What’s going on at Stony Brook University? The university has just suspended student admissions into its theatre 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 — 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 for 2016-2017 of $2.7 billion. All Long Islanders have a stake in what happens at Stony Brook University.
What is going on now at Stony Brook is the kind of thing that has gone on at it for years: a de-emphasis in liberal arts and the humanities.
In its obituary in 2011 for Stony Brook’s long-time president, John S. Toll, The New York Times quoted another long-time Stony Brook president, John H. Marburger III, as saying that Governor Nelson Rockefeller “wanted Johnny Toll to make Stony Brook the Berkeley of the East.”
Indeed, 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 out of 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 the University of California, Berkeley and other great American universities, such the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
But under the presidencies of Toll, a nuclear physicist, and his successor, acting president T. Alexander Pond, also a nuclear physicist, and his successor, Marburger, a theoretical physicist, the overwhelming emphasis was on science and research.
Stony Brook ended looking in many respects more like Caltech — the private California Institute of Technology — than a well-rounded institution like Berkeley, Wisconsin, Michigan and so on.
The one humanities-focused time came when Shirley Strum Kenny was Stony Brook’s president. She started out 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.
She 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.
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 turned Stony Brook again to focusing on science and research. One of his first acts as Stony Brook president was ordering the virtual closing of the Stony Brook Southampton campus, founded as a teaching institution emphasizing the environment and sustainability.
State Assemblyman Fred Thiele of Sag Harbor complained that Stanley “is all about science and research” and didn’t appreciate what Stony Brook-Southampton, formerly Southampton College, was about.
Under Stanley, Stony Brook has made great advances in its medical component. I’ve been treated by Stony Brook doctors and will attest personally to Stony Brook Medicine being world-class. Its hospital and its medical, nursing and dentistry schools and other programs in health sciences, and its satellite clinics, are all fine.
A pared-down Stony Brook-Southampton awaits newly Stony Brook-affiliated Southampton Hospital moving to the campus with linked health sciences programs for more use.
A major university should offer a broad education. Learning in literature, theatre, cultural studies — all of the liberal arts that the Stony Brook administration would cut into — are important to a student’s education, and her or his understanding of the world.