So Long, Southampton

April 8, 2010

Samuel L. Stanley Jr. has learned the hard way that it’s tough to keep bad news quiet. The recently minted president of the State University of New York’s Stony Brook campus whispered the details of a controversial plan to lawmakers Tuesday, only to find the discussions picked up by media within hours. That left Stanley and his staff scrambling Wednesday morning, trying to explain why and how Stony Brook’s Southampton location will be largely shuttered by fall.

“It was really disturbing that a meeting we felt we had in confidence was let out,” Stanley said.

The university issued a press release Wednesday, providing rough details of a plan to suspend the Southampton location's residential program and close undergraduate admissions there. While the location will retain some of its most popular programs, the plan would at least temporarily mothball many Southampton buildings and encourage students to finish their degrees at Stony Brook’s West campus, which is the primary hub of the Long Island-based institution.

It was only four years ago last month that SUNY bought the Southampton campus from Long Island University for $35 million. Southampton was billed as a cutting edge institution devoted to the emerging study of sustainability, and its small enrollment – now about 470 – catered to students who wanted something different from what the main campus of a major research university could offer. The Southampton location was lauded as an environmental playground, giving students access to a variety of ecosystems that would provide hands-on experience in biology and marine science.

“It was a bold idea to have a campus devoted to sustainability, but the number of sustainability majors has been small. I think there’s in a neighborhood of 50,” Stanley said. “I’m not going to say if it was a mistake or not a mistake” to buy the campus.

The Southampton campus was acquired during the tenure of Shirley Strum Kenny, who stepped down as president in 2009. Stanley took over in July.

The Southampton location has fierce advocates, and lawmakers quickly pounced as news of the plan spread. State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who was among the lawmakers to help orchestrate the Southampton purchase years ago, was particularly vociferous in his criticism, noting that the state had spent significant money to build a campus that is being largely dismantled.

“That tells you everything you need to know about the state. Invest $78 million, and then do nothing with it," Thiele said at a Tuesday night meeting, the San Harbour Express reported.

But Stanley argues that maintaining the campus isn’t, well, sustainable in a budget crisis.

“I would say that we did fundamentally believe that the financial model didn’t work essentially as outlined, and that to try and run a very small campus -- essentially a very small liberal arts campus -- on a $5,000 a year tuition, is very difficult.”

When Long Island University owned the campus, enrollment peaked at about 1,500 and students paid $20,000 a year, Stanley said.

"You can do the math and figure out without significant state allocation and support, this campus loses money," he said.

Stony Brook faces a $55 million -- 20 percent -- state budget reduction, and university officials say they don’t see budgetary fortunes improving any time soon. Stanley says the plan will save $6.7 million annually, although those savings won’t be realized in the first year because faculty under contract will have to be paid until the contracts expire. Job losses are inevitable, but Stanley said tenured faculty are “safe” and the university will try to find positions for other faculty on the West campus.

While dramatically changing the face of the Southampton location, Stony Brook plans to maintain its popular School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, as well as its Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and a writers' workshop. To finish their degrees, however, students in those majors who stay at Stony Brook will be busing back and forth between the West campus and Southampton to take classes and labs.

The 50-minute commute between Southampton and the West campus is just one of the things students are grumbling about. Students are concerned the unique majors at Southampton may not be retained, and they are worried that at this late date they couldn’t transfer to another institution if they wanted to do so. The unkindest cut of all, however, is that students learned of the decision as a fait accompli, said Brooks Surgan, a senior majoring in marine science.

“We feel like we’ve been tricked or just overlooked and forgotten about,” he said. “It was really behind our backs that this happened.”

Stanley and other officials met with students, faculty and community members Wednesday afternoon. Surgan, who attended the meeting, said he left feeling as if Stony Brook officials were dodging tough questions. Moreover, students feel that the late timing of the announcement was meant to ensure they wouldn't have time to transfer elsewhere, meaning Stony Brook could keep students' tuition dollars despite an upheaval that would otherwise prompt many to leave, Surgan said.

"It was all a strategy to close down the campus but keep the students going to Stony Brook," he said. "By making it last-minute, they really did trap the student body into having no other option."

Stanley said the timing was not intentional, but did note that the university's savings projections are based on retaining most of the Southampton students.

Stony Brook officials said they will honor collective bargaining agreements, but the Southampton plan has already been met with resistance from United University Professions, a union representing 34,000 SUNY faculty and staff, including 75 people at Southampton. The union is affiliated with New York State United Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

"This is extremely precipitous and premature," said Don Feldstein, a spokesman for the union. "We don’t know why such a move had to be made, especially since the state budget has not been approved, and we don’t know what level of state support there is going to be for the university.”

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