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Building on Our Strengths to Transform the Future

On July 1, 2020, Stony Brook University welcomed Maurie McInnis as its sixth president. She arrived on campus at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, immediately having to tackle the related, changing needs of students for 2020 and beyond. Here she talks about her goals for Stony Brook and the opportunities this moment in history has presented for the future of higher education.

What must institutions do to facilitate the transformation of higher education to meet the changing needs of students?

It starts by understanding the strengths of our current practices and then really homing in on the areas that need transforming. There’s no question that technology can be used to create an educational space that is more inclusive and equitable to a growing, diverse population of students. But we are still working to figure out which subjects and modes of education translate best to a remote setting. COVID-19 has presented us with an opportunity to analyze the advantages of different models of education while developing new teaching tools and methods along the way.

During the first month of the fall semester, we heard from both faculty and students that some videoconferencing and remote interactions have actually empowered students to speak more in class. It’s allowed students who might have otherwise felt alienated or intimidated to participate. Similarly, remote models of the university experience have totally reimagined many extracurricular activities. Students who might often be busy commuting or working can still connect with their peers and classmates online for activities and social clubs. A student whose commute prohibits them from making it to a career fair on time now has the opportunity to attend. What COVID-19 and the transition to remote and hybrid learning revealed was that previous models of university life haven’t always served all students equally. Now we have the opportunity to fill those gaps.

Recognizing the importance of these other integral elements of the academic experience — clubs, extracurricular organizations, career fairs, and more — and making them accessible to all will be an important step in moving forward. It’s clear that if higher education is going to meet the changing needs of students, while driving the social and economic mobility of our community, our academics need to do it all. They need to be accessible, rigorous, and just as intellectually engaging as they always have been. My hope is that we can use our experience during this pandemic to spark positive change for future generations of Stony Brook students, faculty, and community members.

Stony Brook’s priorities right now are to learn from the lessons of this moment and build for a more sustainable future.

What is your vision for Stony Brook? What would you most like to see the University accomplish?

Part of what drew me to Stony Brook was its unique set of priorities and demonstrated success in educating a diverse group of students. We are the No. 1 institution in reducing social inequality, and I believe that looking forward we must continue to take this role very seriously.

What I want is to continue to embrace our incredible impact in driving intergenerational socioeconomic growth, and this will mean both prioritizing our outstanding academics as well as how our academics prepare students for success after they graduate. It’s hard to call this “my vision” because Stony Brook is already excellent at this and has been for a while, but connecting students with opportunities after they graduate, from research positions to internships to career advising, will be important in expanding our impact.

The work we do at Stony Brook is so multifaceted. We’re a state-of-the-art healthcare institution and simultaneously a cutting-edge research institution. I want to build on both of these strengths by bringing them closer together, blending our expertise across disciplines. And we’re already seeing so many exciting examples of this unfold. The Institute for Engineering-Driven Medicine, for example, is drawing in faculty from all over campus — from the AI Institute to the Neurosciences Institute; from the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology to the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology — to collaborate on groundbreaking innovations in convergence science. Our partnership with Brookhaven National Laboratory, including research conducted using its Electron-Ion Collider, is also creating opportunities for our students to engage in important, real-world research while bringing economic growth to the region. I would like us to continue on this trajectory spurred by the creative momentum of interdisciplinary collaboration.

What are your main priorities for the University over the next year and beyond?

To do a lot of the work I’ve already spoken about, we’ll need to really leverage the talent of our community to solve our budget issues. Stony Brook is by no means the only institution to be impacted by the challenges of COVID-19, but we need to think critically and productively about how we can solve our budgeting issues while still continuing our tradition of academic excellence and sustaining our symbiotic relationship with our community and New York State.

We’ll need to come together as a campus community to do this. What it really means is that every member of our campus will need to stay engaged in the questions we’re asking, problems we’re addressing, and initiatives we’re implementing. We’ll need to think creatively to generate new revenue as a University and use campus spaces more efficiently. And while this is challenging work, especially in a time of so much change, I believe that the knowledge we’ve gained from our successful COVID-19 response and remote learning will help us substantially here.

For many universities, but especially ours, I think COVID-19 has revealed both our unique strengths — our community engagement, our seriousness about academics, our personal sense of accountability, and collective responsibility for one another — as well as problematic patterns that in previous years were able to slip by. Stony Brook’s priorities right now are to learn from the lessons of this moment and build for a more sustainable future.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about a line from one of my favorite novels, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day: “It was one of those events which at a crucial stage in one’s development arrive to challenge and stretch one to the limit of one’s ability and beyond, so that thereafter one has a new standard by which to judge oneself.” I believe that the year 2020 has been one of those “events” about which Ishiguro writes so beautifully. The world is finding new standards by which to judge itself and to make progress. And for Stony Brook the priority in the years to come will be defining and then living up to our own standards for excellence, accomplishment, opportunity, and service.

My hope is that we can use our experience during this pandemic to spark positive change for future generations of Stony Brook students, faculty and community members.

What do you think higher education might look like in five or 10 years?

I can’t understate the significant impact COVID-19 will have had on higher education in 10 years. Some campuses will shrink, and maybe even close. But those universities that persevere will evolve to mix residential, traditional, remote, and hybrid models of learning.

There is much to an educational experience that happens on and off campus, in and out of the classroom. A residential education remains valuable and necessary to academic excellence, but it will be critical for higher learning to be honest, proactive, and open-minded about which experiences may function well or even better with a remote component, as well as which experiences need to be critically reimagined for accessibility to serve the development of all our students.

This is an opportunity for all of us — as universities that serve rapidly evolving student populations with different and nuanced needs — to think about which pieces of our experiences must be in person and work toward strengthening them. I believe higher education, for this reason, may become a bit more efficient in 10 years by harnessing its campus energies to take full advantage of those places where the in-person experience cannot be replicated.

The past year has been difficult and exhausting — for everyone. But my belief in the importance of higher education has only been strengthened by this moment. It’s a moment where we absolutely must continue to invest in America’s higher education establishments — for the sake of our economic vitality, our health and well-being, innovative scholarship, and discoveries that will power the world for generations to come.

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