Feisty President at SUNY Stony Brook Has Led a Makeover of 'Mudville'

Release: 06/21/2006

Courtesy of The Chronicle

By Paul Fain

In 1968, as student protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War erupted on many of the nation's college campuses, students at the State University of New York at Stony Brook demonstrated over mud.

The campus had been under construction on a former potato field on Long Island for six years, and it had turned into a dreary morass. Students, tired of slogging through ankle-deep goo, staged a "mud-in" at an administration building and handed cups of mud to university officials.

Despite the students' protests, Stony Brook's dreary ambience hung on for decades.

When Shirley Strum Kenny toured the campus in May 1994, shortly after being named the university's president, she was aghast at what she saw. The university's mall featured splayed, patchy blacktop and a pedestal missing its statue. Most of the buildings faced outward, toward parking lots, and were built in an architectural style that was sometimes referred to as "neo-penal." There was, as she recalls it, not one bench on the entire campus.

"You didn't see any people," Ms. Kenny says. She remembers saying to a friend during her tour, "This is so ugly — what are we going to do?"

But the tide has turned in Stony Brook's campaign for better aesthetics. The blacktop and mud have been replaced with lush grass, manicured shrubs, flowers, and trees. Attractive contemporary buildings have gone up, although some of the neo-penal structures remain.

The campus improvements are a key part of Ms. Kenny's attempt to give Stony Brook a makeover, both in terms of image and quality.

Stony Brook, founded in 1957 at a different Long Island location as a college for mathematics and science teachers, has developed over the last decade into a solid research institution with national clout in science, medicine, and engineering.

The university, with an enrollment of 22,000, about 7,600 of whom are graduate students, is located only a New York commute away from Manhattan's well-known private academic powerhouses, Columbia and New York Universities. Stony Brook's 1,900 faculty members include many whose names appear regularly in scientific journals. Two Nobel Prizes in the last three years have gone to professors for work conducted at Stony Brook. Despite the laurels — including membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities — the university formerly known as "Mudville" continues to wrestle with an inferiority complex.

To bring Stony Brook's identity into line with its research achievements, Ms. Kenny has led an overhaul of undergraduate education and sought to bring cohesiveness to the university by emphasizing campus beautification and team sports.

Joseph Angello graduated from Stony Brook with a bachelor's in psychology in 1972. When he visited the campus this spring, it was the first time he'd seen his alma mater in 20 years. "I looked around, and I said, 'This isn't the campus I went to,'" Mr. Angello says. "It's come a long way."

What's in a Name?

Stony Brook's push for visibility has been hampered by the broader image problems of the SUNY system. The 64-campus state-university system, the largest in the country, has made big strides in recent years. Several of its campuses have climbed higher in popular national rankings, particularly in "best buy" categories, and many SUNY institutions have benefited in the past decade from new buildings and other capital improvements financed by $7-billion in state-approved bonds. State budgets have also improved, while research grants and private donations have increased.

But the system is often judged by its weaker campuses and by political infighting and bureaucratic logjams that stymie budgets and campus projects. In an effort to stand apart from the system, Stony Brook officials dropped "SUNY" from the university's marketing materials in the mid-1990s, relying instead on what officials think of as the institution's "popular" name, Stony Brook University.

Ms. Kenny says Stony Brook's maturation and image shift has been relatively unique, and even "backward" compared with that of other research universities. While most elite institutions began with a long tradition of quality undergraduate education and added research capacity later, Stony Brook focused first on research while its undergraduate programs lagged.

Ms. Kenny has set the ambitious goal of boosting the percentage of out-of-state students attending Stony Brook from an anticipated 11 percent in next fall's freshman class to 30 percent of incoming freshman in five years. Stony Brook's marketing efforts around this push have included glossy, full-page advertisements in newspapers such as The New York Times and The Chronicle.

By building Stony Brook's name nationally, Ms. Kenny hopes to erase the notion that the university is just a commuter college. In fact, about half of the university's students do commute, although Ms. Kenny would like to expand residential programs.

Her focus on undergraduates and image, which at first met resistance from some faculty members, is starting to pay dividends.

"We are in a tradition-building mode," says Chang Kee Jung, a physics professor who came to Stony Brook from Stanford University in 1996. Mr. Jung says he appreciates the campus's updated appearance and the emerging enthusiasm for its sports teams. "That's what brings the university together."

Who Are You?

Ms. Kenny was an unlikely choice to lead Stony Brook in its quest for an identity.

All three of the presidents who led the university before her were physicists — and men. And while the institution's students and faculty members are best known for their achievements in science and engineering, Ms. Kenny is a scholar of 18th-century British drama. Plus she is a Texas native, a petite grandmother of three, who now finds herself surrounded by students who mostly hail from Long Island and New York City.

"I think it was a little shock to the system," Ms. Kenny says of her arrival. "I'm not only a woman and an English major, but I talk funny."

But Ms. Kenny, 71, can more than hold her own with her New York peers. Prominently displayed on the desk in her office is a nameplate that reads "Iron Magnolia," a nom de guerre that her colleagues acknowledge is well earned.

"She's a very strong leader," says Patricia C. Wright, a professor of anthropology. "She really had a mission. It was almost a personal quest to make this a top-notch university."

Ms. Kenny's 12-year tenure has been marked by risks and rapid expansion.

Among her boldest moves was championing Stony Brook's successful 1997 bid to manage the Brookhaven National Laboratory as part of a joint partnership with Battelle, a science and technology group.

In 1997, taking on the laboratory was anything but a safe bet. Brookhaven, which lies about 30 miles from Stony Brook, was plagued by environmental and safety problems, including the discovery that radioactive tritium from a reactor was seeping into groundwater. The problems prompted the federal government to terminate a management contract that had been held by a consortium of nine prestigious private universities, including Princeton and Yale Universities, for 50 years.

Stony Brook also recently wrapped up an aggressive deal for 246 acres of land adjacent to its main campus. The university, which hopes to build a new research-and-development campus, offered $26-million to a real-estate corporation for the parcel last August. When the company, Gyrodyne Corporation of America, rejected the offer, Stony Brook invoked eminent domain to seize the land. A New York court will set the purchase price.

Ms. Kenny's ambitions for Stony Brook extend beyond central Long Island. Four years ago the university opened a small campus in Manhattan, at 28th Street and Park Avenue South. The facility offers classes, conferences, and, more importantly, a toehold in the Big Apple.

Her latest venture, announced in March, is the $35-million acquisition of Long Island University's 81-acre Southampton campus, located in the tony Hamptons. Ms. Kenny has big plans for the site, including a college for environmental and marine studies.

Nestled between the ocean and the white picket fences of the Hamptons, where wealthy New York City residents buy summer homes for $30-million and up, it is easy to see how the campus could be a draw for both oceanography and big donations.

"It just seemed so perfect," Ms. Kenny says.

Fitting In With SUNY

Stony Brook, along with Texas A&M University at College Station, was admitted into the Association of American Universities in 2001. The two institutions are the only new members admitted to the invitation-only organization in the past decade. Stony Brook was preceded in AAU membership in 1989 by the State University of New York at Buffalo, which now calls itself the University at Buffalo.

Like Stony Brook, the Buffalo campus has seen its national reputation lag behind its achievements. Buffalo has a longer history and a reputation with more reach, but it also struggles to publicize its accomplishments. John B. Simpson, Buffalo's president, attributes the poor image to historically weak marketing attempts by SUNY institutions and confusion about the dizzyingly complex system.

"We have not done a good job of blowing our own horns," says Mr. Simpson.

But the problem goes beyond public relations, SUNY officials admit. Until recently, SUNY had failed to adequately develop specialties among its institutions.

"SUNY is good at a lot of things," Mr. Simpson says. "But there was no greatness."

That has changed, SUNY officials say, partially because of Gov. George E. Pataki's "centers of excellence" program, begun in 2001. That program funneled money from the state and from businesses to university technology hubs, including Stony Brook, Buffalo, and SUNY at Albany.

At Stony Brook, the money helped create a Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, a hybrid academic research center and business incubator. In its first three years, the center's 38 faculty members received $40-million in federal research funds, as well as $25-million in private gifts.The university is building a 100,000-square-foot new home for the research center on the land it seized from Gyrodyne. Stony Brook hopes to have 1,900 employees working on that campus within 10 years.

The university also boasts that it is responsible for 22 percent of the research expenditures managed by SUNY's Research Foundation, which oversees the system's federal, state, corporate, and foundation research grants. Stony Brook reeled in $162.5-million in sponsored research in the 2005 fiscal year. The university ranked 58th in federal research dollars in 2003, according to the most recent rankings from the University of Florida's Lombardi Program on Measuring University Performance. The Times of London ranked Stony Brook as the 33rd most significant research university in the world, based on journal citations per faculty member.

A big problem for Stony Brook is that it seems to get less out of its relationship with SUNY than it contributes to the system in money and academic clout — a concern acknowledged by the system's new chancellor, John R. Ryan.

Mr. Ryan says the system may have prevented campuses from "being all they can be" in the past, pointing to centralized authority in Albany and the rancorous budget-allocation process.

Thomas F. Egan, chairman of SUNY's board since 1996, says higher-performing campuses — like Stony Brook and Buffalo — have sometimes contributed tuition revenue and donor money to the SUNY pot without receiving a fair share of the system's annual budget in return.

"We used to have a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul model," Mr. Egan says. "We changed that."

SUNY began a more equitable, performance-driven budget in 1998, says Mr. Egan. For his part, Mr. Ryan vows to continue pushing performance factors in the budget process, as well as other measures that will "let the stars rise." He says he wants to give flexibility to Stony Brook and other top-performing universities without hurting the "more entry-level campuses."

Ms. Kenny, and Mr. Simpson of the Buffalo campus, are optimistic.

"There's an energy at SUNY, and I'll attribute it to the chancellor," Mr. Simpson says. "I expect that in the future of SUNY there will be a differentiation in resources among institutions."

Ms. Kenny argues that Stony Brook's attempt to develop its own identity can benefit the system. Mr. Egan agrees, noting that although SUNY provides value to its campuses, such as by dealing with the state legislature, the individual institutions are the system's strength.

"Nobody walks around with a SUNY sweatshirt," he says.

Campus Life

On a sunny spring day at Stony Brook, students lounge on benches and around a grassy amphitheater that recently replaced a concrete expanse. Banners lining the mall celebrate the Sea Wolves, the university's athletics teams — last year, after a decade-long process, all of Stony Brook's sports programs became certified NCAA Division I members. Meanwhile, college guidebooks are starting to pick up on the campus improvements, and no longer snub Stony Brook as being ugly. The 2006 Fiske Guide to Colleges, for instance, praised Stony Brook for having replaced "uninspiring campus concrete" with grass and trees.

The most heralded new addition to the campus is the Charles B. Wang Center, which celebrates Asian culture and was built in 2002 with a $50-million donation from Mr. Wang, founder of CA Inc., the software company. In the building, which doubles as a student center, undergraduates dine on gourmet food or study amid the peaceful burbling of the many fountains in the high-ceilinged space.

But perhaps the most impressive addition to the campus is the $22-million Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium, which is also four years old and named for a state senator and former chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Although there is hardly a bad seat among the 8,300 in the fan-friendly venue, it also features 500 luxury booth seats, from which well-heeled fans can watch the big-drawing football and lacrosse games.

Some of Stony Brook's faculty members were initially concerned about Ms. Kenny's campus-development and sports push, worrying about the cost and that the makeover might pull resources away from academics. But those complaints have largely subsided. "It makes it a whole lot easier to come to work when it looks good," says David W. Krause, a paleontologist at the university.

Ms. Kenny pleads guilty to pushing school spirit and athletics, but says they "bring people into community in a way that doesn't happen otherwise."

Besides, Ms. Kenny, says, "our games are fun." Like many native Texans, she can be found on fall Saturdays in a football stadium, cheering on her favorite team, which happens to play on Long Island.


Construction began in 1962 on the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which is located at roughly the midpoint of Long Island, near Long Island Sound. The university's 1,039-acre campus includes 480 acres given by Ward Melville, who founded shoe companies that became CVS, the pharmacy giant.

Enrollment: 14,288 undergraduate and 7,724 graduate students (2005-6)

Tuition: $4,350 for New York state residents, $10,610 for out-of-state residents

Research: $162.5-million in research grants in the 2005 fiscal year, up from $110-million in 1998

Royalty income: among the top 20 universities in income from licensed technology for the past five years, with $12.7-million in 2004-5

Geographic origin of full-time freshmen: 39 percent from New York City and 89 percent from New York State

SAT scores: average score of incoming freshmen was 1213 in 2005, up from 1093 in 1996

Race and ethnicity of students: 42 percent white, 17 percent Asian, 16 percent unknown, 10 percent international, 8 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic

Academic programs: 119 undergraduate majors and minors, 102 master's-degree programs, 40 doctoral programs, and 32 graduate certificate programs

Rankings: climbed to 97 among national universities in U.S. News & World Report's "Best Colleges 2006" rankings, up from 117 in 2003

SOURCE: State University of New York at Stony Brook