Bernstein said in an interview with The Statesman on Aug. 30 that the university’s budget is balanced for the academic year, and the school is in a position to pay off its accumulated debt in the upcoming years.
The goal is to keep the budget balanced for the next academic year and avoid deficit spending, Bernstein said. He announced the loosening of hiring restrictions during a university senate meeting earlier this month and that the university would be making a series of “modest investments” in a budget update sent via a campus-wide email last month.
“We have to be very careful about how we manage our resources,” Bernstein said. “All that being said, I think that the budget is on a much more stable ground now, and we were able to capture some savings this past year and reinvest back in the academic enterprises.”
A hiring freeze was put in place almost a year and a half ago over a $18 million budget deficit, according to a 2018 Budget Message from President Stanley. The school cut back on spending in several other ways as well, including by letting go of adjuncts and eliminating programs.
“I am concerned,” Bernstein said. “All of us managing the finances are concerned that as we look through the years ahead, our costs are going to continue to go up. We’re in a much better position than we were a few years ago, but we’re not completely free of worry or concern.”
The university’s financial crisis was called into question when a group of professors hired an accounting professor from Eastern Michigan University, Howard Bunsis, to conduct an independent report analyzing the university’s finances last March.
The report concluded that the university was in a good financial standing and had positive net cash flow in the past 10 years.
Bernstein said that, speaking as the “then provost and now the president of the university,” the Bunsis report is not accurate.
“He never communicated with us,” Bernstein said. “He never spoke to our financial leadership. He never asked a question of our budget officers. He looked at published information on the web.”
Bunsis said in an email that the report was based on publicly available data compiled and published by the university administration. The claim that it’s inaccurate is “not supported by the empirical evidence.”
“The report is a comprehensive analysis of the financial situation of SBU,” Bunsis wrote in the email. “SBU is a public university, and if there is any data that is not publicly available that concerns the financial situation of SBU, then that data should immediately be made public.”
“I don’t think that this is an accurate assessment of what the issues are, but again, people are entitled to their opinion of whether senior administrators are worth the money they’re being paid,” Bernstein said in response.
“It’s always an opportunity cost,” he said. “Those are the tough questions because every decision to do something over there means you’re not doing something over here.”
Bernstein said that decisions like “deactivating” the theater major and the doctoral program in comparative literature were challenging to make, but they allowed the university to redirect funds to help larger programs that are struggling for resources.
Deactivating a program, however, “doesn’t mean you can’t reactivate [it],” Bernstein said. “That takes future decisions, future investment of resources and future steps.”
Bernstein plans to keep the university moving in the “powerful and positive” direction established by his predecessor, Samuel L. Stanley, who left for Michigan State University in late May.
“I think like everyone else at Stony Brook, I was surprised when he announced he was leaving,” Bernstein said. New presidential announcements are often made during March and the summertime is used as the transitioning period. “We were nearing commencement… and I think I just didn’t expect it at that time,” he said.
Bernstein expects to hold the position for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year. The search for the next president will be led by the Presidential Search Committee, which is made up of members of the Stony Brook Council, student and faculty representatives and other members of the community. The firm Isaacson, Miller will be aiding the search, with Michael Baer as the lead search consultant. Bernstein said the search will continue for months.
The search for a new provost — a position that was vacated when Bernstein took over as interim president — was halted partly because of the uncertainty of who the next president is going to be, Bernstein said. Minghua Zhang, a former dean at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), will serve as interim provost indefinitely.
Bernstein said that during his tenure, he plans to focus on four key responsibilities, including continuing to manage resources efficiently, facilitating support for the presidential search and managing leadership transitions and changes throughout the university.
“I want to do anything and everything I can to strengthen our structures of shared governance at the university, interaction with the university senate leadership, faculty leadership, student leadership, alumni leadership [and] the wider community leadership,” he said.
Bernstein said his focus in the past three years as provost has been on improving graduation rates and recruiting new faculty with the help of school deans and managing resources to achieve student, faculty and staff success.
“Everyone knows it’s been a challenging path the past couple of years with resources,” Bernstein said. “We’ve managed through that, through those challenges. And that was a big part of what kept me up at night over the course of three years.”
Now as the interim president, Bernstein said there won’t be major changes in the university’s goal of creating a diverse, inclusive and secure community. He also said delivering state-of-the-art medical care through the university hospital, stimulating the economy of Long Island and developing new technology and new knowledge for the region are the same goals that the school will adhere to.
Chair of the Department of Art and an associate professor of music, Margaret Schedel, said she was hopeful but concerned about the number of administrators in interim positions.
“Luckily most of them have administrative experience, but to have this many people being interim, from the graduate dean to the dean of libraries to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, I think everybody is justified to be nervous about that,” Schedel said.
English and American Studies professor, Eric Wertheimer, was appointed dean of the graduate school effective July 1, according to a press release. Deborah Lowen-Klein was appointed as the interim vice president for Stony Brook University’s Advancement Department in late June, according to another press release.
Shafeek Fazal, who joined Stony Brook University in 2014 as the Associate Dean for Library Technology, Discovery and Digital Services, is now the interim dean of university libraries, according to the school’s website. Nicole Sampson, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, is also expected to serve another year as the interim dean of the College of Arts and Science.
Director of Biology Online and a lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Joanne Souza, said she is concerned about the long term plans for the university.
“I’m not against what they’ve done with the budget,” Souza said. “I’m just waiting for them now to start reinvesting because we’re down to bare bones as far as people are concerned.”
Souza, who has worked for Bernstein in the past, said she was impressed by Bernstein’s honest and direct character. She said she hopes the “top down” administrative approach that has caused a lot of “paranoia and distrust” in the past is going to change and people will start working together again.
“When colleagues say that there was no consultation with faculty leadership, I mean, it doesn’t comport with my memory,” Bernstein said. “From my experience as provost, there was a lot of conversation going on with faculty, and obviously with my office, the provost office.”
Stony Brook Chapter of the United University Professions (UUP) — a union that represents faculties and professionals across SUNY campuses — is scheduled to meet with the interim president at the end of September, Chapter President Edward Quinn, said.
President of the Undergraduate Student Government, Shaheer Khan, said it was great to hear Bernstein talk about student matters, including a reassessment of the Stony Brook Curriculum (SBC), during the first university senate meeting.
“It’s good to see that we’re on the path of shared governance,” Khan said. “And oftentimes throughout this meeting not only faculty and staff concerns have been raised, but also the students’.”
Schedel said the administration is taking “rational” approaches and putting systems in place to cut down costs while leaving room for growth.
“It’s going to be hard, but at least they’re being upfront and transparent at this time,” she said. “I’m hopeful.”
Bernstein said he wanted to emphasize to students that they should take advantage of the diversity Stony Brook University offers both in and out of the classroom.
“Take advantage of everything here,” Bernstein said. “Don’t shy away from it. Don’t avoid trying to do something you’ve never done before. Don’t avoid taking a class in something you’ve never taken a class in, because it’ll change your life,” he said.
Despite some disagreements between faculty and administration, Bernstein said Stony Brook University is an “astounding” place to be, and to be part of it is a “privilege.”
“Even when we’re arguing about stuff, or you know, there’s a contentious senate meeting, and there’s a debate about something — everyone is proud to be part of Stony Brook,” he said. “That’s a gift.”