Saving a Campus

Posted on 16 April 2010

The proposed closing by SUNY Stony Brook of much of its Southampton campus has much to do with Stony Brook University not being what it was supposed to become: a well-rounded state university center.

In the 1960s, when Stony Brook was founded, the SUNY plan was for it to become a version here of institutions like the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor or University of Wisconsin at Madison. Instead, it became a school focused on research into hard sciences. As a reporter, I covered the early years of Stony Brook U. and witnessed a succession of physicists who became its president giving it this direction.

A big break occurred in 1994 when Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny, an English scholar and former president of Queens College, became president. She sought to change its culture, to humanize it and get the school focused far more on students. She had no choice. She related to me that the Middle States Commission on Higher Education threatened to lift Stony Brook’s accreditation unless it paid far greater attention to teaching.

In 2005, after Long Island University decided to close its Southampton College and a drive began, led by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. and State Senator Kenneth LaValle, to have SUNY take over the campus and have it emphasize environmental studies, Dr. Kenny embraced the idea. She worked to make it a branch of Stony Brook.

But with Dr. Kenny’s retirement last year, Stony Brook again has a research scientist as president. “He is all about science and research,” said Mr. Thiele last week about Dr. Samuel Stanley, previously vice chancellor for research at Washington University. “Shirley’s broad view of what Stony Brook should be is no more.”

For Stony Brook, shutting most of Stony Brook Southampton “is not just a budget matter,” complained Mr. Thiele. “The most disturbing thing” about Dr. Stanley’s visit to the campus last week to address students, faculty and staff was what Mr. Thiele said was his declaration that even if the state “came through with money,” he would not alter his decision.

It is an outrageous decision. Southampton Stony Brook was just beginning to flower — from now 525 students to an expected 800 this fall and in few years to 2,000. The state has spent $78 million to purchase and renovate the campus.

Its program of small classes, personal attention and an environmental mission works.

Zack Wagner-Herbert, 22, of North Haven (whom I’ve known since he was born) has gone to other colleges but he loves going to Stony Brook Southampton.

“It’s small, the teachers are good, a lot of the students are committed to sustainability, to the environmental field. And that’s a field for the future.”

It sure is.

But Stony Brook University is far more interested in what has become another extension: Brookhaven National Laboratory.

In 1998, after the Department of Energy fired the group that ran BNL in the wake of the radioactive mess made at the laboratory including years of leaks from its main nuclear reactor, Stony Brook University and Battelle Memorial Laboratory in Ohio took over operating BNL.

That reactor and a smaller one, also found to be leaking poisons into the Long Island groundwater, have been closed. But in recent times, BNL has begun to stress anew nuclear power research. It is awash in money. BNL received hundreds of millions of dollars in 2009 and this year under the “economic stimulus” American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

What a societal commentary: hundreds of millions of tax dollars for BNL while the East End’s only four-year campus, dedicated to the environment, so appropriate for this area, would be all but shuttered.

What can be done to save Stony Brook Southampton? Mr. Thiele hopes for a “public outcry.” He says “a good citizens’ lawsuit” based on the state spending $78 million and now scuttling what it invested all that money on is called for. He vows legislative action in Albany. He says a good course would be having the campus re-established as a SUNY college of its own, separate from Stony Brook. Says an “outraged” Mr. LaValle: “I will do everything in my power to protect and preserve what so many of us recognize as a jewel on the East End of Long Island.”

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