Interim President Michael Bernstein confirmed his interest in running for Stony Brook University’s permanent presidency position during a student media briefing on Wednesday, Dec. 4.
“I have notified the chancellor of the (SUNY) system that I would like her permission to be a candidate in the search, which is part of the SUNY process,” he said. “To be considered for the position and have the committee assess my standing and credentials for the job would be a great honor and a privilege.”
Bernstein said that he will be bringing his experience at Stony Brook and nearly a decade of experience as provost at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana to the table; and more importantly, he said, he strives to be a good communicator and a leader who enables the people around him everyday.
“[The] president doesn’t get anything done,” he said. “It’s the people around the president who get things done, and the president’s there to lead those teams and to facilitate their success.”
The search for the sixth president of the university has been underway since a presidential search committee was formed on Sept. 11, after the previous president, Samuel Stanley, announced his departure in May. Bernstein, who started as provost at Stony Brook University in 2016, stepped into the interim president position on Aug. 1.
A panel of representatives from the Presidential Search Committee discussed expectations for the future president with the university faculty senate in a meeting on Oct. 7. One of the submitted comments complained that past administration’s “authoritarian administrative philosophy in a period of tight budgets when some departments were cut, classes became larger or unavailable, professionals were asked to work harder with fewer resources and morale suffered.”
The university went through a series of budget cuts over the past few years to balance a $35 million deficit. Humanities departments, including several foreign language departments and the Writing and Rhetoric program, suffered cuts, and the United University Professions (UUP) Academic and Professional Grievance Officers, Joshua Dubnau and Dominique Barone said during a senate meeting on Monday, Dec. 2 that they received complaints from faculty and staff about being given additional work without compensation.
“Do we want a repetition of the last five years?” history professor Kathleen Wilson said to the Presidential Search Committee during a university senate meeting on Oct. 7. “No we don’t. We have to find somebody that pays attention to what the teaching faculty here do and what our students need to do to graduate.”
Several senate members at the meeting suggested looking deep into presidential candidates’ track records to find someone who will honor shared governance at the university.
“There have been several themes that have presented themselves quite repeatedly, and the idea of shared governance is one that’s been very, very deeply impressed upon all of us as committee members,” Brooke Ellison, a faculty representative for Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said. “So I think we’re going to dig as deeply as we possibly can to ensure that what is being said is actually what is being practiced by the candidates.”
Bernstein said during an interview with The Statesman on Aug. 30 that he wants “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.”
One of the first topics that came up during the Oct. 7 Q&A session with the presidential search committee was diversity, which multiple senate members said the presidential candidates should be able to prove their commitment to.
“What we are looking for is data,” Mark Aronoff, a faculty representative from the English Department, said. “We want some real evidence that these candidates have a real, demonstrated record of commitment to and real action in relation to a number of qualities, but certainly, especially diversity.”
Bernstein emphasized the university’s commitment to diversity during his first address to the university on Oct. 16.
“We are committed to diversity and inclusive excellence, first and foremost, because we are committed to equity and fairness,” he said. “We believe that access to the opportunities that our institution represents should not be restricted on any basis that is anchored in bigotry or exclusion.”
Infrastructure was another point of contention among the faculty. University Senator and physics and astronomy professor, Frederick Walter, implored the committee to find someone who will make infrastructure a priority.
“You have to make sure that whoever becomes the next president understands that this is not a problem that we can grow our way out of by adding more students,” he said. “We need to improve the infrastructure — that means dormitories, teaching places, classrooms, research spaces for faculty and parking.”
Bernstein said during the student media briefing on Dec. 4 that although more students have expressed an interest in coming to Stony Brook than the school can accommodate, there is “no evidence” that the university is in “a mad search for dollars at the expense of everything else.”
“Are we stressed with older infrastructure and you know, struggling with the number of people who want the things that we can provide?” he said. “Of course. But as I say, that’s two sides of one coin. We need more resources to do more of the great things we do. And thank God that we’re doing such a great job that more and more and more people want what we have to offer. That’s a great thing.”
Malcolm Bowman, a professor from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) cautioned the possible environmental impact of continued university growth to the presidential search committee at the Oct. 7 senate meeting.
“I teach a class called Prospects for Planet Earth, and it’s hard sometimes to be positive about what’s happening to our planet,” he said. “What are the limits to growth? And how many more people can we cram out of this campus without sort of destroying the beautiful environment?”
Bernstein said at the Dec. 4 briefing that those are tough decisions to make and that it’s a “balancing act.”
“What are the costs and benefits of new parking versus maintaining a grove of trees, which is also very important?” he said. “And that’s what we talk about in any of our planning meetings.”
The university is currently renegotiating its contract with Calpine, a power company that operates the Stony Brook Power Plant. Bernstein said at the briefing that the administration has made it clear that the contract won’t be renewed under current terms.
“We want to see some improvement in that contract or an alternative that enables us to pursue alternatives to energy generation and transmission on the campus,” Bernstein said.
He said that the university is looking “closely” at revising current contracts up for renewal to “involve a commitment to alternative and so-called green energy sourcing or seeking alternative contracting altogether.”
Thomas Wilson, an instrument engineer at SoMAS, suggested to the presidential search committee at the Oct. 7 senate meeting that they need to make sure that the presidential candidates have a genuine commitment to “consensus building” and “shared government.”
“You need to find a really decent human being,” he said. To get a more accurate read on the candidates, “my recommendation to you is dig into the references and dig into the off list references, and you’ll always find somebody who’s got a grumpy thing to say.”
The presidential search committee aims to send a list of finalists to the SUNY chancellor by mid-February, Bernstein said, and a new permanent president will be appointed in March or early April the latest.
“Our future depends on this,” Kathleen Wilson said. “Which way is Stony Brook gonna go?”
Clarification: December 10, 2019
A previous version of this article was updated to clarify that Kathleen Wilson was the one who said, “our future depends on this. Which way is Stony Brook gonna go?”
Clarification: February 16, 2020
Thomas Wilson’s quote was updated to give more context to what he meant by “my recommendation to you is dig into the references and dig into the off list references.”