By Karl Grossman
The planned closing of most of SUNY’s Stony Brook Southampton campus represents more than an outrageous decision by the administration of Stony Brook University. It further shortchanges Long Island of seats at four-year SUNY schools.
Compared to upstate New York, Long Island for decades has been under-served in having such seats. The Southampton shuttering would worsen this inequity that has long resulted in the “out-migration” of Long Islanders to SUNY four-year schools at Oswego, Oneonta, Potsdam, Albany, Geneseo and elsewhere upstate .
The inequity is rooted in some unusual, indeed rather outrageous, history.
It was only in 1948 that New York got a state university. It was the last of the then 48 states to get one. Why?
The great state universities of the United States were largely born out of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. Under it, the U.S. government provided thousands of acres of federal land to be used for campuses, or to be sold to fund these new universities.
But in New York, this “land grant” university status was grabbed by a private school: Cornell University. Ezra Cornell, who made his fortune on Western Union Telegraph Company stock, launched Cornell with Andrew White in 1865. Both were also state senators. White, in the Senate, introduced the measure to direct Morrill Act proceeds to Cornell. There was much complaining in New York educational circles, but Cornell and White got away with the move. Insider deals in the New York State Legislature have obviously been going on for a long time.
Cornell under contract with the state has offered some public education. It has operated the State College of Veterinary Medicine, a Home Economics School and a School of Industrial and Labor Relations on its campus. When Cooperative Extension was instituted, to assist farmers, although elsewhere in the nation the programs were run by state universities, Cornell ran New York’s — that’s why it’s been Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Only after a Temporary Commission on the Need for a State University, set up in 1946, called for a state university was one finally created in New York.
But the State University of New York, SUNY, was to a large degree built on the skeleton of “normal” colleges — institutions set up in the 19th Century by the state to train teachers — at places like Oswego, Oneonta, Potsdam, Albany, Geneseo, etc. There was no “normal” college on Long Island. Indeed, the only state college here had been what began in 1912 as the New York School of Agriculture, a two-year institution in Farmingdale.
Moreover, although formally organized in 1948, SUNY only got intense state energy behind it in the 1960s when Nelson Rockefeller became governor. With his characteristic drive, Rockefeller pushed for an expanded SUNY. Under Rockefeller, on Long Island SUNY Stony Brook was begun as a university center and SUNY College at Old Westbury was founded. Only in 1985 did the “Aggie” school in Farmingdale become the third four-year SUNY school here. It’s now called Farmingdale State College with a focus on technology.
But that’s it: just three four-year SUNY schools for Nassau and Suffolk counties which have a combined population of 2.9 million people. The population upstate is 8.3 million. That’s a bit less than three times Long Island’s population. New York City does not fit into the SUNY equation because it has long had its own fine public colleges, since 1991 components of the City University of New York, CUNY.
The most recent figure on the SUNY website for “headcount enrollment” at the three Long Island schools is 33,359. The total “headcount enrollment” at SUNY’s three university centers upstate, its 18 four-year colleges there, and “statutory” schools (like the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell) is 162,337. That’s five times the number on Long Island — thus the major inequity.
Stony Brook Southampton with a planned enrollment of 2,000 would help offset the inequity a little. Its all-but closing would increase the educational shortchanging of Long Island.
These days, with the cost of private colleges astronomical, attending a SUNY college is a necessity for many in New York. But if they’re from Long Island, many will have to go upstate. SUNY has become the largest public higher education system in the nation — but geographically it is not fairly balanced.