By Colleen Harrington
Dealing a devastating blow to the Stony Brook Southampton students seeking the revitalization of their satellite school, the university oversight council voted last week to support President Samuel Stanley’s April decision to largely close the campus. Despite the setback, students and local lawmakers say they haven’t abandoned hope and have pledged to continue the battle for their school.
At the conclusion of a drama-packed October 4 meeting, members of the oversight council voted 7-2 to adapt a resolution proclaiming their support of Stanley’s decision, saying it is now “fiscally impossible” to reverse cuts to Southampton. The council’s belated vote came in response to NY Supreme Court Justice Paul Baisley’s September ruling that the council should have been involved in the decision making process from the start, and a May 11 after-the-fact council discussion of Southampton was insufficient.
The October 4 council meeting in the Wang Center played out over four hours, twice as long as a typical council session. It included a public forum where pre-determined speakers took to the podium with a three-minute limit to voice their support for either side of the issue.
Several former Southampton students stood before the crowd and council to plead for the reopening of their school and to complain about the university’s lack of transparency. Student Katie Osieki, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, called for an independent audit into the university.
Faculty members and a couple of students also spoke to support Stanley and advise the council to do so as well, including Faculty Senate President Fred Walters. Walters said that while he hadn’t yet discussed Southampton with the full senate, his view is that “Southampton is simply an extravagance we cannot afford at this time.”
One of the students who expressed support of scrapping the school was Matthew Graham, president of the undergraduate student government and de facto voting member of the council.
“I’ve heard the facts and I’ve seen the numbers,” he said. “I’ve come to the conclusion, after all that, that the decision to close Southampton is in the best interest of the Stony Brook community. No matter how tough it is to hear it, and no matter how tough it is for me to say it, it’s a decision that had to be done.”
Graham’s stance contrasts starkly with an undergraduate government resolution that was passed last April, which condemned Stanley’s “callous” move and called for the administration to rescind the decision. Graham had not been president at the time, but Jasper Wilson was, and he also appeared at the council meeting to say he had changed his mind and now supported the cuts.
After viewing budgetary presentations and listening to the public speakers, President Stanley and the ten council members holed up in a conference room guarded by university police for an executive session. When they returned over an hour later, they quickly voted 7-2 to stand behind Stanley (council member Diana Weir left before the vote, citing a scheduling conflict).
As soon as the council had voted, one Southampton student sobbed as the displaced bunch filed angrily out of the room. A single student stuck around until the meeting’s conclusion to say to the council members, in a voice wavering with emotion, “You guys have failed all of us in your role today.” The council members did not make eye contact with the student and did not respond.
The meeting appeared to be an emotional one for some council members as well. As the audience was leaving, President Stanley shook hands with and thanked council members. Lou Howard, one of the dissenting members, was overheard apologizing to Stanley, saying, “I just couldn’t do it.” Council member Jeanne Garant received hugs from Stanley and Law and as she walked out of the conference room, she was crying.
“I’m sorry, now’s not a good time,” Garant said, brushing away tears, when asked to comment. She did not respond to requests for comment later in the week.
In an interview after the meeting, Law said the undocumented session included “heartfelt discussion” among council members on both sides of the issue. “I had no idea how it was going to go. But this is about what’s in the best interest of the university.”
“Everyone was lobbying everyone and everyone spoke very passionately during the executive session,” said Graham in an interview. “The whole thing has gotten very political. But I think that at the end of the day, people voted to reflect how the feel, and they did the right thing.”
In a defiant response to the council’s resolution, Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and other local elected officials held a press conference a week after the council meeting below the landmark windmill that sits at the center of the Southampton campus.
“This campus should not be sitting here vacant like it is today,” Assemblyman Fred Thiele proclaimed from a podium before a small, solemn crowd of students and community members. “We want to reach out to Stony Brook University to basically stop the madness, to sit down with us and come up with a concrete timetable and a concrete plan for the reopening of this campus and the return of the students.”
Thiele said that the council’s resolution is meaningless because they voted to support a decision that had already been annulled by a supreme court justice.
“Eastern Long Island needs a four year residential college and we know that one can be viable here,” said Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who worked at Southampton College under Long Island University’s ownership for 29 years. “We were on a path to having it really, really work and that path was cut short. I believe we can get back on that path.”
“As I walked here to the windmill today, I was a little choked up because this is just an incredible place,” said State Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). “This place should be moving and shaking and it’s not. Processes and laws were scooted around, and that’s not what our system of government is all about.”
“To think that every elected official at every level that represent the taxpayers of the state of New York have spoken out against the action that’s been taken, and have been ignored and defied is a very, very troublesome reality,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. “I encourage all of us to stay united in fighting this.”
The legislators signed a letter to be sent to SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and the SUNY Board of Trustees, who are poised to give their final approval to the council’s resolution and finalize the move to mostly scrap the campus. Zimpher has previously expressed her support of the cuts, and one of her top aides sits on the Southampton task force that’s supposed to explore new uses for the campus.
Asked to comment on the lawmakers’ press conference, Stony Brook Spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow would only say, “Nothing has changed. The SUNY system and each campus must address drastic cuts, and we continue to try to manage them without cutting academic programs.”