Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr.: Stony Brook University’s Post-Recession President

Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr.
Stony Brook University’s Post-Recession President


Stony Brook University administrators woke up to bad news on April 1.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders had reached an agreement on the state budget the night before — an agreement that did not renew the State University of New York’s ability to raise tuition by limited amounts, granted in 2011 by the NYSUNY 2020 law.
As legislators worked into the morning to pass budget bills, the news triggered a series of meetings in Stony Brook’s administration building. SUNY 2020 has been critical to the university’s strategy for improving undergraduate education for the past five years, and its absence signals uncertainty for the future.  
“The predictable tuition plan and the maintenance of state support that have been the hallmarks of New York’s higher education funding for the past five years were instrumental in moving Stony Brook forward,” said Stony Brook University President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. in a statement released the next day.
New York’s new budget presents a familiar challenge to Stanley, who was inaugurated as president of Stony Brook University in 2009 on the heels of the worst financial crisis in the United States since the Great Depression. Despite economic hardships, Stanley has been able to increase Stony Brook’s budget, expand infrastructure and hire new faculty and staff. His presidency demonstrates how economic forces are shaping universities in a post-recession economy.

Timeline of Stanley’s Presidency


Early Days

Stanley’s career before coming to Stony Brook was spent at private universities. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago and his medical degree at Harvard University Medical School. He worked at Washington University in St. Louis for 26 years, starting as a post-doctoral fellow and rising to the rank of professor.
As a professor, Stanley was known by his colleagues for collaborating with other faculty members and attracting significant grant funding. He was the director of the $35 million Midwest Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research (MRCE) funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“He really pulled together about half a dozen universities, which is no small feat when each of them thinks it should be in the leadership role,” said Larry J. Shapiro, former executive vice chancellor of medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine at Washington University.
In 2006, Stanley was appointed vice chancellor for research, managing a portfolio of more than $500 million in sponsored research. He continued his focus on collaboration, encouraging groups to work together to win grants while overseeing research policy.
“He figured it out quickly and was very well-respected, and that’s the kind of job where you need the respect of the faculty,” said Edward Macias, former provost at Washington University.
Just three years later, Stanley was hired as president at Stony Brook. It was a quick promotion, given that university presidents often have many years of experience as administrators prior to their appointments.

“I didn’t think it would happen so fast, quite honestly,” Shapiro said.

But the Stony Brook search committee saw Stanley as someone who could bring in funding and advance Stony Brook’s reputation as a research university. As a scientist and a medical doctor, Stanley brought a different perspective to the job than Stony Brook’s previous president, Shirley Strum Kenny, who was an English scholar.

Kenny, who was president from 1994 to 2009, is widely credited with placing Stony Brook on a trajectory to compete with other major research universities. During her presidency, Stony Brook entered a partnership with Battelle Memorial Institute to operate Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1998 and became a member of the Association of American Universities in 2001. Kenny initiated major campus renovation projects and oversaw the expansion of the athletics program into Division I.

Stanley’s mandate was to continue the momentum built during Kenny’s presidency in the face of decreased state funding. Between 2008 and 2010, New York cut $424 million from SUNY’s budget. Like many university presidents, Stanley was asked to do more with less.

Stony Brook University Budget (1998–2016)

Stanley’s predecessor, Shirley Strum Kenny, oversaw a period of rapid growth at the university, often supported by increases in state funding. Despite financial hardships and cuts to the university’s state allocation, Stony Brook’s budget has increased at a similar rate under Stanley’s presidency as it had during Kenny’s presidency.

* Figures not adjusted for inflation

Source: Stony Brook University Budget Office


Lean Years

Stanley’s tenure began just one month after Nancy L. Zimpher took office as chancellor of the State University of New York. Throughout the SUNY system, institutions began developing strategic plans and making decisions about how to address budget shortfalls.
Locally, Stanley faced a budget gap of $13 million for the 2009-10 academic year, which later grew to $21 million due to mid-year state budget restrictions. In response, the university implemented an administrative hiring freeze and spending restrictions.
“[Stanley] came in right when funding was cut,” said Margaret Schedel, president of the Arts and Sciences Senate. “It was a really difficult time, and for him to have to come in at that time was very very challenging.”
Part of the fallout was a decision to shut down all but a few programs at Stony Brook’s satellite campus in Southampton, N.Y. The university had spent $78 million to purchase and renovate the campus in 2005. But with only 477 students, the campus did not meet its projected enrollment, costing the university approximately $10 million in the 2009-10 academic year.
Facing an already strained budget, Stanley announced in April 2010 that students would be relocated to Stony Brook’s main campus. Southampton students immediately responded with outrage and a lawsuit. The suit was resolved a little more than a year later, and Stanley was left with a reputation for making decisions without informing stakeholders.
In June 2010, Stanley announced an initiative called “Project 50 Forward,” which defined goals to reduce administrative costs, implement strategic planning and develop a facilities master plan for construction and renovation. The project coincided with Zimpher’s SUNY-wide initiative, “The Power of SUNY.”

In addition to addressing local challenges, Stony Brook and SUNY lobbied the state to pass legislation to offset the effects of budget cuts. In January 2010, Gov. David Paterson introduced the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, supported by SUNY and CUNY, which was the precursor to NYSUNY 2020.

The empowerment act had three major provisions: allowing the boards of trustees for both SUNY and CUNY to raise tuition annually, reducing restrictions on public-private university partnerships and removing purchasing requirements. Although some legislators were willing to consider the last two provisions, which amounted to removing the red tape, changing the tuition policy was a major point of contention.

Until that point, only the legislature had the power to change SUNY’s tuition, which resulted in large infrequent spikes in the cost of tuition when budget pressures demanded it. Since 1963 there had only been 13 tuition increases, the largest of which was a $950 increase to in-state tuition in 2003. When tuition increased, the legislature usually decreased state support, resulting in a shift in the cost of higher education from the state to students.

“If the legislature won’t give us any more money … then they have to let us raise tuition,” said Frederick M. Walter, past president of the University Senate. “You can’t keep both of those down and expect us to be world class.”

Supporters sought a system that would allow the board of trustees to make limited increases to tuition while requiring the state to maintain its level of funding and leave financial aid recipients unharmed. They hoped to use the additional revenue to offset state budget cuts.

Critics, however, anticipated that allowing tuition increases would price some students out of public higher education. The tuition policy SUNY proposed would have also allowed for separate tuition increases at the four university centers, including Stony Brook, which would raise the schools’ price relative to other colleges in the SUNY system.

Ultimately, the empowerment act did not pass with the 2010-11 budget, and SUNY experienced additional cuts. In a message to the university, Stanley estimated a $30 million deficit for Stony Brook. As it became clear that the empowerment act was unlikely to pass, the Stony Brook Foundation launched a nearly $1.2 million lobbying effort in July 2010 to continue to push for a new tuition structure, according to the Times Union, an Albany newspaper.

State vs. Tuition Support of State Purpose at Stony Brook University

New York, like many states, has steadily decreased the funding it provides per student to its public universities over the past few decades. It has increased tuition in turn, shifting the bulk of the cost of education from the state to students. Stony Brook began receiving the majority of its funding for its core instructional budget, also referred to as “state purpose,” from students in the 2011–12 academic year.

* Figures not adjusted for inflation

Source: Stony Brook University Budget Office


SUNY 2020

SUNY’s budget problems continued in 2011 when Andrew Cuomo took office as governor. Cuomo proposed budget cuts across the state that would close a $10 billion deficit, including a 10 percent reduction in funding for SUNY and additional cuts for SUNY hospitals. He did, however, include provisions from the empowerment act in his budget enabling public-private partnerships and simplifying procurement.
Although most of Cuomo’s cuts were enacted, SUNY got what it wanted on June 24, 2011 when the legislature passed NYSUNY 2020. For the next five years, the law allowed SUNY schools to raise tuition annually by $300 for in-state students and allowed the four university centers to raise tuition by 10 percent annually for out-of-state students.
To prevent the legislature from offsetting additional tuition revenue with more budget cuts, SUNY 2020 included a “maintenance of effort” provision, which stipulated that the state would not decreases SUNY’s operating budget for five years during tuition increases. The law also encompassed the SUNY 2020 Challenge Grant Program, which provides grants for projects at the university centers in Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton and Stony Brook that encourage economic development.
At Stony Brook, the passage of SUNY 2020 marked a new paradigm for Stanley’s presidency and the university. Despite the massive reductions in state funding since 2008, the university could plan on additional tuition revenue instead of cuts.
“SUNY 2020 was remarkable in that it let institutions plan,” said Chief Deputy to the President and Vice President for Government and Community Relations Judith B. Greiman at a University Senate meeting in April. “That stability and predictability was game changing.”
At the same time, the university sought to lessen the impact of state budget cuts through increased fundraising and private gifts. In June 2011 the university hired Dexter A. Bailey, Jr. as vice president of advancement, and on Dec. 14, 2011, Stanley announced a $150 million donation from James Simons, a mathematician, hedge fund manager and former chair of the mathematics department at Stony Brook.

The donation — the largest in SUNY’s history and the sixth largest to any public university in the country — was announced the same day that Stony Brook’s $35 million Challenge Grant was approved. The combined revenue from the grant and $50 million of the Simons gift was designated for the construction of a $194 million Medical and Research Translation (MART) building.

The MART is by far the largest construction project on Stony Brook’s campus undertaken since Stanley arrived at Stony Brook. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2016, and in many ways is the crowning achievement of Stanley’s presidency so far. It was conceived following important victories for the university after years of crippling budget cuts, demonstrating that the university could grow in even the most hostile climate.

In announcing its SUNY 2020 challenge grant proposal, the university also made plans to invest new tuition revenue in hiring 267 new faculty members and 400 staff, expanding advising services and increasing financial aid. Additional funds from the Simons gift were invested in creating endowed professorships, expanding medical research and supporting graduate students.

Simons’ prior donations to the university of more than $138 million, which stemmed from his success in developing quantitative trading algorithms through his investment firm, Renaissance Technologies, also had the distinction of being the largest in SUNY’s history.

“It’s very fortunate that we have Jim Simons around,” Walter said. “The president has done a very good job with raising consciousness, with fundraising, putting Stony Brook on the map.”

Other private donations, managed by the Stony Brook Foundation, started to pour in following the Simons gift. On Nov. 21, 2015, the university announced that the foundation had raised $426 million since 2011, launching a campaign to raise an additional $176 million by July 2018 for a total of $600 million.

Stony Brook University NYSUNY 2020 Challenge Grant Application

After the passage of NYSUNY 2020, Stony Brook drafted a grant application for $35 million to build a medical and research translation building. It also outlined how it would use funds from the tuition increases allowed under the law.


Strategic Planning

As the university became more financially secure, Stanley was able to move past balancing budgets. Initiatives that were announced in 2010 as part of Project 50 Forward began to reach fruition in 2011, setting the stage for a slew of administrative, academic and infrastructure projects across the campus.
In 2010, a targeted gift from the Stony Brook Foundation allowed the university to hire the consulting firm Bain and Company to find opportunities to cut administrative costs. An early analysis showed the university already had a relatively lean administration. However, the firm found potential savings in procurement spending, department organization and hiring. The university estimates that projects implemented under the resulting plan have created more than $48 million in savings over the past four years.
The Facilities Master Plan developed under Project 50 Forward was designed to address increasing enrollment and new academic programs by repairing and reusing existing spaces in addition to new construction. Under the plan, Stony Brook began construction on the MART, built a new computer science building, renovated the sports arena, created a new recreation center and began work on a new residential quad and dining hall, among other projects.
In 2014, Campus Residences began managing record numbers of forced triples following a steady increase in the number of freshman students choosing to live on campus since 2008. The university struggled to accommodate every student who requested housing, even sending some students to live on another campus 20 miles away. To cope with increased demand, the university built a new residential quad, which opened this fall.
In order to meet the academic initiatives set forth in Project 50 Forward, Stony Brook’s major colleges and departments prepared multi-year strategic plans in 2010 and 2011. Based on those plans, Stanley led the creation of a comprehensive strategic plan for the university that was published in December 2013.
Taking cues from SUNY’s strategic plan, Stony Brook made commitments to graduate more students, attract out-of-state companies to work on the university campus, increase sponsored research and expand Stony Brook Medicine by 2018. Above all, Stanley set a goal of making Stony Brook one of the top 20 public research universities in North America.
Although the strategic plan mentions the arts and humanities, there is a clear focus on economic development, medicine and science, technology, engineering and math. That focus is partly because of Stony Brook’s strengths in those fields, but also a recognition of increasing enrollment in STEM majors and an emphasis from the governor on SUNY’s role as an economic engine.

Much of the additional support Stony Brook has received from the state has been for economic development projects, including the SUNY 2020 Challenge Grant program and START-UP NY, a program creating tax-free zones on state university campuses to attract new businesses to the state.

“We have a governor now who believes that SUNY’s main reason for existence is to support the economy of the State of New York,” Walter said. “We’re getting away from a mindset that all it’s important to do is to teach people how to think.”

Supporting these programs has been one of the ways Stony Brook and SUNY have made the case for increased investment from the state.

Additionally, fall enrollment in the College of Arts and Sciences dropped by 412 students from 2011 to 2015, compared to an increase of 1,436 students in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Some faculty members argue that prioritizing STEM fields over other disciplines has weakened the university’s role in providing a liberal arts education. This is a debate taking place at research universities across the country, balancing dual commitments to research and economic impact with a fundamental mission to educate students. That balance often defines the character of institutions, and faculty at Stony Brook argue that arts and humanities should play a key role at the university.

One place that debate has come to a head is in Stony Brook’s branding and marketing materials.

Stanley has launched two major branding initiatives at Stony Brook. The first, in 2012, replaced the logo designed by legendary graphic artist Milton Glaser under Kenny’s presidency with a red shield and new fonts, unifying Stony Brook’s main campus and university hospital brands. The rollout followed the announcement of the Simons gift and funding from SUNY 2020.

The second initiative, launched in 2016, created a series of secondary branding materials designed to focus the university’s messaging to students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, prospective students and other universities with the slogan “Far Beyond.” It followed the announcement of Stony Brook’s $600 million fundraising effort.

“Far Beyond” identified STEM and medicine, value, diversity, stewardship and momentum as brand pillars, drawing the attention of faculty who noted almost no mention of Stony Brook’s strengths in the arts and humanities.

“There is tremendous focus on STEM fields, to the neglect of humanities, arts and social sciences,” said Norman Goodman, a SUNY senator and sociology professor who has taught at Stony Brook for more than 50 years. “The core value of what makes Stony Brook Stony Brook is research. But there is research in the arts and humanities and there is research in social sciences as well as STEM fields.”

Vice President for Communications Nicholas Scibetta, who was hired in January 2015 to retool the university’s marketing strategy, said the campaign would eventually incorporate messaging from the humanities. But the omission had already signaled to some faculty members that arts and humanities are not important to the administration’s strategy.

Selected Fall Enrollment at Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University has focused on its strengths in the science, technology, engineering and math fields in recent years, largely because of increased interest from students. Enrollment in the College of Arts and Sciences has decreased over the past five years while the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences has seen the largest increase in enrollment of any of Stony Brook’s programs.

Source: Stony Brook University Office of Institutional Research, Planning & Effectiveness


Stanley and the University Senate

Stanley’s job as president has been to take limited resources and invest them to maximize benefit to the university. From budget cuts to new resources, that process has involved choosing which areas of the university to grow and which to maintain.
Those values are codified in Stony Brook’s strategic planning and brand. But members of the university community haven’t always agreed with the direction Stanley has taken Stony Brook. Throughout his presidency, Stanley has a had a rocky relationship with Stony Brook’s University Senate. Although he was known for seeking input and collaborating with faculty members at Washington University, his transition to Stony Brook was difficult.
The jobs of a vice chancellor and university president are very different, and Stanley experienced friction during his first few years, especially in the midst of major budget cuts. Stanley’s reports to the Senate often became confrontational, leading to loud arguments on several occasions. Stanley also gained a reputation for failing to seek input from the Senate before making decisions.
“There have been unfortunate shouting matches,” Walter said. “There are members of the faculty who are willing to state their mind, sometimes without thinking it through first, and he’s gotten upset. I can’t blame him.”
Most recently, Stanley has been at odds with members of the University Senate and its executive committee over the search for a new provost. Goodman confronted Stanley during a meeting last March, asking why he had chosen only one member of the 23-member search committee from the nominations provided by the University Senate.

Stanley argued that he could not be limited to the Senate’s suggestions, but Goodman said this issue demonstrated Stanley’s lack of willingness to work with the governance body.

“There seems to be less of an understanding of the importance of shared governance — an understanding and respect for the elected members of the governance body and their views,” Goodman said.

Although Stanley answered several questions over email, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

People who have worked with Stanley in the Senate say his leadership has improved. He is better at talking with faculty members and handling sometimes tense meetings. Faculty members also appreciate the administrators Stanley has hired to senior leadership positions, including Provost Dennis Assanis, who was appointed in 2011 and is leaving Stony Brook to become the next president of the University of Delaware in July.

Despite their complaints about his leadership style, members of the University Senate agree Stanley has moved the university forward.

“If I were given the choice between someone who was not an effective leader and someone who is incredibly consultative, I would choose the effective leader who is getting us places,” Schedel said. “Overall, I think he’s doing a great job.”

Despite financial hardships, Stony Brook’s budget has increased at a similar rate under Stanley’s presidency as it had during Kenny’s presidency. Stony Brook’s budget was $2.6 billion during the 2015–2016 academic year.


2016 and Beyond

Despite the university’s successes, Stony Brook still faces considerable challenges with state funding. Since the passage of SUNY 2020, the state has made no effort to roll back recession-era cuts to SUNY’s operating budget.

“In the six-and-a-half years I’ve been here, there has not ever been a significant increase in state allocation,” Stanley said at a meeting with student reporters.

Additionally, although SUNY was protected from direct cuts through the maintenance of effort language in SUNY 2020, state-negotiated contractual salary increases have raised operating costs. Last year, with $1 million in one-time funding from the state to offset costs, the university was left with an $8 million budget gap. This year the total gap is approximately $15.7 million.

In 2015, the legislature passed a new maintenance of effort bill that would include the costs of salary increases and utilities. The bill received near-unanimous support in the Assembly and Senate, but it was vetoed by the governor on Dec. 11. In his veto memo, Cuomo wrote “… the issues raised by this legislation are better dealt with in the context of negotiations for the upcoming State budget.”

As the end of the five-year tuition and maintenance of effort provisions of SUNY 2020 approached in 2016, SUNY and Stony Brook began to push for an extension of law.

Members of the Undergraduate Student Government passed a resolution in February 2015 supporting an extension and visited Albany to talk to legislators. They did the same again in 2016. Stanley made multiple visits to Albany and Stony Brook marketed its accomplishments under the law.

The university also asked for additional critical maintenance funds to make repairs to buildings that desperately need attention. Stony Brook used to receive approximately $75 million annually in critical maintenance dollars, but that allocation was eliminated in 2013 and restored to only $27 million in 2014.

Greiman was cautiously optimistic at a University Senate meeting on March 7. Cuomo had included SUNY 2020 in his executive budget, and his support gave the extension a good chance of passing.

“Legislators understand that we can’t end up with what I call a perfect storm,” Greiman said. “We can’t walk out of this session with no tuition increase, no payment of salary and no base funding increase.”

But the perfect storm came on April 1.  SUNY lost its ability to raise tuition without receiving any increases to its operating budget. The legislature did not renew maintenance of effort and made no increases to cover rising salary costs or critical maintenance.

Stanley has said that he wants Stony Brook to stand among the top 20 public universities in the country, but competing for students, faculty and research funding requires money.

“We are not going to reach that goal unless we raise more money than we are raising currently,” Stanley said. “It would be helpful to have a little more money from the state to reach that goal as well, but I will work with what I have.”

Over the past few decades, states across the country have shifted many of the costs of public higher education to students. At Stony Brook, tuition revenue outpaced state support for the university’s state-defined operations for the first time in the 2011-12 academic year. Legislators froze tuition in 2016 to keep higher education in New York affordable, but by not increasing state support they also limited the quality of education New York can provide.

Stanley’s presidency at Stony Brook has been defined by his ability to support the growth of the university through philanthropy, strategic investment and increasing tuition. The future of his presidency will hinge on whether those resources alone will be enough.

Will Welch, ’16, is the former web and graphics editor of The Statesman. He produced this story as a part of his capstone project for the Stony Brook University School of Journalism’s bachelor degree program. The Statesman has republished the story with his permission.