A College ‘Built on the Cheap’

By Ann Sandford
John A. Strong taught history at Southampton College for 33 years.

“Running on Empty”
John A. Strong
Excelsior Editions, $29.95

   In 1963, Brooklyn-based Long Island University, a private institution established in 1926, opened a campus in Southampton. The university president and trustees were responding to a perceived need for teacher education programs in eastern Suffolk County, expecting that the new college could participate in the postwar population growth in Nassau County that had fueled the expansion of L.I.U.’s C.W. Post campus during the late 1950s. The college they founded enrolled about 300 full-time students in its first-year class, justifying optimistic expectations.
    In “Running on Empty: The Rise and Fall of Southampton College, 1963-2005,” the ethno-historian John A. Strong, who taught in the history department at Southampton for 33 years, picked this enrollment figure from a range of confusing different numbers offered at the time. For him, the confusion is but one example of the administrative disorganization that characterized the early days of Southampton College, both internally and in the fledging institution’s relationship with the university center in Brooklyn.
    In his detailed chronicle of events, the author identifies three persistent “patterns” that became evident during the first year of operation. Like L.I.U.’s center, the satellite campus had “the tendency to jump into an initiative without sufficient planning and adequate funds.” On the other hand, and perhaps accounting for the college’s 42-year life, no mean achievement, faculty and staff responded to challenges with “creative imagination and energetic initiative.”
    A third pattern that emerged, according to the author, was a fairly persistent student profile where “most came from the bottom three-fifths of their high school classes, and half ranked in the lowest two-fifths . . . a mix of late bloomers, rebels, and serious students.” Representative Tim Bishop, who was hired onto the admissions staff in 1973, promoted to provost in 1986, and took a leave of absence in 2002 to run for Congress, reflected on the closing in 2005 that the successful actions of certain faculty, staff, and administrators “offset the problems posed by the lack of funds and a poorly designed campus built on the cheap.”
    Mr. Strong appears to agree with the congressman; to this reader, the author’s profiles of leaders, exploring their backgrounds and decisions, best propel the narrative and enliven the book. Although they need to be pieced together, these sketches jump out in spite of the study’s chronological organization.
    Dr. Edward Glanz, a department chairman at Boston University and disciple of interdisciplinary studies, became the first provost (1963-71) at Southampton. Recognizing the significance of the regional marine environment, he hired staff to organize a marine science major. In the humanities, he envisioned an interdisciplinary program in order to access the talents of available artists and writers. Mr. Glanz also hired faculty to develop “social programs that reached out to African-American, Native American, and working-class members of the [local] community.” The strategy met with mixed success, largely hampered by the lack of an endowment, which fostered a reliance on continually increasing students’ tuition charges.
   One major success was the marine science program. By 1970, the college could boast national recognition, with an expanding department and a new laboratory: “Students came in with SAT scores about one hundred points above the scores of the rest of the student body,” Mr. Strong notes. A decade later, there were 650 natural science majors, making up about half the student body of 1,305.
    In 1993, Southampton College appointed a wealthy businessman, Robert F.X. Sillerman, “honorary chancellor.” Serving without pay, he helped with fund-raising and made substantial personal contributions over a period of years. Mr. Sillerman helped monitor the critical reform efforts that began in 2002, when the cumulative college debt had reached $50 million. Agreeing with L.I.U.’s president, David Steinberg, he opposed the option of closing the college.
    At the 2003 commencement, the chancellor announced that L.I.U. supported a campaign to raise $60 million for the college and that he had pledged $20 million. An additional $15 million would come from private donations. The remaining $25 million, the chancellor continued, would come from the other university trustees if the college couldn’t raise the money.
    By the spring of 2004, the $60 million goal had not been met: The other trustees did not pledge substantial amounts, leading Mr. Sillerman to refuse to provide interim financing. On June 16, the L.I.U. president notified the college community that the campus would be closed, citing a projected $77 million debt by 2005 and low enrollment.
    Mr. Strong describes various efforts to save the college, or, at least, to salvage certain programs. Attuned to the atmosphere on campus, the author notes that “a palpable undercurrent of hostility toward the university remained well into the spring of 2005.” The last graduation took place in May 2005. In 2006, L.I.U. accepted the offer of $35 million approved by the State University of New York board of trustees to purchase the college.
    In an epilogue, Mr. Strong writes that SUNY’s Stony Brook University has absorbed the marine science and creative writing programs. Efforts by the new owner to re-establish a college have failed, even after investing “an estimated $43 million beyond the $35 million purchase price.” In 2012, proposals to build a teaching hospital and to organize a Peconic Bay Region Sustainability Institute were made. The community has to await their futures.
    This fine book relies upon many interviews and on extensive research among written records. Evaluating it as interpretive history, Mr. Strong seems torn about the legacy of Southampton College. While he offers “Running on Empty” as a “celebration of a small campus community,” on the crucial issue of why the college did not survive, the author writes that readers must “come to their own conclusions.” To this reader, a section that addressed a comparative framework for educational institutional failures would have helped here, enhancing the usefulness of Mr. Strong’s contribution and the insights gained by general readers.
    Filling a distinct void in local and New York State history, this work will find a place among other studies of small colleges of the era.

   Ann Sandford is the author of “Grandfather Lived Here: The Transformation of Bridgehampton, N.Y., 1870-1970.” She lives in Sagaponack.
    John A. Strong’s previous book was “The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island.” He lives in Southampton.