By Claire Walla
Last week, the battle to keep higher education alive in Southampton raged on.
Responding to SUNY Stony Brook’s decision in early April to end its residential and undergraduate programs at its Southampton campus, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and State Senator Ken LaValle introduced legislation to create a task force that would explore the option of turning the 82-acre, seaside property into an independent branch of the SUNY system. If all goes according to plan, this would allow the Southampton campus to function, for the first time since its founding in 1963, without the oversight of a parent institution.
“It doesn’t work to have Southampton as a satellite campus,” Mr. Thiele said. “My bottom line is to provide people in the East End with access to a real college. Stony Brook just wanted to use the campus to benefit Stony Brook.
“The ultimate goal has to be an independent SUNY campus,” Thiele continued. “It’s the best use of [the State’s] investment.”
Since 2005, when SUNY Stony Brook acquired the Southampton facilities from Long Island University, the state has spent nearly $75 million to improve the buildings and accommodate programs in environmental sustainability and marine biology. The campus grew to include about 400 students this past year and would have had twice that amount in the fall, but Stony Brook was forced to shift gears.
According to Lauren Sheprow, a spokesperson for SUNY Stony Brook, the university has suffered a 20 percent cut in state funding over the past two years. “With no relief in sight, and facing such an enormous deficit, Stony Brook was forced to streamline operations, including those at Southampton where the cost of educating a student is 2.5 times great than on Stony Brook University Main Campus,” she wrote in an email.
The university estimates it will save about $6.7 million annually by relocating most of Southampton’s academic programs to the main campus, a decision fully backed by the SUNY system. According to an email from a spokesperson for SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, the whole SUNY system has lost $424 million in funding over the last two years, and “the chancellor supports Stanley’s decision to live within the means available to him.”
With many Southampton buildings no longer in use, Stony Brook recently established an Advisory Committee to explore options for future use of the campus, such as developing a center for the creative arts and expanding graduate programs. Members of the Committee consist of university officials, others from the SUNY system, business and planning delegates, and two community members (including Laura Baudo Sillerman, whose husband served as Dean of the Southampton campus when it was still owned by LIU).
Thiele, however, insists that Stony Brook hasn’t done enough to bolster undergraduate education, an oversight he sees as a fundamental shift in priorities at the university. Stony Brook, he said, is now focusing on more lucrative programs in the sciences and mostly at the graduate level.
“One of the reasons why I’m so passionate about this campus is because of my own experience,” Thiele said. “I went to high school in Sag Harbor and then I went to Cornell. But, my family fell on some tough times—the economy was pretty bad then and both of my parents were out of work, so I had to come home. If that college hadn’t been there, then I wouldn’t have gotten my diploma.”
He continued, “But it’s not just about individual dreams and individual students. Higher education creates several hundred jobs and trained employees.”
No proceedings are yet underway—the plan is still very much in the gestation phase. But, Mr. Thiele said that he hopes discussions will pick-up quickly so that the campus will be up and running again as a four-year institution by next year.