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Litigation Likely Over Southampton Campus

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By Bryan Boyhan

Last year, Katie Osiecki took the money her parents had saved for her college education and bought a house in Southampton. Instead of spending money on a private school education, she decided she wanted to go to the Southampton Campus of Stony Brook University, the state school that last week announced it was about to shut down almost all of the local campus to help meet a $55 million shortfall, which university officials say is largely due to state funding cuts.

Osiecki, a 2009 Pierson High School graduate, in a letter to the university’s president this week, said “Not only have I spent my savings on a house because I thought I would be spending the next three years going to school across the street, I also fell in love with a school that has acted like a second home for me for almost two semesters.”

The campus, she raved, had small class sizes, had teachers that were easily accessible and was where she felt her contributions were meaningful. She now feels betrayed.

“Within one night and an hour-and-a-half talk I felt like my dreams were crushed,” said Osiecki, a freshman in the school’s pioneering environmental design policy and planning program. “My life was going in a direction that couldn’t have been better for me and with one decision that was completely out of my control it was changed.”

Osiecki’s sentiments are similar to those of many on campus this week — including staff and faculty — who were stunned to learn of the sudden decision to shut all but a couple of buildings on campus by the end of this summer. The only programs that will be left are classes in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, plus the summer’s Southampton Writers Workshop. The recently renovated dorms, library and fine arts center will all be closed.

In response to the closing, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, a graduate of the campus when it was owned by Long Island University, and State Senator Ken LaValle have asked state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to investigate fraud on the part of Stony Brook University, alleging that university officials deceived incoming students.

Thiele and LaValle were instrumental in having the state purchase the campus when LIU was preparing to sell it to a real estate developer four years ago and have been heralded as heroes for saving it as an educational facility.

Both men say their offices have been flooded with complaints from parents and students regarding what they are calling “deceptive acts and practices” on the part of the university.

In particular, they say complaints have charged that parents and students were told prior to enrollment the campus and its programs were in no danger of being closed or eliminated because of the state’s fiscal problems.

“Without exception, Stony Brook made representations to these students and parents that SBS would not be closed or its unique environmental sustainability program eliminated,” they said in letters to DiNapoli and Cuomo. “In some cases, these representations were made just days before the closure announcement.”

For his part university president Stanley, who issued an op-ed piece to local media on Tuesday, said the school was forced to make difficult choices in face of a 20 percent cut in help from the state, and is working to make the best of a bad situation, including offering Southampton campus students the opportunity to transfer to the main campus in Stony Brook, including priority housing in dormitories. Failing that, the university will offer a refund to those students who choose to leave.

Ultimately though, it appears that Osiecki and the others are caught in a political battle between the state’s university system and the state legislature.

“Our hands were tied by the massive cuts in state funding and the restrictions we face in controlling our own finances,” said Dr. Stanley, who argued the state university system should be able to dictate its own tuition rates, rather than having them overseen by the state legislature. Stanley said other public universities in the nation, such as the University of Michigan and Penn State, set their own rates. But the New York State legislature will not allow this. When the state finally raised rates in 2009 after six years, contends Stanley, the state kept most of the money for itself to alleviate its own budget problems.

Thiele said the battle is not limited to investigations, but will also likely include a lawsuit on behalf of students, their families and alumni.

“I just finished interviewing a lawfirm for possible action,” said Thiele this week.

“We won’t go down without a fight,” concluded Osiecki in her letter.