By Colleen Harrington
Still reeling from President Stanley’s gut-punch announcement that the sustainability-centered Southampton campus will be mothballed to cut costs, outraged students are preparing to combat SUNY in court. Student leaders announced Friday night that they have raised over $20,000 in under a week to hire a law firm and challenge the closure.
After media reports leaked news of the closure last week, Stanley was forced to announce his intentions to shut down all Southampton residence halls, most undergraduate academic programs and most buildings, including a newly completed state-of-the-art library. Stanley said that closing the school will save $6.7 million annually, and the savings will help offset the nearly $55 million in cuts Stony Brook has absorbed from the state since 2008. The graduate writing program and some marine science classes will continue, but students in all other programs will be forced to transfer to main campus in the fall, where housing and attendance is already perennially packed, or to find a new school altogether.
“President Stanley needs to realize the message he’s sending by closing one of the only schools in the country that’s focused solely on environmental sustainability,” said sophomore Carly Rorer, who moved to Long Island from Kentucky to attend Southampton after finding the campus online. “He’s saying that money and quick fixes are more important than our environment. Saving a couple million dollars rather than saving the planet seems unfathomable to me.”
The initial shockwave of the closure gave way to fierce determination to prevent it. Student leaders set up a “Save the Southampton Campus” Facebook page, which currently has over 17,000 fans. They’ve used this page and a Twitter account to solicit PayPal donations to fund their lawsuit through their non-profit organization, Save the Campus at Southampton, Inc. An anonymous donor pledged an additional $10,000 after the students secured $10,000 on their own by Friday, a huge feat for the resolute students. The money will be used to hire “one of the top law firms in the country,” which will work at discount for legal services, according to the Facebook page. Students are planning benefit events to raise more money, and they have also started an online petition against the closure, which currently has 3,800 signatures.
Local legislators are exploring legal action against Stanley and SUNY as well. First District Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Senator Kenneth LaValle have asked state Attorney General and Comptrollers offices to investigate the closure. The politicians complained the decision was made “unilaterally and behind closed doors,” and without any input from students, community members, or state legislators.
“At this point, legal action is very likely,” said Thiele in a telephone interview. “It will probably be a taxpayer lawsuit for the waste of public assets. They’ve spent $78 million in taxpayer dollars buying and renovating this campus, which they are now throwing away by mothballing it.” Thiele, who likened closure of the 4-year-old campus to “killing the baby while it’s still in the crib,” argued that Stanley’s math doesn’t compute. “I believe that their numbers of saving $6.7 million per year are erroneous and will not stand up to scrutiny,” he said.
University administrators stand by their decision and their reasoning. “Anticipated base savings from closing the residential campus at Southampton are projected to be $6.7 million,” said Daniel Melucci, Stony Brook’s associate vice president of strategy and planning. “Because we expect to honor existing contractual commitments to employees, the realization of those savings will phase in over a 2 to 3 year period.” Melucci says that the 500 students enrolled at Southampton are simply more expensive than main campus students. “When one averages the cost of operating the [Southampton] campus over such a small number, the cost per student is 2.5 times greater than at Stony Brook,” he said.
Thiele asserted a self-serving agenda rather than financial issues are behind the decision. “I think the real reason behind this move is that there has been a not-so-subtle change in philosophy within the administration,” he said. “Shirley Strum Kenny had a broader view of public education, she looked to expand and to serve the broadest possible needs of the public. Stanley seems to be more focused on graduate studies and research, research, research, at the expense of undergraduate academics.”
Liam Keating, 22, was one of the very first students at Stony Brook Southampton and says he unfortunately may be one of the last to graduate from it. “President Kenny tried her hardest to make this a flagship school of sustainability, and now with Stanley, it seems like he’s ‘publish or perish.’ We’re not a big research school here, we’re about teaching people a new way of life.” Keating, an environmental studies major, added, “You can give these students a new campus and new dorms, but you can’t give them back the time and the effort and the work they’ve put in, outside of their studies, to make it a place that people from all over the country want to come to. It’s really hard for us to walk away from that.” He noted that the campus greenhouse and vegetable garden were projects largely conceived and developed by students.
Thiele, who graduated from a then Long Island University owned Southampton in 1976, said the closure has resulted in hundreds of complaints to his office from community members, devastated students and angry parents. He said he’s heard from students who forfeited admissions and scholarships to other schools to instead attend Southampton because Stony Brook officials had said the satellite campus was in no danger of being affected by budget issues.
“I’m going to be homeless on May 15,” said Rorer, the student who moved from Kentucky to attend Southampton. She’s been renting a home in the Hamptons but now will be forced to transfer to main campus, and says she must continue to live off-campus to establish New York State residency to get a tuition break. Rorer says she is now scrambling to find affordable housing close to Stony Brook, where she will grudgingly continue her studies in marine vertebrate biology. “Before coming here, I’d never been a part of something so special and so tight-knit. We’re all here because we care about the environment. We’ve been completely uprooted.”
Others affected by the closure said the expenses they have incurred cannot be made up.
“A year at Stony Brook Southampton is half our yearly income,” said Robert and Michelle Gagermeier of Redmond, Oregon in an email interview. They saved for months to send their son Robert Campbell and his belongings across nearly 3,000 miles in September for his freshman year at Southampton. “Last week, Robert called us in complete devastation. There was no indication that there were any problems that would cause the school to close. Now us and many other parents are faced with emotional and financial stress, because the President decided to close it.”
“This is wrong on so many levels,” said Nancy Cerchiara, mother of Southampton Sophomore Giovanni Cerchiara. She does not buy the budget gap explanation that Stanley has given for the abrupt closure. “I believe that there is a lot more to this entire story. Why was so much money invested in this campus to have it shut down to save a fraction of the dollars spent to renovate it?” Cerchaira says that at this late date, her son has no other option but to register for the fall semester at West Campus. “I can’t help but think this was a very calculated plan to wait to tell these kids so they would have no other choices.”
The Southampton closure shocked many not only because the campus was so recently acquired, but because of the success the school has seen thus far. “It seems a terrible mistake to close the campus, especially when we’ve been seeing increased enrollment,” said Dr. Harold James Quigley, who has taught both political science and environmental planning courses at Southampton. “There’s no startup that can see a profit within its first few years. I can appreciate budget constraints, but according to a number of our local representatives, the money could have been attainable,” he said.
Southampton is not the only Stony Brook campus that is to be abandoned due to budget issues. Stony Brook had been exploring the development of a new campus in Songdo, South Korea, as part of a “global university” where 14 other schools from around the world are represented. One Stony Brook administrator said the university was “indefinitely suspending plans for a campus in Korea,” and that South Korean authorities have not yet been told of the suspension. Melucci clarified these remarks by saying, “We will only move forward on the Korean initiative if there are contractual assurances against losses to Stony Brook.” It is unclear if the school has any such assurances.
The Southampton closure marks the second time in a decade that the campus is being abandoned. The location was initially established as a satellite campus of Long Island University in 1963 and remained that way until 2005, when a cash-strapped LIU announced it would close the facility and its students would be forced to transfer to their main campus in Brookville. At the time, students, faculty and local legislators rallied to save the school, and were seemingly successful when the campus was bought by Stony Brook University in March 2006 under the leadership of Shirley Strum Kenny. At the time, SBU was lacking undergraduate programs in environmental sciences, and university planning committees agreed that Southampton was perfectly poised to become an institution centered on sustainability. Taxpayers footed the $35 million final purchase price via Stony Brook for the 81-acre campus and its buildings, many of which were in gross disrepair.
Stony Brook quickly set out to invigorate its new location and to rework many aspects of the campus so it would be in line with the sustainability-centered programs they would offer there. Over four years, some $43 million was invested in the campus, mostly for renovations. In October 2009, Southampton celebrated the opening of its brand new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified library, the first of its kind on Long Island. LEED certification measures building sustainability by analysis of the structure’s water and energy use, materials and practices used in construction, and various other factors. The library is geo-thermally heated and the bathrooms in the facility use rainwater through a collection system on the roof. Now that the campus will be largely shuttered, the new library will close after only 6 months of use. The books housed within will be sent to the main campus, according to student leader Nick Zanussi, who has worked in the library since it opened.
For the hundreds of students who say they have no other choice, making the transition to the main campus next fall may prove to be a challenge. Besides the fact that Stony Brook’s main campus has around 50 times as many students, much of Southampton’s daily operations were deeply rooted in environmentalism. The students ate using biodegradable utensils and would routinely denounce the rare unsustainable Southampton policy, such as the use of plastic wrap to keep apples in the cafeteria fresh.
“When we were at main campus to protest the other day, we called people out for throwing away bottles in regular trash cans instead of recycling,” said Zanussi, a 21-year-old environmental studies major from Sag Harbor. “When we get there, that school’s not going to know what hit them.”
Most unsettling for Zanussi though is the fact that many of his fellow students have said that faced with the closure, they will abandon their education entirely. “25 percent of students here are probably not going to school at all next semester.”