Suffolk Closeup: Looking for answers at Stony Brook University

What’s going on at Stony Brook University?

The university has just suspended student admissions into its theater arts, comparative literature and cinema arts departments, part of a series of cuts in liberal arts. In May, hundreds of students joined in a demonstration on campus — dubbed a “March for the Humanities” — that culminated with a sit-in.

Stony Brook University is the largest single-site employer on Long Island. It has more than 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students and an operating budget of $2.7 billion for 2016-2017. All residents of this area have a stake in what happens there.

Answer to the question at the top: What is going on is the same thing that’s gone on for years, a de-emphasis in liberal arts and the humanities.

In a 2011 New York Times obituary for Stony Brook’s long-time president, John S. Toll, another long-time Stony Brook president, John H. Marburger III, was quoted saying that Governor Nelson Rockefeller “wanted Johnny Toll to make Stony Brook the Berkeley of the East.”

That was the vision not only of Governor Rockefeller in the 1960s but of the State University of New York. Stony Brook, established in 1962 — morphing from the State University College on Long Island set up in Oyster Bay in 1957 — was to be a well-rounded university center. It was to be New York State’s equivalent of other great American universities, such the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

But under the presidencies of Mr. Toll, a nuclear physicist, and his successor, Acting President T. Alexander Pond, also a nuclear physicist, and his successor, Mr. Marburger, a theoretical physicist, the overwhelming emphasis was on science and research.

Stony Brook ended up looking in many respects more like Caltech, the private California Institute of Technology, than well-rounded institutions such as Berkeley, Wisconsin, Michigan and others.

The one humanities-focused period at the school came when Shirley Strum Kenny was Stony Brook’s president. Ms. Kenny started as an English professor, went on to become chair of the Department of English and provost of the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland, and then president of Queens College. She led Stony Brook from 1994 to 2009 and tried to change its culture, to humanize it and get the school focused far more on its students and teaching.

The educator had no choice. She told me that the Middle States Commission on Higher Education threatened to lift Stony Brook’s accreditation unless it paid greater attention to teaching.

Ms. Kenny was succeeded by Dr. Samuel L. Stanley, Jr. who had been vice chancellor for research at Washington University in St. Louis. An M.D. long involved in research, he returned Stony Brook’s focus on science and research. One of his first acts was ordering the virtual closing of the Stony Brook Southampton campus, which had been founded as a teaching institution emphasizing the environment and sustainability.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) complained that Dr. Stanley “is all about science and research” and didn’t appreciate what Stony Brook Southampton, formerly Southampton College, was about.

Under Dr. Stanley, Stony Brook has made great advances in its medical component. Its hospital and its medical, nursing and dentistry schools and other programs in health sciences, and its satellite clinics, are all world class.

A pared down Stony Brook Southampton awaits newly Stony Brook-affiliated Southampton Hospital moving to the campus, with linked health sciences programs.

But a major university should offer a broad education. Learning in literature, theater, cultural studies, all of the liberal arts that the Stony Brook administration would cut into, are important to students’ education, to their understanding of the world.

Meanwhile, another fine Stony Brook asset that is integral to comprehending the environmental history of our area, Stony Brook’s Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences, has also been eliminated.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Stony Brook was the scene of many anti-Vietnam War protests which I covered. I recall being with Mr. Toll late one night in his office as students demonstrated against Stony Brook participating in a Pentagon research program.

“Don’t they understand,” he said to me, “that the academy has always done research for the military?”

After World War II Navy service, Mr. Toll worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, set up to build atomic bombs, with the University of California its manager (and still today as its lead manager). I explained that the Vietnam War was seen far, far differently than World War II and collaboration by universities in it was strongly opposed.

Mr. Toll didn’t understand. In the wake of the protests, despite his advocacy, the Pentagon’s research program didn’t come to Stony Brook.

A major university should offer a broad education.

Photo credit: Krysten Massa

grossman_karl150Karl Grossman is a veteran journalist and professor and a member of the Press Club of Long Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His Suffolk Closeup column is syndicated in newspapers across the county.