By Colleen Harrington
While Stony Brook officials claim that the Stony Brook Council, the university’s oversight body, was involved in the decision to largely close Southampton, a judge has ruled that it wasn’t, and even some council members say they were left in the dark. One member said she found out about the closure when she saw it in the papers.
“The judge’s decision speaks for itself: the council had no input in it before the announcement was made,” said council member Jeanne Garant, formerly the mayor of Port Jefferson Village. “It’s a big mistake we wish the president hadn’t made, because this is publicity the university doesn’t need.”
The council’s involvement, or its lack thereof, in the decision to scrap Southampton programs and funding is at the center of NY Supreme Court Justice Paul Baisley’s Aug. 30 decision to annul the closure. Baisley ruled that the Southampton decision-making process required the direct involvement of the Stony Brook council, an independent oversight board of nine governor-appointed members plus one student seat which alternates annually between the undergraduate and graduate student government. University officials point to a May 11 council meeting as having filled that mandate, but the meeting came weeks after President Samuel Stanley announced his decision and said it was “a done deal.” Six former Southampton students filed the lawsuit.
Garant said the council might have been able to examine alternatives if they’d been involved earlier. “He neglected to talk to the council first and we might have been able to say, ‘let’s do this instead,’ or ‘let’s take a look at this option.’”
She suggested that Stanley and even fellow council members were unaware of responsibilities that they held. “We’ve all learned a good lesson from it,” she said. “I know he’s very sorry, and we’re very sorry, and of course this is never going to happen again.”
At the May 11 meeting that the university references, the council’s chairman Kevin Law made a subtle statement that sheds some light on how the council interprets its responsibilities.
“I know our role as a council is limited in many ways,” said Law, a lawyer who at the time was chief executive of the Long Island Power Authority. “But feel free to bounce some decisions off of us in the future to get our input, our thoughts. Always feel free to use us as advisors as you’ve got to make some of these tougher decisions, going forward.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that,” President Samuel Stanley replied.
Law’s implication that the council is little more than a soundboard is a marked departure from New York state law, which requires the council’s approval on all major plans relating to faculty, staff, students, admissions, academic programs, student housing, lands, grounds and buildings—in short, all of the areas affected by Stanley’s Southampton scale-back. Indeed, the council’s role is so clear and far-reaching that its stamp of approval was key to the acquisition of the Southampton campus in 2005.
Another council member who requested anonymity, citing the ongoing litigation, echoed Law’s notion that council has limited powers. “We are not a policy-making board,” said the member. “Our main responsibility is to hire new university presidents and that’s basically the extent of it.”
The member said the council had no official involvement in the decision to scrap programs and shutter buildings at Southampton prior to Stanley’s April announcement. “Yes, he should have come to us sooner,” the member said. “But the fact is we’re not the financial experts, we leave that to the people from the budget office. We’re an eclectic bunch… and we don’t all have the time or the training to sit down and go over every single thing.”
Video of all the council’s meetings are available on the university website, and the May 11 footage shows that Law called an unscheduled executive session to “discuss some things with potential litigation matters involving the university.” The camera stops rolling and all attendees besides Stanley and council members are asked to leave the room for 15 minutes.
When the tape picks back up, Stanley briefly speaks about the university’s dire financial situation before broaching the cuts to the Southampton campus he’d announced a month earlier. He stresses repeatedly that he does not intend to sell the property and that he and other SUNY administrators are “committed to moving the campus forward.” Stanley says there were three pillars behind his decision: budget cuts from the state, enrollment numbers that never matched projections, and anticipation of philanthropy that failed to materialize. Law then asks him if Southampton could remain open if someone stepped forward to donate $6 million, and Stanley replies that if someone were to offer him millions, he would not spend it at Southampton; he’d use it on main campus to offset the budget cuts the school is coping with.
After Stanley’s oratory on his decision, a handful of council members ask a few quick questions. Garant demonstrates how misinformed members are on the matter by asking how the students are acclimating to the main campus; Stanley quickly replies that the students wouldn’t be making the switch for several months. The council then moves on to view a presentation on the budget.
The council’s only other meeting last semester, on Feb. 9, was peppered with positive references to Southampton and had no mention of the possibility of cuts there. Law even announced that the May 11 meeting would be held at the South Fork campus so council members could “take a peek at that.”
“We were all looking forward to visiting the campus—I think there was new construction that was being planned there,” said Garant in an interview. “And then of course, we read in the paper they were closing it down. We were certainly surprised by it and we didn’t know what had caused it.”
Garant said that after being informed of the budget, she could understand why Stanley made the decision.
“After his explanation and after we got to review the budget, I can easily understand why he did what he did,” she said. “It’s really too bad, it’s just one of those things that happens.”
Law declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
Seeking a better understanding of the university’s decision-making process, The Press has filed a number of Freedom of Information Law requests and appeals for records relating to the Southampton campus, which SUNY has repeatedly denied or ignored. The Press has initiated the legal process to gain access to Southampton-related records.
In the students’ case versus Stanley, Stony Brook and the council, the Judge Baisley has asked both sides to file proposed judgments by Sept. 17, which he will consider before making his final decision for the future of Southampton.
When asked how the university plans to file its legal response, Spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow pointed to the May 11 meeting as sufficient for the legally mandated council involvement.
“Although not yet part the legal record, in fact the university has already complied with te court’s directive,” University Spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow wrote in an email. “On May 11, 2010, at a regularly convened meeting of the Stony Brook council, President Stanley apprised the council and members of the public then in attendance, about both the budgetary impact of residential operations at Southampton, and his intention to relocate a number of academic programs from Southampton to the Stony Brook campus.”
Sheprow declined to address why the meeting hadn’t been brought to light in court yet, or why the council was briefed on the Southampton decision a month after it had been announced.
Lawyers for the Southampton students have filed their own proposed judgment seeking the restoration of the Southampton campus to its fully operational status in time for the spring 2011 semester.
“In an ideal situation, the people who were in charge of making this decision, who bypassed the procedures and obviously broke the law—they’d be punished, maybe lose their position,” said Tara Linton, an environmental humanities major and plaintiff in the lawsuit, who transferred to main campus this year. “We’d be able to get back to Southampton and pick up right where we left off.”
But turning back time may not be so simple, as the Southampton campus has become a dreary outpost that’s lost much of its luster. The cuts at Southampton officially took effect August 31. Cyclists and skateboarders heading to and from class no longer travel the paths that wind over the sprawling campus. The residence halls are locked and some unfinished dorm buildings have been shuttered with plywood. The campus’ newly completed buildings, including the state-of-the-art LEED certified library, now sit sealed, silent and vacant. The books that were stocked in the library just a few months ago have been packed up and shipped out.
“Main campus sent out very strict guidelines about removing stuff,” said Peggy Gregonis, a staff assistant for Southampton’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. She said crews came out to Southampton to inventory, tag and truck away computers, books and equipment.
Some of the funding for Southampton has already been curtailed, according to Daniel Melucci, Stony Brook’s Vice President for Strategy and Planning. “We currently have a total of $7.7 million budgeted for Southampton for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Last year the total state budget was approximately 12.5 million,” he said.
Also absent from Southampton is a large portion of its former faculty and staff. Former Stony Brook Southampton Dean of Students Mary Pearl, who said in May that she would head a sustainability program on the main campus, quietly resigned over the summer. She’s now is the CEO of the Garrison Institute, an environmental think tank in the Hudson Valley. Other staffers followed suit in leaving Southampton.
“They offered an excellent package for people to retire and many of them did,” said Gregonis, who said she now handles many more responsibilities as a result. “It was a one-shot deal.”
University officials declined to provide an exact figure on how many Southampton staffers had left or been let go.
Despite significant cuts, Southampton still has a faint pulse. Seven marine science courses are being held there this semester, along with a handful of graduate writing courses.
“We’re trying to let people know that we’re still here and we still exist,” Gregonis said, although she said students who take one of the thrice-daily shuttles from main campus for classes are coping with limitations, according to Gregonis.
“There’s no computer access, there’s no library, there’s nothing for them to eat,” she said. “We had to put some chairs out so they could have somewhere to sit between classes. I feel it’s unfair because these students, they paid their student activity fee, they paid just as much as everyone else.”
There is one development that Gregonis is hopeful about: the freshly finished, environmentally friendly buildings that tower in disuse around the campus will soon be joined by another brand new LEED-certified building. Early next year, the Center for Marine Sciences will be demolished and replaced with a two-story, 10,000-square foot marine science center with classrooms, wet labs and a conference room, according to university officials.
The new building is scheduled to open in 2013 and the price tag will be picked up by the university’s capital fund, Melucci said, although he declined to provide an estimate of how much the new center would cost. Records indicate that SLAM Collaborative architectural firm, which has worked extensively with other SUNY campuses, was awarded a $750,000 contract in September 2009 to design the new building.
Gregonis keeps a poster board with the architect’s rendering of the new center next to her desk. She said she’s cautiously optimistic about the project. “This is like everything else around here,” she said. “We don’t know yet and we’re hoping that it will come through.”