To Sustain Stony Brook, Sustainability Campus Will Close

Ashley Thorne

Stony Brook University has announced that it will make significant budget cuts in order to stay afloat. Included in these cuts is the decision to all but shut down its upscale sustainability-themed Southampton campus.

The budget cuts, Stony Brook says, are the result of state reductions amounting to $55 million over two years. The school had already spent over $75 million on the Southampton since it acquired it in 2006. New York assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. published a statement of strong opposition to the move, saying that the university has been making great progress but that “the new administration has decided to kill the baby while it is still in the crib.”

The university will retain its School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and its Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree program at the Southampton campus, but will shut down its residential, and admissions programs beginning this summer. Other majors (Ecology and Human Impact; Environmental Design, Policy, and Planning; and Sustainability) will be transferred to the university’s West campus.

Although the sustainability focus will survive, it will not be the same. Without the sequestration of its own campus and charmed Southampton setting, sustainability will be something of an afterthought. The main attraction of the Southampton campus was that it was dedicated to higher education’s current trendiest idea. That idea’s credibility has taken some hits in the last six months with Climategate, the Copenhagen flop, and global warming scientists’ admissions that they lack evidence for their claims. Would Stony Brook have considered shutting down Southampton before all this happened?

Is the campus sustainability movement losing its momentum? A year ago Steven Hayward discerned a growing “green fatigue” setting in with the public. But in academia, budget cutting so far has carefully tiptoed around sustainability programs (see Chronicle article “Even During Hiring Freezes, Many Colleges Stick with Sustainability Plans”). The rationale was that sustainability was both a money-saver and a planet-saver; thus it would be one of the last to go during even the most ruthless recessional slashing of other programs. Stony Brook’s decision, while it won’t cut the sustainability program altogether (at least not yet), may be a sign that the stronghold is crumbling. This could be the beginning of the end of sustainability’s diplomatic immunity on college campuses.

The Chronicle article linked above contains a telling sentence: “Whether or not colleges are creating director positions or replacing people who are leaving might be an indication of how seriously those colleges regard their commitment to sustainability.” In other words, a college’s commitment and loyalty to an ideology matters more than its financial and academic obligations. Any action perceived as waning loyalty can put a college in a bad light. Sustainability, like diversity, is an idea whose utility is in proportion to public exhibition. Now that Stony Brook is removing its sustainability programs from the limelight, the university is likely to fall under censure from critics such as Mr. Thiele.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Stony Brook President Samuel Stanley intended the decision to be confidential but the news was leaked to the media. This may be true, but it is possible that faced with state reductions the university is issuing hollow threats to cut a favored program in order to win back the additional funding. It is rather common practice among schools that meet budget cuts to say, “Fine, we’ll close the football program,” to create such uproar. It is not clear whether this is the case with Stony Brook.

Assuming the decision is authentic, Stanley did what he had to do to keep the university alive. Surely that’s proof of Stony Brook’s commitment to its own sustainability.

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March 23, 2011


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