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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Humanities professors petition for more hires

NYSUNY 2020 is a program implemented in the summer of 2011 primarily targeted to four SUNY schools: Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook. This program was designed to aid in standardizing tuition hikes for five years as well as helping the economic and academic growth in New York State.

Stony Brook created its own plan of action based on SUNY 2020. According to a Stony Brook University press release from June 1, 2011, this plan includes new buildings, hiring of new faculty and staff, creating partnerships with Long Island industries for economic development and increases in financial aid for students with a family income of $75,000 or less.

Professors from the humanities department feel they are underrepresented in hiring. Nina Lin / The Statesman
Professors from the humanities department feel they are underrepresented in hiring. Nina Lin / The Statesman

The hiring plans include employing more than 245 new faculty. In a press release, President Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., M.D., said the plans were not just about expanded research, however, a group of Stony Brook professors feel differently based on the recent faculty hirings and approval of certain cluster hiring proposals.

Cluster hiring is a program born out of 2020. Each group of hires, called a cluster, comprises one to five new faculty members. The Office of the Provost website, under Cluster Hiring Initiative, states, “The goals of this initiative are to strategically place Stony Brook University on the emerging frontiers of research and knowledge and to enhance our ability to shape new fields of discovery, learning and engagement.”

“Cluster hires are a huge project of the university, managed by the Provost, to cover the future expansion of faculty hires, after years of decline and neglect.  What they are are thematically centered, interdisciplinary groups of hires, instead of traditional allotments by field or department,” history professor Paul Gootenberg said in an email. Gootenberg is one of the faculty members, along with history professor Christopher Sellers, who wrote a petition letter about the recent hirings.

In December, The Statesman wrote that a committee of 12 members met to discuss 36 proposals. The committee had agreed to accept five of these proposals, which totaled to a hiring of 25 new faculty members, according to the article.

Those new faculty members will be hired for the fields of “behavioral political economy, biomolecular imaging, coastal zone management and engineering, photon science in conjunction with Brookhaven National Laboratory, and smart energy technology,” The Statesman reported.

The Stony Brook SUNY 2020 website currently states that “these hires are designed to boost research, attract federal and private foundation funding and spur economic development.”

This has caused tension in other departments on campus. A group of professors from the College of Arts and Sciences — and within that, humanities, arts and social sciences, or HASS — feel their departments have been underrepresented in the cluster hiring.

“Some [professors and faculty] realized quite quickly that something needed to be said. A lot of people were upset about it and we got together to talk about it,” Sellers said. These feelings culminated in a petition letter written by Sellers.

That particular letter was written on Friday, Dec. 7, sent out to faculty members and circulated over that weekend. It was then sent to Stony Brook University Provost Dennis N. Assanis and President Stanley before the town meeting on the night of Monday, Dec. 10 being held specifically to discuss the faculty hires.

The letter had accumulated 58 signatures, according to Sellers, and expressed the concerns of the faculty.

“We hereby request that a more balanced means of selection be developed for any further decision-making about cluster hires. Proposals should be judged by colleagues in peer disciplines. A disciplinary balance in funding should be assured at the outset, rather than hinging on a selection committee’s vote,” the letter read.

The letter also called the selection committee biased toward the natural and applied sciences.

Sellers said Assanis was “upset” by the letter, defending the decision about the hires and the committee at the town meeting

“A second letter was needed,” Sellers said.

In this second petition letter, which is being circulated around the faculty, Sellers and Gootenberg wrote that CAS makes up 58 percent of the West Campus faculty and of that, 68 percent is faculty from HASS departments. They then wrote that 75 percent of the selection committee were faculty from the applied or natural sciences fields and asked that a more “balanced means of selection be developed for any further decision-making about cluster hires.”

According to Sellers, there are now 85 signatures on this second letter.

“There was one humanist out of 12 committee members. Five people [on the committee] were physicists or engineers and one person [on the committee] was bioscience,” professor and chair of the department of sociology Michael Schwartz, a petition signer, said.

“Our departments have suffered a lot in cutbacks of the last decade. The university needs more than just scientists. We need all intellectual areas,” Sellers said.

Letters were sent to departments with rejected proposals. The rejection letters were nearly identical—each included the sentence, “The committee was particularly focused on the proposal’s strategic importance, its building on core SBU competencies, its competitive edge, synergy with [Brookhaven National Laboratory], and relevance to the state economy.”

“People got rejection letters because they [the committee] wanted [the new jobs] to relate to Brookhaven Lab,” Schwartz said. He made the point that certain HASS departments, such as sociology, are in need of new professors.

Some criteria listed in the rejection letters were “national and international relevance of the research field and it’s appropriateness to SBU” and “the likely impact on the academic world, the state of N.Y., and the larger community.”

While the rejection letters were uniform to one another, each had a few paragraphs that were solely in regard to that particular department’s cluster proposal. These paragraphs outlined what was liked about the proposal as well as what the weaknesses of the proposal were.

In a press release from Nov. 20, 2012, Assanis said, “Every proposal we received was thoughtful, strategic and quite frankly, outstanding. The range of proposals funded this year hold great promise for helping us accomplish our teaching and research missions and can make a marked difference to our campus’ intellectual atmosphere. They are aimed at addressing society’s most vexing challenges through the collaboration of natural, life, and social sciences; technology; medicine; humanities; policy; business; and the arts.”

Committee co-chair Nancy Tomes, professor and chair of the department of history, refused to comment on the story.

Committee co-chair Serge Luryi, distinguished professor and chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering, said in an email that “as a member of the Cluster Hire Committee that was evaluating proposals, I had pledged to maintain absolute confidentiality about all committee-related communication, both during the review process and after its completion…I must say that in view of the confidentiality pledge, I feel it would not be appropriate for me to be interviewed about these issues.”

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