By Matt Calamia
After several attempts over the years, Fred Walter, a Stony Brook astronomy professor, finally accepted to run for president of the University Senate. Or as he put it, he was the only one who didn’t turn the position down.
“As it turns out, I was the only person who didn’t say no,” said a laughing Walter, who took over the position of president when former president Michael Schwartz stepped down. “Be careful what you volunteer for.”
The University Senate is a governing body on campus, representing students, faculty and staff making decisions that affect the university’s day-to-day life and have influence over academic issues. Below that, there are smaller senate groups, including the Arts and Sciences Senate, Engineering Senate, and the HSC Senate that address more specialized issues.
Walter, who has been a professor at Stony Brook University for 22 years, began attending Senate meetings more than 12 years ago. A few years later, he found himself as the president of the Arts and Science Senate, often looked as a stepping-stone for future key members of the University Senate.
The rumblings of Walter becoming president began around 2005, when members of the senate mentioned that he should consider becoming the committee’s president. “I didn’t actively seek [the presidency],” Walter said. “I said no because I was going on sabbatical in a couple years.”
Fast-forward to the present, when then-president Schwartz contacted Walter asking again for him to consider the position. “I was on sabbatical and Michael Schwartz called me up or emailed me when I was in Taiwan, saying ‘I want you to run for president of the senate,’” recalls Walter, who declined again because he was away from the senate and the school in general, but that he would reconsider when he returned to the school.
When he finally did return in April 2010, Schwartz was successful in getting Walter to put his name in the hat for president. In fact, no one else ran, thus making Walter the president by default.
Although it wasn’t something Walter necessarily wanted, he still has a lot of pride being the president of such an important organization. “[Faculty, staff and students] have obligations to the university,” Walter said. “It’s our university. It belongs to the faculty, staff and students as well in addition to the administrators. We have to remind them that we get to control things, too.”
“He’s spent a long time at Stony Brook, and is very experienced, having worked in many different forms both as a faculty member and as an official in university settings,” said Michael Schwartz, former senate president and professor of sociology at Stony Brook. “He’s a very qualified person to lead the senate.”
Walter knows that this is a difficult job that is very time consuming, and that his personal professional aspirations, such as teaching and research, will be limited during his time as president, but “someone has to do it,” he said.
For Walter, coming in as president of the Senate couldn’t have come at a more difficult time. The economic hardships have been felt by everyone at Stony Brook, and according to Walter, is the biggest issue facing the senate as he takes over. “The single greatest problem facing the university is the budget,” he said. “We’ve been cut 20 percent in the last couple of years, and we may get cut again. We have to work with the administration to try and come up with solutions that keep the students happy, let you graduate in four years, and let you get into the courses you want.”
He also hopes to stop faculty members from being fired or laid off, and limit workloads.
“It’s basically, as I see it, us against Albany at this point because they’re the ones who are cutting us back and asking us to do more with less,” he said. Many, if not all departments at the university have felt cuts from the budget. Members of each department are concerned with the cuts that they will have to work with, and hope that the senate limits said cuts.
“I’m mostly concerned with research my lab does,” said Vitaly Citovsky at the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. “In this respect, I hope the president and the senate support the role of Stony Brook as a research institution. We are getting so low on resources that the library is trying to cut critical online subscriptions without which research cannot be done.”
Since Walter was away for most of Schwartz’s tenure as president, he is looking to start fresh. “Two years ago, I was certainly sitting in the back of the senate watching what [Schwartz] did, but I guess I wasn’t paying all that much attention,” said a laughing Walter. “This is very much a new slate. This is very much now ‘my’ senate. Things aren’t going to change a lot. I may preside over the meetings, but I have an executive committee that is made up of the other presidents of the other senates as well as a few other people, and all of us set agendas together, so I am not going to stop what the senate is doing on a dime.”
The senate is always looking for more people, especially students. Stony Brook has a student body of around 22,000, yet, according to Walter, usually just one member, the president of student government, attends meetings regularly.
“It’s your university too,” said Walter. “Hopefully you won’t be here as long as I have been, but for the four years you’re here, you can influence how things work, whether things are better or worse for students who come after you.”
“Students can make a difference,” Walter continues. “We do listen to [students] and your voices are heard. If you want to sit back and ignore what governance is doing, don’t complain when you don’t get what you want. If you’re at all interested in improving what goes on here, make your voices heard.”