Tale of Two Cultures

Posted on 26 August 2010

By Karl Grossman

It’s a tale of two cultures in one university. On one side, there is the Stony Brook University Medical Center and the compassionate care it provides. That is mirrored in the approach to health care as taught at its associated medical, dental, nursing and public welfare schools. On the other side, there’s the university itself, historically less than supportive of its undergraduate students.

Why the different sides?  It’s because the man behind health sciences at Stony Brook was the extraordinary Dr. Edmund Pellegrino. He came from a humble background in Brooklyn. The son of Italian immigrants, this almost prevented him from getting into medical school. He would tell the story of how one Ivy League medical school complimented him on the outstanding grades he received at St. John’s University, but declined his application stating in a letter that he would be “happier with” his “own kind.”

His father, a food salesman, was able through a restaurant owner he knew to approach a restaurant regular, the dean at NYU Medical School, and after a review of young Pellegrino’s sterling academic record, NYU welcomed him.

That was the early 1940s. Twenty-five years later, Dr. Pellegrino was given the task of creating a hospital and schools of health sciences at SUNY’s new Stony Brook University. As a health professor and administrator, he had become a pioneer in promoting humanism in medical education and care, a “virtue-based” interdisciplinary approach. I covered Stony Brook back then for the daily Long Island Press and wrote about his dream.

My wife and I have had a good many, as they say, “health issues,” and been treated at Stony Brook. Just last week, she had a successful operation there. Every time I’m there, I’m amazed to see the vision of Dr. Pellegrino continuing, an enduring legacy.

Sitting in the surgical waiting room, I was pleased to see Anita Lee, its long-time attendant, approach people with information about the procedure their loved one was undergoing and otherwise offering help. The medical staff is all remarkably kind and sympathetic. My father, before dying last year, was in several major Manhattan hospitals. Stony Brook is far superior. The caring culture that Dr. Pellegrino created lives on.

However, across Nichols Road is the main Stony Brook campus. The university’s early presidents, physicists, focused on it becoming a research institution. Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny, who began in academia as an English professor, was president between 1994 and 2008 and endeavored to reform its undergraduate education. She told me the university was facing having Middle States Association lift its accreditation if this wasn’t done.  Dr. Kenny was succeeded by Dr. Samuel Stanley who is similar to the initial presidents.

It was Dr. Stanley who ordered the shuttering of Stony Brook Southampton this year despite  the state having spent $78 million on what was to be a satellite campus of Stony Brook U. offering, unlike the main campus, small classes, and be a teaching institution specializing in environmental education.

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor has had the same experience with the Stony Brook University Medical Center that I’ve had. “My experiences have been wonderful,” he was saying last week, noting his mother was hospitalized there for six months before she died in January 2009. “It was a very difficult time and they were terrific.”

But the other side of the university, he noted, too, is another story. He said Dr. Stanley’s decision to close Stony Brook Southampton “behind closed doors in secretive ways very late in the year so the students had no options available,” and the “uncaring” manner in which they are still being dealt, is “appalling.” He has been calling for Dr. Stanley’s resignation and the transformation of the now forlorn Southampton campus into an independent SUNY college. Indeed, this is the only way it can again move toward its important potential.

Meanwhile, the health sciences side of Stony Brook continues to shine brightly. Dr. Pellegrino, now 90, who went on to become president of the Catholic University of America, is still championing humane health care. You can view on YouTube a presentation he gave last month on “medical humanities” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mrHEKt2HC8.

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