After a decade as president of Long Island’s largest university, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. is leaving Stony Brook University better and stronger than he found it, even as he navigated multiple fiscal and management challenges and significant shifts in the higher education landscape.
Now, the task is to find a successor who can propel the university to an even greater role on the national stage as a preeminent, innovative and forward-thinking research and academic institution.
Stanley’s departure to become president of Michigan State University brings a fresh opportunity. It’s a chance to update the university’s goals, to make Stony Brook the flagship of the State University of New York system and to reinforce its role as a centerpiece of the Long Island economy.
Importantly, Stony Brook is a member of the Association of American Universities, an organization of 62 leading research institutions that often get more grant money and federal funding, and can shape policy and develop best practices. Stony Brook has more than 26,000 students and is Long Island’s largest single-site employer, with nearly 16,000 full- and part-time positions. The university’s four-year graduation rate is 62.7 percent, up from 47.5 percent in 2014. Its endowment tripled under Stanley’s watch, now more than $300 million.
While at the helm, Stanley added programs, including a cutting-edge institute for artificial intelligence, increased diversity, and focused on helping students graduate with skills that allow them to rise from low-income households to more prosperous futures.
And yet, the university also had its share of difficulties during Stanley’s tenure. Its considerable fiscal challenges have been well-documented, from the early years when Stanley closed much of Stony Brook’s Southampton campus, to more recent, oft-criticized cuts in humanities and the arts, to last year, when the university reported an $18 million deficit and froze hiring. The school struggled as the state refused to cover contractual salary increases, despite previous agreements for the state to do so. And the relationship between faculty and Stanley was frosty at times, with some faculty even writing to SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson to express concerns about Stony Brook’s leadership.
Johnson has big goals for the next president, such as setting a target for Stony Brook’s endowment to reach $1 billion in 10 years, and looking for further improvements in the graduation rate and the school’s research efforts.
Whoever leads the university also must look at what’s happening inside the classrooms. With the state’s Excelsior Scholarship encouraging students to graduate in four years, universities must offer the classes students need while keeping class sizes down. But with limited financial resources, there will be a need to find ways to save money and bring in private financing.
Internally, it’s also crucial for the new president to improve communication with faculty, students and staff. By many accounts, shared governance, as it is known, was an area in which Stanley did not always do well. Even when making tough choices, a leader of an institution like Stony Brook must involve and inform the university community, seek input and get along well with deans, vice presidents and staff.
There also is the need to look beyond campus. That includes the university’s hospitals, especially plans for a new Southampton facility. But there’s more to Stony Brook’s critical place in the region, from its role as a partner in the management of Brookhaven National Laboratory to its incubators that cultivate new companies based on Long Island, and its work with local businesses and surrounding communities.
Stony Brook’s new president would be wise to promote those connections, make economic development a top priority and foster the school’s programs in future-focused industries, like renewable energy. That means particular attention to the university’s research and development park and the Advanced Energy Center, which nurture entrepreneurs and turn research into commercial successes. It means advancing BNL’s interests, too, including the $1 billion electron-ion collider for which it is competing. It means developing stronger relationships with Long Island employers. And it means the university’s new leader also must be an advocate for the region, recognizing how important Stony Brook is to Long Island, particularly in terms of encouraging graduates to stay and work here.
Then there is the ability to play on the political stage. If Stony Brook’s president can build better relationships with local, state and federal elected officials, so they become the university’s advocates in Albany and Washington, that will have a tremendous impact on the university overall.
This is a pivotal moment for Stony Brook. With a new, strong leader who’s willing to listen and learn, a visionary who’s able to communicate, and an educator who can manage a bureaucracy and control costs, Stony Brook will be poised to reach new heights.