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Hundreds of SBU students protest potential liberal arts cuts

Scores of Stony Brook University students were holding sit-ins on Wednesday, May 9, 2017, outside the offices of the school's provost and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, after hundreds marched for more than 90 minutes to protest potential cuts to liberal arts. The protestors say cutting these small departments wouldn't have much of an impact on the budget deficit, and the cuts are an attack on the arts. (Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger)

Scores of Stony Brook University students held sit-ins Wednesday outside the offices of the school’s provost and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, after hundreds marched for more than 90 minutes to protest potential cuts to liberal arts.

Chanting “Open the door” and “Lunch with the dean,” the students said they wanted administrators to address their concerns about a proposal to consolidate and suspend academic programs in humanities to save $1.5 million.

“Slashing funding for the humanities is not an isolated problem at Stony Brook University. This is a national epidemic, a cancer that will spread if we do not catch it in its early stages” said Mark Pingree, a doctoral student in cultural studies and comparative literature who was among those who spoke to the crowd.

The students, who lined the walls of the administration building, chanted, sounded off horns and banged drums — the noise echoing through the normally calm atrium, where on a typical day students would be found registering for classes or paying their tuition bills.

Some held signs that read, “We want education not administration” and “No Kopping out, Humanities Matters,” referring to Dean Sacha Kopp, who heads the College of Arts and Science.

Michael Bernstein, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, issued a statement in response Wednesday.

“No plans have been discussed which would in any way negatively impact the resources available for language instruction and language-based majors at the undergraduate or master’s level — in fact, any discussions going on have been with the intent of strengthening those programs,” he wrote. “The proposal is related only to the doctoral program and a decision about them has not yet been made.”

The event, while loud, was peaceful. Campus police were on hand.

The demonstration, called the March for Humanities, was organized by the Graduate Student Employees Union, after administrators released detailed proposals to scale back several programs, including theater arts, dance, health sciences and disability studies, while also merging several language and literature departments.

University administrators have said the plan is not final and decisions are being made with the input of department chairs and the university’s faculty senate. Depending on the programs affected, a plan may need the approval of State University of New York officials.

Students, learning of the potential for cuts, circulated petitions and launched a social media campaign. This week, final exams are being given. SBU’s graduation is on May 19.

Stony Brook has a total enrollment of more than 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Administrators have blamed the projected 2018 budget deficit on a lack of state funding and anticipated 2 percent raises expected to be paid to faculty members universitywide who are represented by the United University Professions, according to four different chairs of departments.

Wednesday afternoon, university officials said in a statement that Stony Brook “has been working diligently to contain administrative costs while enhancing its focus on academic initiatives.” The statement said the school has hired 259 people for instructional positions since 2008-09, cut the number of full-time-equivalent employees working in administrative posts by 84 during that time and realized $36 million in savings across administrative areas.

UUP president Fred Kowal criticized the linkage of SBU’s deficit with faculty members’ pay. He noted that 42,000-plus union members across SUNY campuses have been working without a contract since July 1 and continue to negotiate for a new agreement.

“It angers me that they [Stony Brook officials] would be putting this out. The union has fought very hard for funding by the state to cover mandatory costs, such as future salary increases,” Kowal said.

Humanities faculty pointed to the potential loss of intellectual capital on campus.

“The administration has laid out a plan to decimate humanities departments to save the money needed to cover this shortfall,” said Robert Harvey, chairman of cultural studies and comparative literature, one of the departments that could be negatively affected by the budget cuts. “If this plan is carried out, students attending Stony Brook University will no longer be able to receive the kind of first-class education that they have had, and that is expected at a top-tier university.”

Harvey has specifically spoken out against a plan to collapse the department of European languages, literature and cultures, the department of Hispanic languages and literature, and the department of cultural studies and comparative literature into a single department.

Arthur Samuel, chairman of SBU’s psychology department, said he was supportive of the protest, even though his program would be unaffected by the proposed cuts. Samuel said he would like to see more state money allocated to the campus or a review of the entire university budget.

“Is arts and sciences the place to make cuts if cuts need to be made?” Samuel said.

SBU officials have said that a meeting is scheduled May 17 to discuss alternative options to the proposed cuts.

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