On June 20, the SUNY Board of Trustees passed a resolution to appoint Dr. Michael Alan Bernstein Interim President of Stony Brook University, effective August 1. Dr. Bernstein, Provost Emeritus of Tulane University, joined Stony Brook University as Provost and Senior Vice-President for Academic Affairs in October 2016. A recipient of four degrees in Economics from Yale University, Dr. Bernstein was a Fulbright Scholar at Christ’s College, Cambridge University. He has held research grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association, the Economic History Association, and many others. As Stony Brook’s Provost and Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Bernstein has overseen numerous initiatives aimed at supporting the University’s missions in research, scholarship, art-making, and teaching, with an emphasis on enhancing diversity and inclusion.
We sat down with Dr. Bernstein to learn more about his plans for continuing Stony Brook’s upward trajectory as a distinguished research institution, driver of economic growth, and vehicle for student success.
After three years at Stony Brook, what is your impression of the University as a scholarly community – and of its impact locally, nationally, and globally?
Stony Brook is an outstanding institution of public higher education with tremendous sway, visibility, and impact. We have a marvelous identity as a leading research, scholarship and medical institution, and are known for providing an outstanding education to our undergraduate, graduate and professional students. Our world-class faculty is highly visible and highly regarded, as evidenced by memberships in the National Academy, significant research awards and accomplishments, and our association with entities like Brookhaven National Laboratory.
As I like to say, we are an elite university, not an elitist university. We serve one of the most diverse student bodies in the Association of American Universities (AAU). Forty percent of our students are first generation college bound, and that’s a pretty unique statistic for an AAU level institution. The socioeconomic mobility that Stony Brook provides these students is inspiring; we’re transforming families’ lives in remarkable ways.
And then of course, there’s our service to the community. The University is a major driver of economic development and vitality here on the island. Not only are we Long Island’s largest single site employer, we also oversee the Long Island State Veterans Home, conduct marine and atmospheric science research on Long Island and beyond, and lead an academic medical center and expanding hospital system. Additionally, through our affiliation with Brookhaven National Laboratory, we are one of only eight universities responsible for the collaborative management of a national laboratory. All of these efforts contribute to our regional impact, which I am excited to say now totals $7.23 billion in annual economic output.
What are the chief goals you have as Interim President?
It is critical that we foster our upward trajectories around student success and research excellence. My priorities also include continuing to manage our resources in an efficient, effective, and strategic way. We will remain committed to nurturing and strengthening of structures of shared governance, transparent communication, and collaborative decision-making. I am also committed to ensuring our position as an AAU-member research university, and to upholding our values of diversity and inclusiveness. And we will build upon Stony Brook Medicine’s strong reputation known for outstanding, accessible and affordable health care and cutting-edge research.
When you consider your many accomplishments as Stony Brook’s Provost, of which are you most proud?
The key job of the Provost’s Office is to recruit and retain excellent faculty, and I am most proud of our team’s ability to do just that. We have also had the pleasure of recruiting some outstanding deans, both permanent and interim, and their leadership has been integral to faculty success.
When I joined the University in the Fall of 2016, we faced considerable budgetary challenges, and many of them were centered in the Provost’s Office. We had to manage those challenges right away, and we have since accomplished a great deal. Strong resource stewardship and recruitment success allows us to maintain academic and research excellence.
You have said that you intend to build upon the legacy of outgoing President Stanley. Are there particular aspects of that legacy that you intend to emphasize going forward?
Of course, we will emphasize President Stanley’s focus on student success. Graduation and retention rates are much higher today than they were ten years ago when President Stanley took office. Our six-year graduation rate is in the 60th percentile, which is excellent for a public university. Getting into the 70th percentile is not a pipe dream — that is something we can accomplish over time.
Our research portfolio also grew under President Stanley, and I will continue to encourage that growth. Our externally funded grants and contracts are steadily increasing, and that is a testimony to the quality of the faculty. In solidifying Stony Brook’s reputation as an innovative research university and academic medical center, President Stanley put us on the right path, as demonstrated by alliances with Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Furthermore, Stony Brook Medicine has become a significant medical enterprise. We have added a hospital tower, built the Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, and created an innovative research building. Southampton Hospital and Eastern Long Island Hospital have also joined the Stony Brook Medicine system. These are great steps forward for our community, and I will do my part in ensuring that success continues.
How can Stony Brook and other public institutions bridge the gap to make up for the budgetary issues arising from the fact that state budget support is not growing?
We monitor costs diligently, but as is the trend in public higher education, state support, other than for fringe benefit payments, is not growing. The only way for us to generate additional revenue is to be more innovative. Like many institutions of higher education, we are exploring online education as a source of revenue, along with ways to monetize current activities on campus for a wider audience. Academic disciplines such as computer science, which offers an area of expertise that is in high demand, could further extend learning opportunities to the external community. These efforts will be pursued in both STEM and Humanities fields.
Why is diversity so important to higher education?
An environment that values diversity, equity, and inclusion provides our students with the ability to learn how best to be part of today’s evolving workforce and the global community. It also allows our University to become a better research institution. Through our diverse faculty and student populations, we gain richer perspectives and we improve our research and scholarly outcomes. Whether we are thinking about future advancements in medical therapy, environmental solutions to climate change, or socioeconomic change in public policy, a more diverse population prompts new ways of analyzing these issues and devising better solutions to pressing contemporary problems.
What do you consider to be the most important strengths and opportunities for the University?
I am a big believer in what I call ‘place-based identity,’ the idea that our strengths and areas of focus are driven by our geographic location. Given our expertise in energy research, the health sciences, and engineering, we have taken opportunities to form close alliances with nationally renowned laboratories in our area. Our coastal location allows us to operate a marine and atmospheric sciences school that works on local and global problems of the day – a school that is unique in the SUNY system. In addition, our proximity to New York City, an epicenter of culture and ingenuity with its many museums, archival collections, and exhibitions, enables us to be at the forefront of rapid innovation in the fine arts. Those are just some of the ways in which our location enables us to do extraordinary work in an array of fields, and our opportunities within these areas are boundless.
We also have the ability to train the next generation of practitioners, scholars, and leaders. Stony Brook University has nearly 17,000 undergrads, and as I said earlier, forty percent of them are first generation college bound. We revitalize that very powerful opportunity each fall.
If you weren’t working in higher ed, where would you see yourself?
If I had to do it all over again, I might have majored in anthropology. I find it a fascinating field, especially economic anthropology, which explores human economic behavior in its broadest historic and cultural context. That is, of course, unless the New York Yankees chose me to play third base!
What advice would you give to those students who are beginning their college career this fall?
I encourage students to explore the fields in which they will thrive. If you are a matriculated student at Stony Brook, you are already ahead of many of your peers, so make the best of it. Study what you are passionate about and you will be successful. It is not what you major in, it is how you major.
The fundamental piece of advice I always give students is that it is not about knowing what you’re going to do next—it’s about being ready for the opportunity that comes. Crucial moments of transition usually come when least expected and they never come packaged in ways you would anticipate. When you apply yourself to what you love, and are open to the possibilities, success will find you. Be ready.