The administration of Dr. Mary Truhlar, the dean of the School of Dental Medicine, faces an external review of complaints made against the school after months of heated opposition from students, faculty and staff.
Beginning last September, Truhlar and her administration have been the subjects of an internal investigation and a negative University Senate Survey review by faculty and staff.
A dean from a prominent dentistry school in the Northeast will lead the review team of outside experts, according to Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, the senior vice president of health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine. He wouldn’t identify the visiting team’s members by name because he hadn’t yet finalized the contract. He said he expects the team “to talk to our faculty, staff and students and get a complete report.”
It’s not clear what consequences, if any, the external review’s findings could have on the school, which treats 70,000 patients every year as Long Island’s largest dental care provider.
An anonymous letter called for Truhlar’s resignation last fall, claiming that her alleged mismanagement and unethical administration have affected student education as well as patient care. The sender’s lengthy condemnation, addressed to the Stony Brook Foundation Board of Trustees and President Samuel L. Stanley, was disseminated on Sept. 6 to the entire “SDM All” emailing list. Gripes, simmering for over a year, were blasted out in a detailed five-page harangue that ultimately found its way to the inboxes of donors, alumni and dentistry schools across the United States.
“We write to you in an attempt to stand up against the hypocrisy and corruption that pervade Stony Brook University School of Dental Medicine,” reads the letter, signed by “the Classes of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.”
Truhlar declined multiple interview requests and did not respond to emailed questions. Associate Dean Dr. Allan Kucine and Clinical Associate Professor Dr. Ann Nasti declined to answer any questions about the letter during a guided tour of the School of Dental Medicine given to The Statesman.
A university spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions before the time of publication.
The letter took Truhlar to task on several issues – chief among them, her alleged failure to halt the flow of departing faculty and the promoting of faculty who those behind the letter deemed unqualified. The letter also called the selection committee proceedings to find a replacement for the previous dean, Dr. Ray Williams, a “sham” because of bias. They claim Kaushansky hand-picked Truhlar over more qualified candidates.
The School of Dental Medicine Faculty Council failed to pass a vote of confidence by a razor-thin margin two weeks after the anonymous letter was emailed. “The vote of confidence in the dean to appropriately address and rectify the issues remarked on in the letter failed,” read the draft minutes from the council’s Sept. 21 meeting.
“It was like 21 to 20 in favor of voting no confidence,” said Dr. Soosan Ghazizadeh, a professor of oral biology and pathology. “It was very close, very divided.”
It’s not clear what effect the vote had. The minutes don’t appear to have ever been approved. University Senate President Dr. Edward Feldman said he hadn’t seen the minutes and wasn’t sure if “no confidence” was the language used.
Dr. Stephen Walker, the School of Dental Medicine’s Faculty Council chair and University Senate executive committee member, did not respond to calls or emails. Neither did Dr. Jeffrey Seiver, a School of Dental Medicine faculty member, who took minutes at the meeting.
Representatives of the classes of 2017, 2018 and 2019 called for an independent third-party investigation at the meeting, according to the draft minutes and interviewees who attended. The classes said that an unbiased investigation couldn’t be conducted by Kaushansky, Stanley or anyone from the School of Dental Medicine or the School of Medicine.
“I asked [then-] Interim Provost Taber to independently look at the claims being made in that anonymous letter,” Kaushansky said, referring to Dean of the Graduate School Charles Taber’s investigation last semester into the allegations in the anonymous letter.
The results of Taber’s investigation were not made public. Instead, Kaushansky summarized the findings in a Nov. 29 email to the School of Dental Medicine. Taber, Kaushansky, the School of Dental Medicine and the university all declined requests for the report.
Absent in Kaushansky’s email were any direct references to the anonymous letter’s most incendiary accusations – that Truhlar’s incompetence cost the school its high-caliber faculty and that the selection committee was rigged in her favor.
“I categorically deny that,” Kaushansky said in response to claims about the legitimacy of the selection committee, which also appeared in the anonymous comments section of the University Senate Survey results released in February.
“We had a number of candidates that interviewed,” Kaushansky said. “Because I’m VP for Health Sciences, I interviewed each of the leading candidates, and I got to choose,” he said, adding that he followed the University Senate’s parameters for selecting a dean “to the letter.” He declined to describe which of Truhlar’s qualifications swung his decision her way.
Stony Brook alumnus and current Associate Dean at the New York University College of Dentistry Dr. Mark Wolff and the School of Dental Medicine’s own Dr. Maria Ryan had also applied for dean. Wolff said he withdrew his name for consideration after six months went by without a final decision from Stony Brook.
“It’s not the case that I thought the fix was in,” Wolff said about the selection committee proceedings. “From my perspective, it was being run appropriately. It was just taking too long.”
The anonymous letter lamented the loss of “over 15” faculty. Through interviews and other research, it appears that 13 left since January 2014 when Truhlar became interim dean, with at least three more planning to depart soon. In a school as small as the School of Dental Medicine, interviewees said even losing a few faculty would deeply impact the school.
“Very frequently it’s to get a better job, quite honestly,” Kaushansky said, based on the information he has gathered from conducting exit interviews.
Dr. Denise Trochesset, the former director of oral pathology, said there were many reasons why she decided to leave. After observing the new Truhlar administration, she concluded that the university did not believe in developing the School of Dental Medicine.
“They don’t want to invest in bringing in academic faculty. They want to fill slots with people who are already in the school whether they have qualifications or not,” Trochesset said. “The dean’s CV was the weakest of four, and they chose her,” she said about Truhlar, who has been at the school since 1990. Trochesset, highly regarded by many interviewees, quit last year after 14 years at the School of Dental Medicine.
Losing esteemed faculty without replacements of equal caliber is alarming to faculty and staff, who feel it puts the School of Dental Medicine at risk of being viewed as a trade school.
“The major problem I see is the loss of faculty. We are not replacing academicians with real academicians,” Ghazizadeh said. “If there’s no academicians, we just become a clinic.”
“When you have an academic institution, and you’re losing academics, you move toward a trade school,” Trochesset said, adding that that was one of the reasons she decided to leave.
While the letter’s seven-month-old request for an external investigation now seems close to fruition, anxieties at the school show no sign of receding. Dozens of current and former students, staff, faculty and administrators were interviewed for this article, but very few agreed to answer any questions on the record, even when their comments were positive. All had either seen or heard about the anonymous letter.
Interviewees cited fears of retaliation by the Truhlar administration in the form of sabotage and rumor-mongering, which could affect the interviewees’ pursuit of tenure and future professional opportunities. More than 200 requests for interviews were sent to people affiliated with the school.
“There’s a fear of being professionally handicapped, of negative commentary being said about them so that they don’t get into their program,” said Daniel Vinoi, class of 2017, referring to the application process for students going into postgraduate programs. Those applications require students to obtain letters of recommendation from the same administration members they have spoken out against, as well as a letter of endorsement from Truhlar herself.
It’s not clear if the school is making any preparations for the visiting team. Kaushansky is sticking by Truhlar.
“I dare the writers of that letter to produce the evidence-based criteria that says you need to be known internationally and publish 300 articles [to become dean] but there’s no bylaws that say that,” Kaushansky said. “I’m not walking away from my appointment of Dr. Truhlar. I truly feel she was the best candidate and I still do.”
This story is ongoing and will be updated as we receive more information.