Politics and Public Higher Education in New York State: Stony Brook -- A Case History
reviewed by Joseph DeVitis - 2002
Title: Politics and Public Higher Education in New York State: Stony Brook -- A Case History
Author(s): Sidney Gelber
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820449199 , Pages: Vol 11 , Year: 2001
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Sidney Gelber has enjoyed an illustrious history of his own at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook: Distinguished Service Professor, Leading Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Academic Vice President/Provost Emeritus, and recipient of the Stony Brook University Medal. Not so surprisingly, his case history of Stony Brook is largely a loyalist, downright celebratory, account. Some might even call it an exercise in scholastic boosterism. On the other hand, he uses a more acute political lens to assess public higher education in New York State as a whole, particularly its "sleeping giant," the SUNY system.
Despite its historically "progressive" image, New York was the last state in the Union to create, in 1948, a state-supported system of colleges and universities. Governors, the state legislature, the Board of Regents, the Board of Trustees, and the State Department of Education were all profoundly influenced by the power and privilege of private institutions of higher learning throughout New York State. Gelber depicts a tepid call to arms for launching and strengthening the SUNY system while painting a rosier picture of Stony Brook’s ascent against all odds. He cites SUNY’s best-known chancellor, Ernest L. Boyer, on his admiration for Stony Brook amidst thin support from SUNY:
The thing about Stony Brook, it didn’t have a long tradition, and it was just built, it was like putting together a 747 while you were in flight; and that was a huge innovation. . . . It was very raw, it was just building its traditions, didn’t have big endowments, it couldn’t slip money back and forth, it was literally living from hand to mouth. (p. 327)
That quote pays quite a tribute to Stony Brook; it says nothing in praise of the SUNY system.
Gelber’s chronicle is based primarily on administrative sources. Indeed, his fact-finding mission (he writes mainly "factual," as opposed to synoptic, history) tends to underscore the work of chancellors, presidents, provosts, and deans. Faculty and students are present in his story, but they enter the stage more sporadically and less consequentially. Gelber delights in presenting benchmark accolades that boost Stony Brook’s specific academic reputation. For instance, he often compares his campus to the likes of the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at San Diego, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Illinois. By the same token, he is far more circumspect and realistic in his portrayal of the SUNY system in general. Without a flagship campus, SUNY has seldom drawn the same limelight as the aforementioned universities. In fact, during my own tenure in the SUNY system from 1988 to 2001, New York State never ranked higher than 39th in per capita funding for higher education. Since the early 1990s, SUNY campuses have sadly referred to themselves as simply "state-assisted." A current president of a major SUNY campus claims, humorously if dolefully, that SUNY may soon be viewed as "state-located" if funding patterns become much worse.
Though Gelber’s study traces SUNY’s evolution from 1948 to 1980, it is pungently illustrative of academic and administrative problems that still plague the system even more vividly today. As Gelber sees it, SUNY has often been "tempted to adopt bureaucratic solutions in the face of . . . complexity" (p. 329). Highly politicized and forsaking the moral stewardship of its own institution, SUNY’s Board of Trustees has, for example, recently imposed its own reactionary Eurocentric general education requirements on the entire system without meaningfully involving faculty in the process. Gelber is pointed in his criticism of the Board:
Aside from the issue of whether or not the trustees should be directing educational institutions in this regard is the question of whether they serve the best interest of academic practice, seemingly second-guessing the faculty’s own expertise and cumulative experience. There is also the question of whether or not such actions by the Board of Trustees constitute a truly apolitical set of objectives. (p. 328)
The Board is now threatening similar imposition of teacher-education standards in the same authoritarian fashion. More generally, not a single high official in the SUNY central office can show any advanced academic credentials. Political appointees and corporate friends of Governor George Pataki presently sit in seats of "educational" power in Albany. Opposing the prevalence of such corporate and political encroachment, Roger W. Bowen, president of SUNY-New Paltz, bluntly poses several key questions: "Is it not time to profess that our age-old and well-tested search for truth must be left alone by politicians? Is it not time to declare that the academy refuses to be compromised by political meddling?"
As Gelber points out, the harbingers of SUNY’s stingy economic support and politicized leadership are legion in his own case history. Stony Brook and other campuses in the system have had to make do through Wednesday with negligible goal setting, let alone broad and deep vision. An ironic, yet powerful, example strikes at the heart of SUNY’s dilemma. The archconservative Governor Ronald W. Reagan, of California, actually funded higher education more substantially than did his moderate Republican rival, Nelson A. Rockefeller, of New York (252). Rockefeller is widely considered to be the staunchest gubernatorial ally in the history of SUNY. Despite his rhetoric, Mario Cuomo, a liberal democrat, was more a friend of K-12 education than he was of SUNY. Appropriately, he merits only a one-page citation in Gelber’s book. Even more fittingly, Governor Pataki is not mentioned at all.
Granted, Gelber does shine a bright light on Stony Brook. Nevertheless, the overarching SUNY story is far more familiar to my experience -- and far less inviting. That said, on the whole I would rather be in Kentucky, where the grass is bluer and the skies are sunnier.