David Joel Steinberg sat in a stately armchair in his Brookville office, a set of Asian worry beads in his fingers, as he reflected on nearly three decades as president of Long Island University.
"When times got tough, I'd give a set to each of the administrators," he joked about the beads.
Steinberg, 76, retires Monday from the private, multicampus institution, leaving what others in higher education called a legacy of distinction from 28 years spent molding those entities into one cohesive body.
His unswerving commitment was to LIU's mission of giving first-generation college students the opportunity that, he said, "transforms America for them and for their children." Over the years, he earned a reputation for being uniquely sensitive to the plight of students for whom attending a four-year college was an extraordinary struggle or a dream.
"Education is too precious to be an elite privilege," he said.
Steinberg, in his last interview as president, professed his affection for the "rare, rare place" and his excitement for the future of LIU under new president Kimberly Cline, who comes from Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry.
He also expressed his fears for higher education: cuts to student aid, rising interest rates on student loans, and rhetoric from national critics on the expense of college "not being worth it" -- all threats to the university Steinberg helped to build, one of the region's largest.
More than 110,000 students have graduated during Steinberg's career at LIU. He has awarded close to two-thirds of the degrees that the university has granted since its founding in 1926.
Helped forge today's LIU
The son of a prominent Manhattan rabbi, he graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Harvard University, and as a Fulbright Scholar undertook studies that led to expertise in Philippine history. Before coming to LIU as president in 1985, he was an administrator at Brandeis University and a professor at the University of Michigan.
When he arrived, the Brooklyn campus was on the brink of closure, with a budget crisis and an enrollment of only 3,400 students.
Steinberg is widely credited with saving that residential school, tightening the budget and convincing trustees it would be worth the time and investment.
Today, the Brooklyn campus boasts 11,000 students and is a vital element in the rebirth of the borough's downtown. LIU has four smaller sites in Brentwood, Riverhead and the Hudson Valley.
Under Steinberg's leadership, the university's endowment rose from $4.8 million to nearly $100 million, and enrollment at its six campuses and online has grown from 19,000 to more than 24,500.
"He is the one who has brought LIU to where it is today," said Laura Anglin, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, an Albany-based organization of more than 100 private, not-for-profit colleges and universities in New York State. "David was tenacious about emphasizing access and opportunity as the bellwether of postsecondary education."
State Regent Roger Tilles of Great Neck said Steinberg is a "powerful force" in fundraising.
"He inspires that kind of loyalty because he himself is so loyal to the mission of the university and the people within it," said Tilles, who represents the Island on the Board of Regents.
Steinberg played a prominent role in turning the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts into the cultural centerpiece of Nassau County.
He personally negotiated with Tilles' father, the late Gilbert Tilles, a Manhasset philanthropist and prominent Long Island builder, for the $1.25 million donation that named the 2,242-seat concert hall on the LIU Post campus in Brookville. Over the years, the Tilles Center has hosted cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Big Apple Circus, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Bill Cosby and James Taylor, among other renowned acts.
Like many college presidents, Steinberg weathered clashes with faculty and union strikes but leaves in good standing, at least among faculty leaders.
Harvey Kushner, chairman of the criminal justice department and president of the faculty union on the Post campus, said, "David represents what's good in the world."
"He was head of an institution during a very difficult time," Kushner said. "He's a fine gentleman and a scholar."
Devotion to university
The sale of the 200-student Southampton campus in 2006 was Steinberg's lowest point, both Steinberg and others agree. While that campus thrived academically, it was too costly to maintain.
"I was very angry and very sad. I had devoted 29 years of my life to trying to make that campus work," said Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), former provost of the Southampton campus. "David worked very hard at making Southampton work. It succeeded in every other way."
Bishop calls Steinberg "an innovator and a true scholar" and someone he considers a professional mentor.
LIU sold the cash-strapped school to Stony Brook University for $35 million. None of the tenured faculty members lost their jobs, and a majority of the students were relocated to the Post campus.
In the fallout of the 2008 economic crash, when LIU students and their parents were losing jobs and college savings, the school increased the amount of in-house tuition assistance to $100 million from $65 million and began its own loan program under Steinberg's direction.
"He really held our feet to the fire to make sure we put students first," LIU Post Provost Paul Forestell said.
Steinberg learned at a young age that a family's circumstances could change overnight.
His father, Rabbi Milton Steinberg of the Park Avenue Synagogue, died just before Steinberg's 13th birthday. His family decided to send him to Phillips Academy, a boarding school, where he had to repeat the ninth grade.
He went on to study at Malvern College in England and then to graduate from Harvard College, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
In 1959, he went to the Philippines as a Fulbright Scholar. He spent a year on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at Columbia University and then returned to Harvard for a master's in East Asian studies and a PhD in history.
He spent 10 years as a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and was regarded as an expert on Philippine history and politics, a topic about which he has written extensively, including three books.
He eventually became an administrator at Brandeis College, rising to vice president before making the rest of his career as president of LIU.
Steinberg remembers being intrigued by the challenge.
"It was a brave new world for me," he said. "But I fell in love with this place, and I've been in love with it ever since."
An abridged resume
High school Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
Undergraduate Harvard College, bachelor of arts in history, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors, 1959; Fulbright Exchange Scholarship, University of the Philippines, Manila.
Post-graduate Harvard University, master of arts in East Asian studies, 1963; PhD in history, 1964.
Long Island University President, 1985-2013
Brandeis University Vice president and university secretary, 1977-1983; executive assistant to the president, 1973-77
University of Michigan Instructor, assistant, associate and full professor of history, 1964-1973
Created more cohesion among the Brookville and Brooklyn campuses.
Raised the university's endowment fund from $4.8 million to $100 million.
Spearheaded capital campaigns that led to about $400 million in new construction and major renovations of the campuses.
Grew enrollment from 19,000 to more than 24,500.
Increased institutional aid to students from $65 million to $100 million during the recent economic recession.
Led major re-branding effort in 2012, changing name from Long Island University to LIU.
Gave 6,000 free or discounted iPads to students for educational use in 2010.
From LIU President David Joel Steinberg's letters and essays on education:
"Education from pre-kindergarten through college is central to our individual, familial and collective futures. If we are to preserve the democratic premise of access and the expectation of future economic prosperity within the Empire State, education at every level should be protected."
--From "Cuts to Education Will Hurt State," Op Ed, Newsday, Jan. 31, 2003.
"Long Island students acquire from adults their low regard for their own excellent local colleges and universities. There is a sense that most good things happen elsewhere. Out here we suburban bumblers see the green light of opportunity shining anywhere but at home. Unfortunately, this fallacy suffuses our regional culture."
--From "Can a Local Ivy League Keep Students Here?," Currents, Newsday, March 13, 1994.
"New York is exporting its very future: its college-bound students. Over the last decade, the Empire State has permitted a serious deterioration of its higher education institutions, both public and private, and graduating high school students are voting with their feet, creating a hidden crisis for our society and economy."
From "Our Hidden Brain Drain," New York Forum, New York Newsday, April 16, 1991.
"The line that divides Queens and Brooklyn from what recent generations have come to call 'Long Island' separates neither nationalities nor ideologies. There is no river between eastern Queens and western Nassau. Millions of people flow back and forth daily between one part of the Island and another, noticing the Queens-Nassau border only by a change in the speed limit from 50 to 55, if they are able to achieve that on either side of the line."
From "Who are the Long Islanders?," Viewpoints, Newsday, Dec. 19, 1985.