Planning, Construction and Design organization where, he said, “I have utilized my ORIE degree on such a regular, almost daily basis, that it has become part of my daily routine and character.” He is currently part of a process streamlining team that is scrutinizing the university’s procurement process. “I’m not frantically hovering over LINDO or any linear equation for that matter,” he says, but “I practice and preach the theory of Just In Time and appropriate centralization” that he learned about in ORIE.
A philanthropic philosophy
It is in the spirit of the woodpile that Kats established the scholarship. He believes in “maximum utility philanthropy,” contending that beyond necessities and savings for a rainy day there are “diminishing returns to wealth,” i.e. the relationship between wealth and happiness diminishes “as an asymptotic curve.” Hence it is better to allocate additional resources, whether time or money, to the woodpile and help those for whom the resources have greater marginal utility.
Kats was the “driving and organizing force” in the establishment of the Scott and Susie Pedersen Scholarship, according to fraternity Brother Escovar ’08.
“Jason Kats is one of the most selfless individuals I’ve ever met,” said Pedersen. “The scholarship is a milestone for me," he said. “You don’t realize until they verbalize it to you that you have been a positive influence on their lives.” The scholarship “enabled me to realize one of my long-standing goals, leaving my mark upon this earth long after I’m gone,” Pedersen said.
As alumni, Pedersen, Kats and Escovar are all considered “Elders” of the fraternity. Kats started the ball rolling with a gift, Escovar added to it, and they have been encouraging other fraternity members and Elders to "use the strength of the fraternal bond to permanently endow the scholarship, thereby “aiding education in these difficult times,” said Kats.
“Scott is an inspirational force in the house,” said Kats. “The scholarship is about Scott, Susie and his woodpile legacy,” he said, “not about me, Matthew and the others.“ Pedersen adds that Susie shares the honor "because she let me play in the fraternity's 'sandbox' all those years."
Kats has chosen Cornell’s preeminent donor, Charles F. “Chuck” Feeney '56, as a role model. Feeny, who flies coach, wears a $15 watch, and doesn't own a house or a car, has given away his fortune to the Atlantic Philanthropies, through which he has given $8 billion to important causes around the world, including about $1 billion to Cornell.
But "my parents are my best role models," said Kats. They left the U.S.S.R. in the late 1970’s, arriving in the US to eventually pursue graduate studies. “They came with nothing and ultimately worked their way up to something pretty awesome, which has inspired me to become more philanthropic over the years," said Kats, who was born in the U.S.
Kats works for his family's commercial real estate company and takes advantage of vacation flexibility to travel to places like Uganda and Rwanda in search of philanthropic opportunities.
“What I am doing comes from an ideology,” said Kats. “My whole theory behind naming endowments after others is to promote philanthropy and give back to those who have inspired me. I want to stay as much in the background as possible,” he added.
ORIE, the Laboratory of Ornithology, and the American Indian Program
ORIE Director Lewis said that the scholarship gift is “most generous and committed on the part of Kats, heart-warming for the Pedersens, a great honor for future recipients of the scholarship, and inspiring for all of us in ORIE and the broader University.”