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Leading Through Change: A Conversation with Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis

Maurie McInnis

Dr. Maurie McInnis is the sixth President of Stony Brook University, one of America’s leading public universities. As chief executive for Stony Brook, Dr. McInnis also oversees Stony Brook Medicine, Long Island’s premier academic medical center, encompassing five health sciences schools, four hospitals and 200 community-based healthcare settings. She plays a key role in economic development on Long Island and in Stony Brook’s role as part of the management team of Brookhaven National Laboratory.  

Maurie McInnis
Dr. Maurie McInnis, President of Stony Brook University

Dr. McInnis most recently served as the executive vice president and provost for the University of Texas at Austin, a top public research university serving more than 50,000 students. A renowned cultural historian and author, Dr. McInnis’ academic scholarship has focused on race, slavery and power in the American South, and her early studies included a strong emphasis on science and medicine.

We sat down with Dr. McInnis to learn more about her plans for continuing Stony Brook’s mission as a provider of world-class education, driver of economic growth, champion of diversity and inclusion, vehicle for economic mobility, and provider of top-tier medical care.

Welcome to Stony Brook. Now that you’re here, what are your first impressions of the University and your new community?

I am so proud to be a part of this community. Well before arriving, I was familiar with Stony Brook’s strengths, particularly in the areas of research and healthcare, and in the vital role the University plays in providing opportunities to a diverse and talented group of students. These are individuals who go on to make a difference in the state of New York, the country, and the world, and Stony Brook University gives them the resources and foundation to do that.

My strongest first impressions are of the commitment everyone associated with Stony Brook has to this institution. Among faculty, staff, healthcare workers, students, and alumni there is an overwhelmingly strong passion that speaks volumes to the role Stony Brook plays in the communities it serves. I am proud to be associated with an organization that has such a powerful impact in so many different and critical areas of society today.

You come to Stony Brook at a pivotal time in our nation’s history. Can you share with us your perspective on the pandemic response and recovery and the road forward?

I want to highlight the incredible response of Stony Brook Medicine and the entire Stony Brook University campus in supporting the Long Island community through this crisis.

Long Island and New York City were the hardest hit during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and since February 7, Stony Brook University Hospital’s Emergency Department has seen more than 6,500 patients for suspected COVID-19.

Stony Brook paved the way as a leader with so many proactive steps that helped communities and saved lives … from hosting one of the first drive-through testing facilities in New York State where more than 41,000 tests have been performed, to treatment innovations, to solutions that made it possible for patients to connect with healthcare professionals and their families even when in isolation or in the ICU.

Now that this region has some of the lowest infection rates in the nation, we need to remain vigilant. We have to continue to follow safety guidelines, such as wearing our face coverings and practicing social distancing, to minimize any further spread of this deadly disease.

Beyond healthcare, the transformation in how we are all living and working as a result of the pandemic has created tremendous economic hardships in our communities and throughout New York State. We know many of our students and their families have been hit hard by the pandemic. In the midst of this, I have been so impressed with the resolve our students have demonstrated to further their education. I want them to know the Stony Brook community will be there for them, doing everything we can to support them into the future.

I’m equally impressed with how faculty and staff so quickly adapted to remote learning. They’ve worked incredibly hard to make the experience for students as positive and meaningful as possible, and to continue to allow us to function as effectively and efficiently as possible, under very difficult circumstances.

While the pandemic has tremendous ongoing implications for the general economy and how we move forward, I know we will tackle them together as we adapt to changing requirements. And we will continue to develop return to the workplace strategies in line with New York State’s guidelines, keeping the safety of our students, faculty, and staff as our priority as we come back stronger from this crisis.

Maurie McInnis
Dr. McInnis on the Stony Brook campus

Other historic challenges in our community, nation, and world center around racial divide and social unrest. As a cultural historian, what perspectives can you offer? And, under your leadership, what will Stony Brook University be doing to address these critical matters?

I have spent my career researching and writing predominantly about the 19th century American South — the institution of slavery in the pre-Civil war period and the memorialization of the Confederacy in the post-Civil War period. What strikes me, as a historian, is how the issues we are discussing today are deeply rooted in America’s enslavement of Africans. Systemic racism, economic inequality and extreme acts of brutality toward Black Americans are all connected to the forced enslavement of Africans four centuries ago when in 1619 the first ship of Africans forced into bondage arrived in Virginia.

Related articles by Dr. McInnis:

Slate Magazine: “ Richmond Reoccupied by the Men Who Wore the Gray,” July 1, 2015

Slate Magazine:  “ The First Attack on Charleston’s AME Church,” June 19, 2015

New York Times: ” How the Slave Trade Built America,” April 3, 2015

The racial divide and social unrest we’re seeing today are opening up broader conversations — and making room for action. We need to seize upon this moment to ensure that America will begin to address these issues in earnest. At Stony Brook University, our new Chief Diversity Officer, Judi Brown Clarke, has my full support in the many initiatives already taking place … from virtual town halls, to discussion groups, to seminars and training. All of this work is centered around both listening and developing an action plan for creating a just, equitable, and humane campus environment for all. Areas across the academic and medical communities are working together to enhance our Diversity Plan, and to ensure we live up to our mission and values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As we get closer to fall semester, what message would you like to convey to students in these very different and difficult times?

There is no doubt that the current educational experience is not the experience anyone could have imagined we would all be in, even four months ago. In March, Stony Brook, like every other university in America, made a rapid transition to remote learning. Many things were less than ideal, but faculty, staff, and students stepped up to make it work.

As we approach fall, I first want to assure students that Stony Brook will do everything possible to make your experience as positive and meaningful as we can … offering support in the forms of academic advising and tutoring resources, healthcare and counseling services, and much more. We will also apply lessons learned in our recent remote learning environment to ensure consistency, even with the different educational delivery model we need to follow. We are also doing all we can to empower faculty and staff to enable your best learning experience.

We are following New York State safety guidelines for all SUNY schools and are hopeful that we will be able to provide some opportunities for a return to in-person learning, provided the incidence of COVID-19 remains low enough to make this a possibility. We have submitted our plan to SUNY for approval, which includes providing a hybrid experience … with a mix of traditional, in-person and online learning opportunities (more details). The in-person experiences will be different than we are all used to, with face coverings, and classrooms and other facilities reconfigured to allow for social distancing. While not what we all might hope for, it is a start on getting back to a sense of normalcy.

There are, of course, many more details to come in the coming weeks, but my main message is that Stony Brook University is committed to fully supporting our students so they can successfully stay on track with their educational pursuits. And I welcome your comments, thoughts, and concerns so we can listen and respond along the way as we work through this together.

What would you like the Stony Brook University community — faculty, staff, students, and alumni — to know about your leadership style?

In normal times, I would be out and about meeting with everyone, getting to know this community … at department meetings, student events and clubs, staff events. Even over coffee, during office hours and just walking around campus. Given our current circumstances, however, we will need to use technology to its fullest advantage and figure out, together, the best ways to collaborate and get to know each other.

What I hope you will get to know about me fairly quickly is that I am a strong believer in being transparent and inclusive; listening, learning, engaging, and collaborating. Leading an institution as big and complex as Stony Brook University requires many different individuals working together as one cohesive unit. I like to work by building a team made up of diverse talent and people who have varying viewpoints to share, and areas of expertise very different from mine. For me, it’s all about building relationships and listening to many different perspectives on an issue. And I am thrilled to be able to join an institution that has that value at its core … respect for diversity and desire to be inclusive. Also, an institution where I can learn from you about all your areas of expertise, from education, to research, to healthcare, in my dual role as University President and Governing Body of the Stony Brook Medicine healthcare system.

In addition to being a relationship-driven leader, I am extremely data driven and like making data-informed decisions. I like it when people bring evidence — not just anecdotes — when sharing recommendations.

And, in closing, what do you see as the role of multidisciplinary research in meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow?

This University offers incredibly strong research capabilities and economic development opportunities. There are so many areas of excellence across all disciplines at Stony Brook, and so many faculty members and students engaged in research that is making a difference in their fields and around the world.

The point is well-illustrated by this moment in time. Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic — one of the most complex challenges imaginable — has required researchers from many disciplines to come together. In addition to Stony Brook Medicine healthcare providers identifying innovative advancements in caring for their COVID patients, we have researchers at work trying to develop a vaccine. Stony Brook University has also been leading antibody screening, enrolling patients in a convalescent plasma trial, and conducting more than 180 dedicated research projects across all disciplines … all with the aim of winning the long-term Coronavirus battle.

This multidisciplinary effort includes nearly all areas of campus and I’m impressed with the caliber and sense of urgency with which this work is being done. These projects span 45 academic departments and eight different colleges and schools within the University. The research ranges in scope from investigating prevention and treatment of the virus; to the psychological impacts of social distancing measures on everyone from our elderly population to those with cognitive disabilities; to tracking levels of community distress and examining the impact of the pandemic on students.

The work being done to address the COVID-19 pandemic is only one example of the breadth and depth of opportunities Stony Brook has in continuing to build inter- and multidisciplinary research efforts around solving some of society’s biggest issues of the day … today and well into the future. There are extremely significant contributions I know we will continue to make to our local communities, and to the world.

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  • I read your article and think it was very powerful. I just hope that history is taught and not neglected. Due to what is going on in this world there is no need to take statues down or changed names. We need to keep history in schools and teach that history is the the most important thing. People might be offended but that’s why it is called history and these are the roots good or bad.

    • Haha. Statues and names don’t teach anyone anything they’re just objects and words. Taking down racist statues and names only shows that we’re a community of understanding and change and if you read her articles you would understand how many of them (like the resurgence and upkeep of the confederate flag) are actions to promote the white supremacy. They even have heavy ties to current events as the confederate flag is used in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement and held by protestors screaming “white power!” History is taught in books and through spoken word not heaps of stone. I’m glad you acknowledge that history is neither all good or bad and it does need to continue to be taught (and it will I don’t understand why you think people will suddenly stop teaching history). Statues and names commemorate specific people (Columbus, OH for example) but the bad parts of history (like Columbus stealing native lands and his history of genocides) should not be celebrated and we should make an effort to correct our ways through our understanding of history.

  • Welcome to Stony Brook. I hope there will be a consistent approach across the entire University when it comes to students being allowed to participate in NCAA or non NCAA sports. The guidelines surrounding COVID-19 should not be about the level of competition but about the health and safety of the students and community. What’s allowed for one group should be allowed for all groups, as it is one University. I hope you feel the same. Best of luck to your future endeavors.

  • I’m very happy to hear that you are interested in listening to all the folks that have their boots on the ground at Stony Brook University and Hospital such as staff, faculty and students. We are looking forward to forging a strong relationship between you and the governing bodies at Stony Brook. Be well. Be safe.

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