By Bryan Boyhan
The future of the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University does not lie with Stony Brook at all, according to a group of local elected officials and students.
Instead, the campus should become a fully independent college of the state university system.
The proclamation came last Thursday as the most recent salvo in an attempt to keep the campus open as a full time, residential college, and local officials have asked to meet with university officials to negotiate a deal to purchase the development rights to the college’s 82 acres.
University officials responded this week they would be open to a meeting, but showed little sign they would be willing to surrender the campus.
Two weeks ago, Stony Brook University, which has owned the campus for four years, made the sudden announcement that it planned to close most of the buildings on campus, leaving only two programs, marine sciences and the graduate program in writing, and two buildings. All other students, university president Dr. Samuel L. Stanley said, would be welcome on the main campus. As of this week 273 students of the 373 full timers on campus had begun the paperwork for the transition, the university said. The motivation for the closing is financial, said Dr. Stanley, who argues that significant cuts in state funding have left the university no other choice. He is expected to make a total of about $54 million in cuts to meet the short fall, about $7 million of which would come from the cuts at the Southampton campus.
But during a press conference last week underneath the college’s iconic windmill, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and other officials laid out a plan that would call for the Town of Southampton to purchase the development rights to the 82 acre campus using millions in Community Preservation Fund money. That acquisition, argued Thiele, would more than satisfy the university’s financial concerns, and guarantee the campus would be used for educational purposes.
In addition, said Thiele, he would help spearhead a movement to take the campus away from Stony Brook University.
“The current administration at Stony Brook doesn’t believe in Southampton,” said Thiele in an interview. The assemblyman has said the university underwent a shift when former president Shirley Strum Kenny — who championed the establishment of a sustainable sciences program at the local college when the state bought the campus from Long Island University — retired last year. The university, now headed by Dr. Stanley, has taken to re-positioning itself as a research facility, said Thiele, and the local campus, with more of a humanities-based curriculum, does not fit into that design.
Indeed, said Thiele, the administration at Stony Brook has resented the money Southampton has received.
In response, Dr. Stanley and State University Chancellor Nancy Zimpher wrote this week: “We too are concerned about the future of Southampton and remain committed to its students. Most importantly, despite repeated claims to the contrary, the Southampton campus will remain open. To this end, we will maintain the Southampton location as a vital and vibrant site for teaching and research, most notably at the pioneering Marine Station, home of Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and through the renowned Southampton Writers Workshop. Currently, plans are in the works for several other SUNY campuses to make productive and expanded use of Southampton’s facilities.”
In front of an audience of more than a hundred students and staff members, a parade of local officials last week promised they would work to secure the campus as an independent institution.
“Using Community Preservation Fund money is an ideal way of preserving Southampton College,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst to cheers. “We want to preserve it not just because of the college, but because these 82 acres are very important to us.”
It was not lost on the audience that, prior to the state stepping in to buy the school in 2006 — ironically orchestrated by Thiele, State Senator Ken LaValle and Congressman Tim Bishop — LIU had considered selling the campus to developers.
According to a letter of proposal sent to Dr. Stanley and Chancellor Zimpher last week, the open space on campus would yield about 40-45 developable units. Thiele, who helped author the legislation, said the Community Preservation Fund — which has yielded over $600 million for the five East End towns since its inception in 1999 — allows for such a purchase, and, further, the development rights could be sold to developers who wish to increase density in other parts of the town more suitable for development, thereby replenishing the money spent for the campus.
The first step will be for the group of local officials to have the land appraised; but for the proposal to work, Thiele et al need a willing seller, and the reply this week would imply the university is not willing to give up the property. Thiele said the battle is being fought on two fronts. Locally, on campus, students have waged a fight that includes demonstrations and are preparing a suit against the university and the state. In Albany, said Thiele, he and LaValle are working to persuade their peers to provide some language in the upcoming budget that would allow the school to remain open as a four-year residential facility. The university, said Thiele, has paid lobbyists working to counter them.
“The president of the university and the chancellor are not from New York State and they don’t understand New York,” LaValle said to an appreciative crowd last Thursday. “And they don’t understand that New Yorkers fight for what they want.”
University officials are open to talks, but appear committed to maintaining the campus.
“We fully intend to continue the use of the campus and we are engaged in discussions about how to best utilize Southampton’s facilities,” wrote Stanley and Zimpher. “Accordingly, we welcome ideas for the Southampton site that are beneficial and will maximize taxpayer investment. In fact, this is at the top of every meeting agenda concerning Southampton.”
They have suggested meeting in the coming week.