MSU president Samuel Stanley arrives with record of achievement, controversy

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Stony Brook, New York — Before graduation ceremonies commenced at Stony Brook University in May, former President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. pulled aside Kevin Law, the school council's president, and shared some news: He was leaving to become Michigan State University's next president.

Law had mixed feelings because, as a member of the university's governing board, he had worked with Stanley since the beginning of the president's 10 years at Stony Brook, on New York's Long Island. They became friends and often played basketball together.

But Law knew that Stanley couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pick up the reins of a larger university renowned in academics and sports — and the challenge of changing MSU's trajectory as it heals from the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.

A Harvard-trained biomedical researcher, Samuel Stanley Jr.  earned a reputation at Stony Brook as a leader who strengthened the university, especially in science, technology, engineering and math, but struggled with transparency and communication skills.

Stanley, who became MSU's 21st president Thursday, comes from Stony Brook with a record of championing science and math, bolstering student success and diversity, and making tough financial choices during budget crises, some of which angered faculty and students. Critics in both groups say he discouraged faculty input and kept himself distant from students at the Long Island school.

In a farewell speech a few weeks after Stanley announced his move to East Lansing, Law likened the president's work at Stony Brook to that of a municipal leader. 

"When you are mayor of a small city, you don't ever make 100% of the people happy," said Law, CEO of the Long Island Association, a nonprofit that advocates for local business interests. "But the decisions he made, he always made what he thought was best for Stony Brook, best for the students, best for the faculty and best for the institutions. He didn't make decisions that maybe pleased everybody. But his heart was always in the right place."

While administrators, professors and students spoke highly of his credentials and demeanor during interviews last week on campus, not everyone agreed he was the best person to take over MSU at this pivotal moment in the university's history.

"Poor MSU ... the litter they had to pick from must have been all runts," said Jonathan Sanders, a Stony Brook journalism professor who referred to himself as one of Stanley's most outspoken critics. "What MSU needs is someone who is a combination emergency room doctor and psychiatrist. And that ain't Sam. He's got no bedside manner."

In a statement provided by MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant, Stanley said he was proud of his accomplishments at Stony Brook University, "including our focus on student achievement and diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

“I plan to take those priorities to Michigan State as well, in addition to focusing on the continued needed healing that the campus community is going through," he said.

A Harvard-trained biomedical researcher, Stanley earned a reputation at Stony Brook as a leader who grew the university, especially in science, technology, engineering and math.

However, some students and instructors depicted him as medical bureaucrat who dismantled programs, lacked transparency and made decisions that interrupted students' educational paths.

Sanders described Stanley as “talking a good game” about diversity and inclusion and women’s issues. But he said the former Stony Brook president does not involve the faculty in painful decisions.

"My students call him ... 'anti-student Stanley,'" Sanders said. "He doesn't talk with students, he doesn't like undergraduate students ... . He doesn't like tough questions."

Stony Brook University journalism professor Jonathan Sanders, left, and associate dean of the Stony Brook journalism department Charles Haddad, right.

Charles Haddad, associate dean of the Stony Brook journalism school, was less colorful in his critique of Stanley, but added that he had similar reservations about Stanley's leadership.

On the positive side, Stanley did a good job straightening up Stony Brook's medical school, which was the reason why he was brought in, Haddad said. 

That experience could prove helpful at MSU, where the university's College of Osteopathic Medicine was rocked by the revelation that Nassar that sexually abused more than 200 girls and young women during treatment for sports injuries over more than two decades.

Deepening the crisis at the medical school, Nassar's ex-boss and the former dean of the college, William Strampel, was convicted of making sexual remarks to students and mishandling complaints against Nassar. He faces sentencing Wednesday.   

But Haddad recalled a town hall meeting in 2017 during a university's budget crisis, and how it was stacked with a panel of elderly white men facing a diverse audience. 

"That is very telling," said Haddad. "The optics were tone-deaf."

Asked how Stanley might handle the climate at Michigan State, which is still scarred by Nassar's decades of sexual abuse, Haddad said Stony Brook has never experienced anything of that magnitude. But he questions whether Stanley could rebuild the trust lost at MSU.

"He doesn't have the right skill set," said Haddad, pointing to the town hall meeting. "He's a smart man, but he's politically tone-deaf." 

Added Sanders: "He's not a hands-on doctor. A hands-on doctor could help a (campus) family heal ... He's not good at person-to-person relations."

But Judith Greiman, senior vice president for government and community relations and chief deputy to the president at Stony Brook, said she felt confident that Stanley can help heal MSU's campus community from the nation's worst campus sexual abuse scandal. 

"He is someone who takes this issue very seriously," she said. 

Former Stony Brook University President Samuel Stanley and Judith Greiman, senior vice president for government and community relations and chief deputy to the president, talk with someone at a campus event.

Greiman said the university has a "robust process" for addressing sexual misconduct complaints.

"We follow our process, we don't protect people," Greiman said. "President Stanley makes it very clear to follow the process. It was very, very important to him and we spent much time, energy and money in making sure departments don't handle the case on their own."

Regarding his overall leadership, Greiman said Stanley had a "spectacular tenure" at Stony Brook.

"It's been 10 years on upward trajectory on a number of markers, from student success, research success, changing the climate, really setting the institution on an upward course," Greiman said.

Statistics show Stony Brook made progress during Stanley's tenure. 

The freshman class entering in 2009, his first year as president, had a four-year graduation rate of 47.5%. For the class that entered in 2014, the rate was 62.7%.

Stony Brook also enrolled more minority students under Stanley. Black enrollment rose from 1,503, or 6.1% in fall 2009 to 1,737, or 6.6% in fall 2018, while Latino enrollment climbed from 1,805, or 7.3%, to 2,852, or 10.9%.

Research spending fluctuated during Stanley's presidency. It peaked at $200.1 million during his first year in office because of federal stimulus funds, bottomed out at $160.1 million in 2014 and rebounded to $180.6 million last year.

Stanley also engaged with the campus community in a variety of ways, Greiman said, holding office hours for students, attending university Senate meetings, speaking with student journalists and having dinners with students. 

"There were many ways in which he communicated," Greiman said. "And they always ended with selfies with Sam."

The truth about Stanley lies somewhere in between his ardent supporters and harshest critics, said Fred Kowal, president of the United University Professions, which represents faculty and staff at about 30 campuses in the State University of New York higher education system, which includes Stony Brook.

"He was an incredibly strong advocate for bringing in diverse faculty and staff, but even more so: He supported programs to bring in students from under-resourced communities,” said Kowal.

He added that Stanley was a staunch supporter of a freedom school started by Stony Brook; the summer program is in its fifth year of providing summer education to low-income children.

"He just had a deep-seated commitment to having the university serve the purpose of economic and social justice," said Kowal. "That was just one of his values."

On the other hand, Stanley struggled with transparency, particularly during a budget crisis at Stony Brook and other SUNY universities, Kowal said. 

In 2018, Stanley imposed a hiring freeze in response to an $18 million deficit that stemmed from a lack of state funding to cover state-mandated salary increases, he said in a budget message posted on Stony Brook's website. 

In 2017, students protested when the university suspended admissions for its theater arts, comparative literature and cinema arts department to address a $1.5 million deficit in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Long Island newspaper Newsday reported

Over the past year, Kowal said, faculty and staff have become increasingly angry about the loss of jobs and program cuts because of the budget problems.

"Transparency at all times was not his strong suit but I have had a lot of those problems with campus presidents in SUNY so he is not unique," he said. "There were calls for a lot more transparency on the budget, he did respond with a lot of information so in that regard he was more transparent. But decisions were impacting the lives and careers of our members."

Kowal noted that the faculty discussed taking a vote of no confidence in Stanley recently but the issue became moot when he announced he was departing for MSU.

"He has his work cut out for him, given all that has happened (at MSU)," said Antonio Herrera, a visiting scholar at Stony Brook. "He's basically walking into a culture where everyone's on edge." 

Stony Brook is home to 26,000 students, about half the number who attend Michigan State. Stony Brook also employs 15,000 people on its 1,453 acre-campus that includes a teaching hospital. MSU, by comparison, has just over 12,900 employees.

During slow, summer days at the university last week, the campus was populated by small groups of incoming freshmen attending orientation, along with a few students, faculty and administrators.

Lou Charnon-Deutsch, a retired Stony Brook emeritus professor in Hispanic Languages, described Stanley’s tenure as good overall in spite of some struggles.

She said he built up certain areas of the university, especially the sciences. And while students and faculty were hurt when STEM programs were prioritized over departments in humanities over the years, Charnon-Deutsch acknowledged that the decline in the humanities is a nationwide trend.

“I’m sad about that but it's a fact of life so it makes sense that he would concentrate on the sciences," said Charnon-Deutsch. "But overall, he did a pretty good job. Even when the humanities were up in arms, he came around eventually to understand better what the humanities needed."

Diego Mirasol, a senior studying history and anthropology, said he was pleased Stanley was leaving Stony Brook.

"Stanley has been good at fundraising," said Mirasol, 23. "But his policies have not been all that great when it comes to the little people, the staff and the students."

Mirasol said he had expected to be on a study abroad program in archaeology when it was canceled at the last minute because the university raised the number of people who needed to apply — and not enough did. He was supposed to graduate in the fall and now can't finish until spring.

"The university is well-known for its medicine and computer science programs, especially with Stanley trying to get the school to have more of a STEM focus," Mirasol said. "All of the humanities, anything outside of STEM, has been de-prioritized in favor of more STEM subjects. It's a detriment to the school. It's really discouraging people to come to the school and helping it grow into a more prestigious academy ... I think it is a self-destructive focus of theirs."

But Clara Vargas saw the former president differently. A first-year doctoral student in physical therapy, Vargas said, "We will miss him very, very much."

"He's built a great foundation," Vargas said. "I feel very welcomed and our program is amazing. I'm learning so much as I go. Good luck to him. Michigan State is very lucky."

Described by many as smart and funny and a sports fan, Stanley lived in a house close to Stony Brook's campus in Setauket, New York, with his wife, Dr. Ellen Li, a Stony Brook researcher and gastroenterologist.

 "We're excited about the opportunities that a large research institution brings — the opportunities to be part of global solutions and meaningful impacts," Li said in a statement. 

A Harvard-trained biomedical researcher, Samuel Stanley Jr.  earned a reputation at Stony Brook as a leader who strengthened the university, especially in science, technology, engineering and math, but struggled with transparency and communication skills.

"While I will be in East Lansing a little over the upcoming months, I do need to finish some of my own research projects at Stony Brook throughout the coming year. It was a whirlwind three days in May during Sam's appointment by the Board, but everyone we met was very welcoming and supportive."

Stanley said he plans to immerse himself at MSU while he develops his goals for the university.

"I realize I have a lot to learn and a great deal of listening to do with the Spartan community," he said. "During my first six months, I’ll be working on a strategic plan that will outline key priorities and my leadership vision.”