The student activity center at Stony Brook University, and inset,...

The student activity center at Stony Brook University, and inset, president Maurie McInnis. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas, Howard Schnapp

This guest essay reflects the views of Josh Dubnau, a professor in the School of Medicine at Stony Brook University.

As a professor at Stony Brook University who served on the last presidential search committee, I am dismayed that we were a steppingstone for president Maurie McInnis, who is departing for Yale University after just four years. This time, Stony Brook should tap the pool of talent inside this outstanding public university to find a president who cares deeply about public higher education, rather than one who sees us as a transient step in an ambitious career.

Some have pointed to newsworthy achievements during McInnis’ tenure as evidence of successful leadership. Indeed, Stony Brook was named a flagship institution in SUNY, was chosen to lead the New York Climate Exchange on Governors Island, and secured a record $500 million donation from the Simons Foundation. But these successes rest on a reputation built from decades of amazing teaching and research by world-class faculty, caring support from outstanding staff, and tremendous successes of our wonderful students. This reputation of excellence, already in place four years ago, is why Stony Brook was named a flagship institution by Gov. Kathy Hochul and why James and Marilyn Simons invested for decades in the university where Jim Simons was once a professor of mathematics.

McInnis is a skilled fundraiser with tremendous political savvy, and surely her efforts contributed to these successes. But many faculty members, students and staff at Stony Brook feel that McInnis never built relationships with the university community or cared to understand the challenges that faculty, students, and staff face in the dormitory, classroom, laboratory, studio, or cubicle. As evidenced by the razor-thin defeat of a recent University Senate vote of censure, many are also deeply disappointed with how McInnis cracked down on peaceful protests against the ongoing killing of Palestinian children. This crackdown included arrests and seizure of personal phones of several dozen students, and of two faculty — myself and a colleague.

It is not surprising McInnis stayed just four years, gave 30 days’ notice, and will leave a campus divided about her legacy. The leadership skills to engage empathetically, forge lasting relationships, and build consensus were not prioritized in the presidential search. Instead, fundraising achievements and flashy public announcements were prioritized. When I served on the committee that hired McInnis, the search firm determined which applicants to show us, based largely on success with fundraising, new buildings, and flagship designations. Under penalty of law, the committee work is confidential, preventing inquiries with colleagues at other institutions to ask whether a candidate is revered or despised, whether they listen and build consensus or rule autocratically.

This process favors candidates who view jobs as steppingstones to quickly accumulate flashy new successes that enable moves to ever more prestigious institutions. McInnis’ metrics of success didn’t involve building relationships with faculty and staff, or efforts to build consensus about values and vision. By the same twisted logic, choosing to arrest and suspend students and faculty for protesting war, rather than engaging productively with them, makes sense because their protests are unpopular in the boardrooms at Yale where a search firm evaluates applications.

Stony Brook will be damaged if we see a revolving door of executives who come and go before they get to know us. Instead, Stony Brook must prioritize leaders who are educators and scholars, who love public education and enjoy the company of students, faculty and staff. Stony Brook deserves a leader who wants to build a career here in collaboration with our talented faculty, staff, and students.

This guest essay reflects the views of Josh Dubnau, a professor in the School of Medicine at Stony Brook University.

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