By Samantha Robinson and Brianne Ledda
Interim President Michael Bernstein reflected on the progress Stony Brook University has made in the past year during his first address to the university on Wednesday, Oct. 16.
During his speech, Bernstein highlighted budget improvements, an influx of research funds, planned renovations to several school facilities and the university’s top spot in several media rankings. Bernstein also emphasized diversity during several points of his address, noting that “here at Stony Brook, this is a welcoming, inclusive and secure environment.”
“We resolutely believe, as scholars, as scientists, as educators, as artists, that [a] diverse and inclusive population generates optimal results in research, in scholarship, in our thinking, in education, in mentorship in professional service,” he said. “The more diverse a population, the better the results, and certainly the more effective in education we provide to our students.”
Joking that talking about the budget would “bum” the audience out after he mentioned several university highs, Bernstein noted that Stony Brook University has made “remarkable progress” towards stabilizing its budget following a multi-million dollar deficit. He pointed to increased revenue from “various tuition and fee increases that have been granted by the state government,” online education and other initiatives, and cut-backs with streamlined operations and a hiring freeze that was loosened last month.
The New York State budget passed in 2017 allows for tuition to increase $200 every year for four years, according to a 2018 budget message from former university president Samuel Stanley. In addition, to compensate for the budget deficit, the university announced that it would “forego $3.7M in Excelsior tuition for the next four years since tuition remains flat for the Excelsior scholarship program until the 2021-2022 academic year.” Tuition went up $200 per academic year at all SUNY campuses this fall.
Bernstein emphasized that the university is taking a strategic approach to decision-making.
“We have got to make choices. That’s hard to do,” he said. “And the best way to do it, harkening back to my earlier comments, is to share governance structures that mobilize effective data and metrics to drive optimal transparent and credible, accountable decisions.”
Even still, with a tight budget, research is flourishing at the university. Total spending on research and development activities rose from $238 million in 2017 to $245 million in 2018, a record high for the university. Sponsored research also rose to a record high last year, at almost $192 million. That number is lower so far in 2019, at $180.6 million.
The university hasn’t slowed its clip on development either.
The Student Union, which has been under construction since 2016, will be opening in March of 2020. A new building is going up on the university’s research campus, and an indoor practice facility for student athletes is under construction. New residence halls are planned in Tabler Quad and West Apartments as well.
The Javits Lecture Center, Chemistry building and parking sites on campus will also see renovations. The Department of Transportation and Parking plans to hire a parking consultant firm to aid in these improvements.
“We have to invest in these areas,” Bernstein said. “Again, I want to acknowledge some of the difficulties here every time we touch a project and try to start a renovation project. There’s the good news that we’re going to have a renovated facility. The bad news is there’s going to be a lot of pain and suffering on the way.”
Despite Stony Brook’s financial struggles over the past few years, it still managed to secure top spots in university rankings from several media outlets. The Wall Street Journal recognized Stony Brook as the top public school in New York. US News placed Stony Brook in the top 40 public universities in the country. But Bernstein was most impressed by the ranking from Market Watch.
“We were recognized by Market Watch as being in the top 10 institutions in the nation that facilitate meaningful and statistically significant socioeconomic mobility for its students,” he said. “This is an important accomplishment on behalf of our institution… It demonstrates the fact that we are an elite but not elitist institution.”
Even though Stony Brook’s budget is seeing better days than in previous years, graduate student Bernard Krumm, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the English department, was not satisfied with the speech. He said the question of what Stony Brook is going to do about the fee increases for graduate students was left unanswered in Bernstein’s address.
“If the budget has stabilized, then why are we basically stealing wages from graduate students? Because it is a condition of our employment that we pay fees,” he said. “So what is going to be done about that? Graduate students, that may seem like a small segment of the population, but we teach over 50% of the classes here at Stony Brook, and we live in poverty.”
Jeffrey Barnett, Interim Associate Dean of Students, however, thought the address sent a unifying message.
“I think Interim President Bernstein is exactly who and what we needed at this University as this time,” he said. “I think he inspires an audience and a university. He keeps us centered on our mission and our history, which give us a focus heading forward. I think he understands how all the different constituencies at the university come together to make this a rich and powerful university.”
Bernstein concluded the address by sharing what inspires him. He said he reflects on this nation’s past and the way earlier generations were able to see a better future despite the struggles they faced. If they were able to do so, then Stony Brook can do the same, Bernstein said. For now, Bernstein believes Stony Brook should celebrate its successes as a university.
“I think we should always remember, that contrary to what some say, our University demonstrates not only the best of what American higher education has to offer, but the array and the total 360 degree richness of what American higher education has to offer,” he said. “That too, is part of our mission, our legacy, and indeed, it’s our story.”
Gary Ghayrat contributed reporting.