By Matt Willemain
Why are dozens of Stony Brook professors planning to formally accuse University President Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny of “egregious mismanagement”?
Three hundred eighty-eight classes, scheduled for the fall semester by Stony Brook’s College of Arts and Sciences, were temporarily cancelled—and then restored—just days before class registration began. This happened as Stony Brook reacted to rapidly changing information about how much money the New York State government would cut from the State University’s budget (This story is reported in “Budget Cuts Spark Gloomy Rumors”, an article by Andrew Fraley and Najib Aminy in the previous issue of The Press). For some members of the Arts and Sciences faculty, this brush with disaster pushed to the surface long simmering dissatisfaction with the spending priorities, and decision-making style, of the university’s leadership.
The College of Arts and Sciences is one of several units in which Stony Brook’s academic programs are divided. Some of these divisions focus on one area, like the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the College of Business and the School of Journalism. In contrast, the College of Arts and Sciences is the all-purpose “everything else” group, and it encompasses most of the university’s academic programs.
Last week, The Stony Brook Independent, followed shortly by Newsday, reported that a petition had begun to circulate among the faculty, voicing “no confidence” in Dr. Kenny, and accusing her administration of neglecting the school’s main purpose, teaching undergraduates. The petition has already collected over one hundred signatures. After they have a chance to engage their peers and collect more signatures (a delay of possibly two weeks), organizers intend to deliver it to the president. Speaking to Newsday on behalf of Dr. Kenny, an administration representative said that the president would not respond to the criticism until it is actually delivered.
The petition was written and circulated by a voluntary grouping of professors called the Concerned Faculty of Stony Brook, who chose to act independently, outside of both their labor union and the University Senate—a campus governance body similar to the faculty senates of most universities (traditionally, a faculty senate would be the formal avenue for professors to engage the decision-making process at a university).
Herman Lebovics, a veteran Professor of History, was one of the first to sign the petition, and he spoke at length to The Press to elaborate on the criticism it expresses. Describing the motivation of the petition organizers, Lebovics drew an analogy between recent campus events and New York City history. He invoked the memory of the 1973 collapse of a section of the then-elevated West Side Highway, when a cement truck “fell through, and this caused a crisis. The highway wasn’t sound—it was a disaster—and they had to tear it down.” According to Lebovics, the revelation that the university was on the brink of cancelling nearly 400 classes “was the same kind of event. It revealed to us that the structure was very damaged.”
The petition is available, in full, online at www.petitiononline.com/cfsb. It begins by “expressing loss of confidence in the academic leadership of President Kenny,” and continues by listing problems related to “chronic and damaging under-funding of the academic sector” and the consequences of those problems for students and undergraduate education. Among the problems cited are failures to increase the number of full time teachers and classrooms, while the number of students has risen drastically. Among the consequences listed is the inability of students to get into the courses they need to graduate and limited individual attention available to students from the dwindling proportion of professors.
The professors who signed the petition seem to be upset about three facets of Dr. Kenny’s leadership. First, they feel that the president’s choices of how to distribute money reflect poor prioritizing—that she neglects what should be the university’s main concern, undergraduate education. Second, they feel that the president makes decisions in a secretive, authoritarian and thoughtless fashion. Third, they feel that the president is more concerned with the way the university is perceived than its substantive work preparing students for professional life or other endeavors. Lebovics summarized his complaints saying, “The school is being diminished. The plan is to diminish it even more, and make up for that by buying ads in the New York Times.”
According to Lebovics, the Concerned Faculty of Stony Brook formed to express these concerns because “Faculty governance—the [University Senate] is kind of broken.” Lebovics feels that the usefulness of the University Senate varies as different individuals within it take and leave positions. Bernard Lane, current president of the University Senate (a body which is intended to represent the faculty on campus) was quoted in Newsday dismissing the criticism of those who signed the petition. Lane said to Newsday, “I’ve thought that [Dr. Kenny] is doing a good job.” Lebovics thinks that this “is not the sentiment of the faculty.” Lebovics said of Lane, while allowing that he was not familiar with the senate president, “I don’t know what he’s talking about…I hope it’s obvious to you, as undergraduates, that things are not great.”
After delivering the petition, Lebovics says that “the plan is to meet with the president, which is normally hard to do because she isolates herself, and then perhaps continue the conversation with people to whom the president reports—Albany.”
Some of the professors who have signed the petition have tenure and some do not. Many of those whose jobs at Stony Brook aren’t as secure have chosen to “sign” anonymously. When asked if he was concerned that supporters of the president’s leadership might try to diminish the impact of the petition by questioning the legitimacy of the unnamed signers, Lebovics acknowledged that possibility. But he focused on the reasons behind the decisions to remain anonymous. “It means they are scared. The unpredictability about how this campus is run makes them nervous about what’s going to happen to them for opposing a president who is quite capricious.” He continued, describing the non-tenured faculty who signed as “very disturbed about the future of the institution that they made a commitment to—they risk a lot. I don’t blame them. I told some people not to put their names on it because they are in delicate positions…That is not how a university should be run.”
Asked if he knew of studies that measure the impact of class size on learning, Lebovics spoke instead about his own personal experience, and maintained that “you don’t have to be a brain surgeon” to know that classes where students can interact with their professors in discussion and carefully reviewed papers provide a better education. He said, “I used to teach cultural history to about 50 students; it’s now over 100. I’ve been trying to puzzle over how I can give papers—how it’s anything other than a performance.” Lebovics was confident that the reduction in academic budgets was hurting students. “I know that the quality of their education is being diminished. I know the students are having trouble fulfilling DEC requirements because they can’t get into our classes. I know that the faculty to student ratio has been bad.”
The ratio of faculty to students on campus is a sore point for critics because a dispute between the Concerned Faculty and the Administration about the exact figure underscores the problems they have, not only with university leadership’s decisions, but also with the way those decisions are made. The petition signers have estimated that over the past ten years (the majority of Dr. Kenny’s tenure as president), the faculty student ratio has worsened from 23:1 to 34:1. The administration says this number is incorrect—but they will neither say what they believe the number is, nor publicly release the information needed to calculate it definitely.
Lebovics’ practical concerns about the opportunities afforded to students continued. As the increase in the number of students reduces the amount of time professors have to dedicate to each, he said that the students “can’t get letters of reference; they don’t know the faculty…this is screwing them up for future studies. The faculty members who are writing recommendations are writing many letters. It is burdensome and there are glitches—the letters go awry.” He is especially concerned about class sizes for juniors and seniors. Traditionally, upper-division classes stress more individual attention on the student, as compared to large introductory lecture classes. Lebovics says that Stony Brook doesn’t compare to other, similar, universities in this regard.
The petition claims Stony Brook has suffered “a loss of faculty morale and a disturbing flight of top faculty to well-run universities.” Asked to substantiate this complaint, Lebovics said, “I won’t give you names, but I know three or four people who were good, who I respected a lot, who were courted by other campuses—offered not just pay but working conditions and funds for supporting their research. None of this was matched very well by Stony Brook. Stony Brook is not keeping up in a very good faculty market.” He said that scholars see Stony Brook as “not a good or safe place…The general atmosphere that the president has created is that this not a place of academic activity, this is a branch of an advertising agency.” He said that existing and potential professors expect they will not find fulfillment as teachers and scholars at Stony Brook.
Anthropology professor Pat Wright told Newsday that it was a mistake to blame President Kenny, as opposed to New York State politicians in Albany who fund the university from the state budget. When asked if it was fair to blame Dr. Kenny, Lebovics acknowledged that there were some limits on how she could redistribute funds saying, “This is a really difficult technical question. The State University [bureaucracy] is very restrictive…Yes, if they request money to increase sports facilities, that money couldn’t be used” for professors, classrooms and library books.
But he insisted that the president has enough flexibility that she should be held responsible. “The president has centralized what discretionary money there is, in her hands. Therefore, she has to take responsibility for the way it is disbursed.” He cited the fluidity of funds from scientific research and the president’s ability to make specific budget requests as some of the tools available to Dr. Kenny to direct resources to different projects. Highlighting to the president’s recent request for money for a new, multimillion dollar athletic facility, Lebovics said “I don’t know of any large budget requests for classrooms.”
“I’ve been here for 40 years—Albany is not always the culprit. Some bad decisions have been made locally,” he said, comparing Stony Brook’s academic spending unfavorably with other schools in the SUNY system and citing decisions to indulge in side projects, like campus beautification and the potential Gyrodine monorail, at the expense of teaching. “We did not need a ‘stony brook’—the little cement river” between the Administration Building and the music wing of the Staller Center for the Arts.
Ultimately, Lebovics disagrees with Wright’s assessment that state leaders in Albany are to blame. “We’re obliged to manage, here,” he said, “and I think the priorities of the president are unexamined, not well thought out and profoundly damaging to our main mission in Arts and Sciences to present an education to [undergraduates].”
Lebovics disagrees not only with the decisions the president has made, but how she has made them. He feels that tradition has been broken and the faculty have been cut out of the process. “When a campus is run in this secretive, authoritarian fashion, the faculty has to guess what’s going on,” said Lebovics, “There are no planning documents about the big things.”
Lebovics illustrated this point about exclusionary decision making with an anecdote: he said that an unspecified senior scholar tried to figure out what went into the planning for the dramatic increase in undergraduate enrollment. After a great deal of effort to bypass administration stonewalling, he was eventually told that there was no planning. “That’s the way the campus is run,” said Lebovics, “There are no documents that we share with them [as a basis for consideration when the faculty and administration discuss the university’s future], which is very unusual and authoritarian.”
He contrasts this current practice with academic convention and the history of Stony Brook, specifically citing the presidency of Dr. John Marburger III. Marbuger is the former Stony Brook president who now serves as Science Advisor to George Bush. Under Marburger, says Lebovics, “we were given tons of information, and that doesn’t happen now. We learn about [the university’s direction] from reading newspapers…Newsday, the New York Times, even the Port Jefferson Times Record.”
When asked if it was appropriate to temporarily neglect new faculty hires to pursue major expansion initiatives (such as the purchase of the Gyrodine facility, Southampton College and Touro Law School) because they represented unique opportunities for Stony Brook, Lebovics replied, “You don’t buy vacant houses and let them get destroyed. There was no budget for Southampton. Many buildings there have asbestos problems, and there’s no budget. Many of the people running it are depressed and will leave their post.” Lebovics says he has no problem with these and other expansion projects considered individually. “It’s good that we own stuff—I have no problem with that—and we’re giving her the benefit of the doubt…But then we realized the price of that—the cost of that—the postponement of preëxisting obligations and the centering of money into everything, but our core mission.”
“This happened to Antioch College,” warned Lebovics, referring to the 156-year-old school in Ohio which shut down earlier this year, “They started creating satellite campuses everywhere and eventually the whole college went bankrupt, even though the satellites made money.”
Lebovics shared his opinion of Dr. Kenny’s judgment: “The decisions have not been made well, thoughtfully, intelligently or usefully for the mission of training people to go out into the world…That’s what a manager does. He or she decides what are the priorities—and decides what is possible and not possible. In this case, Dr. Kenny decides how we keep the mission of the university while we take advantage of windfalls. These have not been wise decisions—they have not been planned—they have not been made on the basis of consultation with faculty members—they are going to turn around and bite us on the behind.”
“My sense, and the sense of my colleagues, is that the university is being run by press release,” Lebovics concluded.