Founded in 1963 by Long Island University, the current Stony Brook Southampton campus was once Southampton College, an institution that produced 34 Fulbright scholars and boasted Kermit the Frog as its commencement speaker one year. From the early 1990s on, the college’s officials made a conscious decision to focus on the sciences and creating writing, abandoning the other humanities programs once found in their course catalogs. Despite this refocusing and the countless accolades the academics received, it was plagued by financial management troubles and by 2005 the campus was shuttered. All appeared to be lost, but then a little less than a year later, the State University of New York swooped in with a $35 million dollar check to buy the 81-acre campus. Since 2006, the university has slowly but surely developed a reputation for itself, once again for its strengths in the marine sciences and the writing program. Four years later, it appears the campus is in the same boat it was in when Long Island University was its patron. The student base is a mere 400, though it was expected to double, and the tuition rates are locked in place, and a bit too low for the operations.
And once again local officials and community members are stepping in to save this institution of higher learning, which harkens back to the Save the College at Southampton movement when Long Island University was leaving the area. A university is no doubt an asset to the South Fork community in a number of ways. As State Assemblyman Fred Thiele pointed out, it produces hundreds of professional jobs in an area that is limited in terms of these kinds of positions. Furthermore, it enriches the community and rounds it out. And having the campus in operation as a school is a much better idea than the alternative, an 82-acre condominium or hotel, which is slowly becoming a dime a dozen on the East End.
Though we have found the marine science and writing program to be top-notch, we agree with Thiele that the college would be served best by rounding out its offerings with a more liberal arts program. We see the campus as an unbelievable opportunity to cultivate the cultural and academic resources at the disposal of our community. A little while ago, there was talk of establishing a Shinnecock language program at the college. We feel this should be expanded to perhaps include a Native American studies department. As an historic area, perhaps there could be courses in historic architecture and preservation. Think of the possibilities with a hospitality program and the relationships that could be developed with the restaurant and hotel industries.
These are just a few ideas we have been toying with but linking the studies at the campus with the assets within the community we feel is a key aspect in making this institution sustainable. It is also important to foster a sense of community partnership, and while this has been achieved in dribs and drabs we would like to see the campus more fully integrated into the community. Perhaps, one step to facilitate this process would be to re-open the train station at the college to allow easier access to the campus from other parts of the East End and Long Island, though this will take some kind of partnership with the Long Island Rail Road.
However, the white elephant in the room regarding anything that happens to this campus is money. The last two incarnations of the school ended simply because of dollars and cents. Until we can be shown how the school will break even, or be economically viable, we will remain cautiously optimistic that this is a reasonable course and not a design for a two or three year educational operation.