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Maurie McInnis

Stony Brook University

In 2016, Stony Brook University rebranded itself to a new campaign called Far Beyond.

The idea behind the campaign was to highlight the wide range of programs and activities the school offered, since everyone normally acknowledges the university for its medicine, science and technology specialties.

But this year in 2020, the institution proved that it indeed has gone “far beyond” with protecting public health.

Dr. Deborah Birx, head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, visited SBU last week, a stop in a several-month-long tour of different colleges and universities across the United States. But her visit to the local university was different, and she made that clear.

During her press conference, she spoke highly of how Stony Brook has handled the COVID-19 crisis. She said from the start, it was going, well, “far beyond” what other schools, and even hospitals, were doing.

She said that back in March when the university shut down and patients with the virus were filling the rooms, Stony Brook did something different from other institutions — it actually collected data, while continuing to take care of the patients.

“I was listening to the research activities that they started from day one,” she said during the press conference. “And it thrilled my heart to hear from them that their number one thing was collecting data and collecting information in real time.”

It’s right to give credit where its due, and Stony Brook, both on the medical and campus side, has done good work in keeping the number of cases down. The university’s COVID dashboard reports just two students, one university employee and four Stony Brook Medicine employees have currently tested positive as of Oct. 11. Better yet, the school has been upfront in where those cases are located and how it is handling them.

This is compared to places like SUNY Oneonta, which had to close back in August after hundreds of students tested positive after a large super-spreader party. The Oneonta dashboard reports 712 confirmed cases among students since the start of the fall semester.

It’s also not to say that SBU has not made stumbles, especially in communicating with students.

Right off the bat during the start of the pandemic, students were rightfully upset at how the university handled the virus. In March, dorming students were shocked when each received an email saying they needed to move out, go home or find shelter elsewhere because the campus was officially closed.

Students said they felt rushed, and felt the university wasn’t being truthful or transparent with everything being so abrupt. Some international students couldn’t even go home since their countries were in lockdown.

But the students are back, and cases remain low. Is it because of the incentives the university has taken with social distancing guidelines, removing of sports and recreational activities, hybrid learning and sanitizing stations? Or is it just because Stony Brook is not a “party school” and the students there really don’t congregate as at some of the schools upstate, like Oneonta. It’s also important to note the number of students living on campus has fallen from 39% in 2019 to 17% this fall.

With a new president installed at SBU, Maurie McInnis, we think that communication with students has improved. Every person, every institution has been impacted by the pandemic. The students, who feel they are paying a lot for what at times must feel like a mostly online education, need that person-on-person interaction to let their voices be heard, even if it’s behind a clear plastic barrier.

Nonetheless, Stony Brook gets high praise from both us and those involved in the national response to COVID-19, as well as Birx, for going “far beyond.” We kindly ask that the university keeps it up, for the sake of both your students and the wider community.

Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Maurie McInnis at Stony Brook University’s Wang Center on Wednesday. Photo by Julianne Mosher

The head of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force visited Stony Brook University this week to talk to faculty, students and administrators about college life during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Oct. 7, Dr. Deborah Birx met in a private roundtable talk with SBU representatives to gauge how everyone feels returning to campus, as part of a several-month-long tour of colleges across the country. The meeting lasted more than two hours, president of the university Dr. Maurie McInnis said, deeming it a successful discussion.

“We want to find a pathway forward for other universities, and when we want to use what we have learned to make it available to others.”

— Dr. Deborah Birx

“She was excited about what we’ve been doing on campus and at the hospital,” McInnis said. “We also learned an enormous amount from her about what we can expect in the fall.”

The roundtable went over time, and so Birx only gave about 15 minutes to assembled reporters.

With recent news of many colleges across the state struggling to stay open with an uptick in COVID-19 cases on their campus, Birx praised the university for how they initially handled the pandemic back in March, up until now.

She added that she was particularly excited to visit Stony Brook because the university and hospital “stood out at one of the most difficult times in March, April and May in a really open, transparent and careful way.”

“I was listening to the research activities that they started from day one,” she said. “And it thrilled my heart to hear from them that their number one thing was collecting data and collecting information in real time.”

Birx said the university’s research was fundamental in the beginning, by comparing and trying to understand how to find solutions with better care for patients.

“That’s why we have medical research institutions,” she said. “I think you could really see the strength of that here.”

She commended staff for their “months of planning” by implementing social distancing throughout the campus with signs, stickers on the floor and seating placed six-feet-apart from each other — things she hopes other colleges and universities will follow.

“We want to find a pathway forward for other universities, and when we want to use what we have learned to make it available to others,” she said. “It’s been really a privilege to be here.”

Reporters asked the head of the president’s coronavirus task force about President Donald Trump (R) testing positive for COVID-19, his trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and his most recent return to the White House, especially his apparent eschewing of wearing a mask for photo ops despite being contagious.

Birx replied, “We have been on the road, so I’ve been very concerned about what’s happening in the rest of America.” She added she would not question the judgement of the Walter Reed doctors, and she is “very proud of the physicians, between the Navy and the army, that are caring for him.”

During her visit, she asked for insight from students, asking them for their comments and concerns for the remainder of the school year.

“Meeting with students and really understanding what the university did to make sure that the students and the community were safe, I think really needs to constantly be applauded,” Dr. Birx said. “And I think understanding what’s happening with the commuting students and ensuring that they’re safe, has also been really important.”

Birx asked students for insight regarding communication with family members during holiday gatherings this upcoming season.

“I think there are still people waiting for the epidemic to look like it looked before,” she said. “It’s not going to look like that. It’s not going to be a workplace driven epidemic. It is going to be what we’ve seen across the south — where it involves family members, social occasions and spreading silently in communities before and outside of the workplace.”

But she also mentioned what she’s anticipating, and her own, personal, concerns.

“I feel like at this moment, in many of the areas of the Northeast county by county, we still don’t have enough what we would call ‘eyes on the epidemic,’” she said. “What do I mean by that? Really active surveillance sites so that we can see early infections before we see hospitalizations, so we can do community mitigation.”

By having eyes on the virus, it can be more easily contained especially among non-sick asymptomatic individuals.

“I think working with the county, the university can use their data and their ability to translate information to be in regular communication with the community about where the virus is and where it isn’t,” Birx said.

“We’ve demonstrated that we can learn, live and work together safely,” McInnis said.

But before Birx left, she gave one big piece of advice for heading into the fall season. “Please get your flu shot.”

Jim Malatras visits Stony Brook University Sept. 24 to applaud the school's COVID-19 prevention practices. Photo by Rita J. Egan

State University of New York’s new Chancellor Jim Malatras visited Long Island Thursday to check in with Stony Brook University’s and Farmingdale State College’s presidents and see how they were containing the COVID-19 virus.

Maurie McInnis at the Sept. 24 press conference. Photo by Rita J. Egan

During the Sept. 24 press conference, Malatras said he especially wanted to visit SBU and praised how well university President Maurie McInnis and the campus community have handled both the pandemic and the school’s reopening. He added that the university continues to remain open while other schools in the state just a few weeks into the semester have had to send students home and switch to fully remote schedules, such as SUNY Oneonta.

“I want to highlight shining examples of campuses that are doing it well,” he said.

The chancellor credited SBU’s success to requiring students to submit a negative COVID test before moving on campus, its regular testing of students and the school’s transparency with a COVID-19 tracker dashboard on its website since the beginning of the semester. The SUNY website now also offers a COVID-19 dashboard tracking all of its 64 colleges and universities.

He also praised faculty, staff and students for their compliance with public health guidelines such as wearing masks, social distancing. He said the administration hasn’t found problems with students throwing parties like other schools seem to have.

McInnis also complimented the campus community’s commitment to following health and safety guidelines.

“Our students really want to be here, and they understand what they do has a direct, positive impact on their peers and all of us at Stony Brook,” she said. “We know especially right now personal responsibility is a social act.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) was also in attendance. Malatras credited Bellone for working with SBU and other SUNY campuses in the county to ensure a robust reopening plan where the community could feel confident in moving forward.

Malatras said while declining enrollment during the pandemic has exacerbated financial difficulties, it was important to quickly set up protocols to contain the virus and ensure the campus community’s confidence.

The chancellor complimented what the SBU community has been doing during the pandemic from lifesaving treatments to “heroes” coming in every day to participating in clinical trials for a vaccine.

McInnis also praised the hospital and said the campus community did “a terrific job of planning to come back safe and strong.”

“SBU and Long Island were hit hard by the virus in the early days,“ she said. “But our hospital was in the lead in responding to the worst of the pandemic. We knew our plans had to be informed by science and implemented with the resources to succeed.”

At the press conference, Malatras also announced that SBU will be expanding its testing protocol by joining with SUNY Upstate Medical University for pool testing, which uses a patient’s saliva to detect the virus instead of a nasal swab. According to the chancellor, the test is easier to administer than the nasal swabs and there is a quicker turnaround for results as numerous samples can be tested at one time.

University Says Students Who Violated Housing Health Policy Given Housing Suspension Pending Review

Maurie McInnis was named SBU's sixth president. Photo from SBU

Stony Brook University will not let the actions of some students derail the on-campus living and learning experience for the majority.

This past weekend, days before the start of an unusual fall semester Aug. 24 amid ongoing concerns about the pandemic, the university found a “small number of violations” of the university’s COVID-19 health policy. Several students have been put on interim housing suspension for violations pending the conclusion of a conduct case, Maurie McInnis, who became the sixth president of SBU in July, said in an interview. The students in question have not been suspended from their academic studies.

McInnis said the school would suspend other students “if that is necessary.” She added that it is “very important that we give the students who are acting responsibly the opportunity for the in-person residential experience that they are working hard to protect.”

The school’s disciplinary actions follow similar measures taken by other universities such as Syracuse University and the University of Connecticut, which are trying to provide students with an opportunity to benefit from an on-campus experience while protecting faculty, staff and students from the spread of COVID-19.

McInnis added she appreciated the chance to be a part of the excitement that comes from the first day of what is likely to be one of the most challenging in the school’s 63-year history.

“It feels so great to have students back on our campus,” she said. “While, yes, it is under circumstances that are different than we’re used to, the same energy and excitement is there.”

The new university president said she enjoyed meeting students and their families as they moved onto the campus prior to the first day of classes.

The new president, who is a cultural historian and author of “Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade,” said she feels confident in the school’s ability to navigate through the challenges of on-campus living and learning.

Students “understand that the way we are all going to have a great semester” is to act “personally responsible, wearing our masks and being socially distant,” she said.

SBU has created a dashboard that will track the number of tests the school is conducting on campus and the number of positive cases, if there are any. So far, the school has only had negative tests.

The dashboard is available at: www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/irpe/covid-19.phpleadership. It shows that the hour in the week in which the number of students registered for in-person classes is the highest is Tuesday, between 11 a.m. and noon, when 2,721 students were registered for in-person classes. In that same hour in the fall of 2019, 13,836 students took in-person classes.

The university will monitor its dashboard closely and will alter its policies as necessary to protect the campus community.

McInnis said the school was preparing for a possible second wave of the pandemic in the fall, as well as the possibility of the coincident timing of an outbreak of the flu.

“We are watching and monitoring all that carefully,” she said, which includes having enough personal protective equipment and a plan in place for health care personnel, among other measures.

McInnis said it is “too soon to speculate on” what the university policy might be if and when researchers develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

“As a part of SUNY and a public institution, we would be working with state partners and the [New York] Department of Health in making any sort of decision” about a vaccination for students or faculty, she said.

McInnis, who shared a detailed and open letter with the community and the public about the university’s difficult financial condition, said the budget remains a “fluid situation.” She added that the university “needs to get to work straight away as a community” in an “open and collaborative fashion to bring the best ideas for collaborating and working together better for leveraging opportunities, for efficiencies on our campus” and to develop ways to generate new revenue.

Meanwhile, the university has spent the summer “significantly improving” the quality of the remote and distance learning for students engaged with the online platform, she said.

In addition to being the new university president, McInnis is also a parent of a college-age son. Her son’s school was going entirely nonresidential and remote, so he decided to take a gap year.

At Stony Brook, the total number of students registered is 26,130, which is about 200 fewer than last year, suggesting that deferrals haven’t affected the matriculation rate much this fall.

McInnis said she appreciated the ongoing support of the university and surrounding communities.

“What we have been hearing, again and again, is, ‘How can we help?’” she said. “It is so great as president to be part of the community that clearly has the devotion of so many people.”

This article has been updated Aug. 25 to give more info on the nature of students violations and their interim suspension. 

SBU Uses Up Half of Rainy Day Fund to Balance Budget

Stony Brook University is facing a huge financial hole in 2020. File photo from Stony Brook University

The COVID-19 crisis has exacted a heavy toll on Stony Brook University’s finances, creating a $109.6 million deficit on the academic and research side.

Maurie McInnis was named SBU’s sixth president. In a stunning letter made public on her president’s web page, she details the huge financial hole the school will have to navigate in the near future. Photo from SBU

The pandemic cost the hospital and clinic an estimated $58 million, while it also cost the academic and research campus over $74.6 million in the past financial year, which includes $35 million in refunded fees, $12 million in lost revenue from cultural programs and facilities rentals, and $8.5 million in extra expenses, including cleaning and supplies, student quarantine costs and technology costs, according to message from new Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis published on her SBU president web page Aug. 12.

Through a number of steps, including hiring freezes, the university has attempted to offset these costs, but that won’t be enough. The school is tapping into its central reserve fund, essentially the university’s rainy day pool, reducing it by over 50% in one year. McInnis, in an open letter on her web page, said this “is completely unsustainable.”

Starting today, McInnis will hold a series of virtual campus conversations to provide more details and address questions, while she and university leaders search for long-term solutions to address a host of challenges that have presented a serious headwind to the school’s future budget.

In disclosing detailed information, McInnis wrote that she believes such disclosures will help the campus work together towards solutions.

“I believe that it is only by being open and candid and providing clear information that we can come together as a community to tackle our shared challenges,” she wrote in her letter.

In her letter to the campus, McInnis detailed specific costs, while she also outlined the steps Stony Brook has taken to offset some of these financial challenges.

For starters, she wrote that the university has been “told to expect a 20-30% cut in state funding this year, or $25 million.” The school also had its allocation for last year retroactively cut by $19 million.

“It is unclear when, if ever, our funding will return to current levels, let alone the levels of support we ideally receive as a top research institution in the region,” she wrote in her letter.

Federal government restrictions on travel and visas, along with COVID impacts, have created a 17.5 percent drop in out-of-state and international students, which not only reduces diversity but also creates a $20 million drop in revenue.

The number of campus residents will also decline by 40% for next semester, from 10,000 to 6,000, creating an estimated $38.9 million revenue loss.

The bottom line, she explained, is that the $109.6 million deficit on the academic and research side. This she predicts, could become significantly worse.

The measures the university has taken offset some of that decline, saving the school an estimated $55 million, but the measures still do not close the budget gap and are not sustainable.

A hiring freeze for new positions and for those that become open from staff and faculty attrition will save $20 million.

Student housing refinancing will save $31.1 million in fiscal year 2021.

An ongoing freeze on expenses covering costs for service contracts, supplies and equipment and travel will save about $2.3 million

A cut to the athletic budget will save $2 million.

Senior campus leadership, meanwhile, has voluntarily taken a 10% pay cut along with a permanent hold back of any 2% raise for all Management Confidential employees.

At the same time, the university faces longer-term financial challenges.

State support has declined since 2008, from $190.4 million to $147.7 million last year. That will be even lower this year. On a per-student basis, state support in 2020 was $6,995, compared with $9,570.

This year’s expected increase in tuition and the Academic Excellence fee have not been approved by the SUNY Board.

The multi-year contracts that govern faculty and staff pay have not been fully funded, McInnis wrote in her president’s message. That has created an additional cost of $10 million for the 2020 fiscal year. Over the next five years, that compounds to $54 million.

The rainy day fund is picking up $9.7 million of that scheduled contractual salary increase raise.

The Tuition Assistance Program has been set at 2010 tuition levels, which creates a $9 million financial gap in fiscal year 2020. That is expected to rise in 2021. Stony Brook also recently learned, according to McInnis’s letter, that TAP will be funded at 80 percent of what the school awards to New York State students who rely on the program to access higher education.

At the same time, the Excelsior Program, which began in the fall of 2017 and allows students from families making up to $125,000 to attend school tuition free, may not accept new students this year.

McInnis concluded with her hope that the university will come together in the same way it did during the worst of the pandemic in New York to address these financial challenges.

“I fully recognize that you are operating in one of the most difficult environments any of us has experienced,” she wrote. “And, we are going to have to bring the same level of collaboration and innovation that you brought at the height of the COVID-19 response to our systemic budget challenges.”

McInnis urged the staff to “work together, share the best ideas, challenge assumptions, and build on the excellence of Stony Brook University in order to continue to move this great institution forward.”

Michael Bernstein on the Stony Brook University campus. Photo from Stony Brook University

As the 2019-2020 school year comes to a close, Stony Brook University’s recent interim president is returning to familiar territory.

Michael Bernstein will remain at SBU, even though his last day as interim president was June 30. On July 1 he returned to his former position as provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs. Last August, Bernstein took on the role of interim president after the departure of former president, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr.

Bernstein said he decided to stay after a request from new university president, Maurie McInnis, who was appointed in March, and added that a search for his replacement may take up to a year. He plans to move to California in the future.

“I’m in a position, I think, to help Maurie as she transitions in as the new president,” he said. “Obviously, we’re very much challenged with planning through this COVID emergency and figuring out how we’re going to manage the fall semester, not to mention the whole academic year.”

While the pandemic got in the way of working on some SBU goals such as strategic revisioning, strengthening a few of the business practices and revitalization of the computer system, he’s confident that McInnis, with whom he has been in constant contact since her appointment, will be prepared to take on the challenges once the 2020 fall semester can begin.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which required colleges and universities to switch to online learning and hold events virtually since March, Bernstein said he enjoyed his time as interim president overall.

“I was surrounded by a superb senior leadership team,” he said. “We were getting a lot done in terms of managing university affairs.”

Bernstein said he realized the importance of taking precautions early on once the number of COVID-19 cases started rising in the U.S.

“My sense was that we were in the midst of an emerging crisis that was going to accelerate pretty quickly and pretty dramatically,” he said. “We made a decision to shut down and start canceling major campus events pretty quickly.”

He said that the campus nearly closed earlier than it did but the school had to wait for directions from the State University of New York administration to coordinate with the broader school network. Bernstein said the last major event at the campus was the 2020 gala held at the Staller Center March 7.

“I had said at that point that we will have no more major campus events, and we were a little early when we made that decision,” he said.

While he received some pushback, he’s glad he made the decision.

“I think within a couple of weeks people were circling back to me saying, ‘That was the right decision, thank you for making it as quickly as you did.’ I think it became clear to people that we had to shut everything down.”

He added that shortly after the university cut back on public events, students were asked to head home, and spring break was extended to two weeks so the university could prepare for online learning.

He said at the last in-person university council meeting, it was realized they were all in the midst of a critical moment in their careers and that everyone would be defined by what decisions were made. While he said it was a challenging time, he remained positive.

“There’s the old saying, ‘Calm seas and blue skies do not make good sea captains,’” he said. “You’re not in a leadership position to work when things are calm. When things are calm and fine, you don’t need leaders.”

Maurie McInnis was named SBU's sixth president. In a stunning letter made public on her president's web page, she details the huge financial hole the school will have to navigate in the near future. Photo from SBU

After a months-long search, a new president has been chosen for Stony Brook University.

Maurie McInnis, currently executive vice president and provost at the University of Texas at Austin and a renowned cultural historian, was named SBU’s sixth president. Merryl Tisch, State University of New York Board of Trustees chairman, and SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson made the announcement March 26.

“This is an exciting moment for Stony Brook, and I’m confident Dr. Maurie McInnis will take the university to even greater heights in its unique role in fostering innovation, creativity and research that impacts the state, country and the world,” Johnson said in a news release.

McInnis will take over the role July 1. Michael Bernstein has been serving as interim president since last summer’s departure of Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., who took on the post of Michigan State University president.

As chief executive for SBU, McInnis will also oversee Stony Brook Medicine.

“It is now as important as ever to support all our campuses with strong and proven leaders who can quickly navigate challenges, such as the impact of the coronavirus, and keep our students on a path to the world-class higher education they expect,” Tisch said in the release. “Dr. Maurie McInnis has demonstrated experience and the characteristics of such a leader, and we are entrusting her to lead and inspire the students and faculty of Stony Brook University for years to come.”

McInnis is SBU’s second female president. Shirley Strum Kenny headed up the university from 1994 to 2009 after serving as president of Queens College from 1985 to 1994.

As the chief academic officer for UT Austin, McInnis leads strategic planning. Her responsibilities include academic programs and initiatives across 18 colleges and schools, budgeting for the university’s academic division and managing $1.8 billion of the institution’s $3.1 billion budget. She is also involved in the university’s fundraising efforts, leading a team of development officers.

McInnis said in the press release she was honored by the opportunity to lead an institution that is “both at the forefront of groundbreaking research and committed to advancing the American Dream.”

“The critical issues we face today have made it even more clear the important role higher education plays in educating tomorrow’s leaders and tackling today’s challenges by fostering cross-disciplinary research,” she said. “At higher education institutions, our responsibility is not just to admit students but to give them the tools to succeed throughout their collegiate careers and after graduation.”

McInnis earned her bachelor’s degree with highest distinction in art history from University of Virginia and received her master’s degree and doctorate in art history from Yale University. She is married with two children.

Her research has focused onthe cultural history of American art in the colonial and antebellum South. Her published works center around the politics involved in slavery. McInnis is one of the authors of “Educated in Tyranny,” which takes a look at the largely unknown story of slavery at the University of Virginia.

In a video posted to SBU’s YouTube page, McInnis applauded Bernstein’s service, especially in the last few weeks as SBU has been on the frontlines fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

“He has been an inspirational steward in this extraordinary upheaval, and we all owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude,” McInnis said in the video.

She complimented how Stony Brook Medicine has responded during the crisis and how SBU has been helping to ensure the academic continuity of its students. The incoming president also praised how the SBU campus and local community have been working together during the pandemic.

“This is a team that I want to be part of, and I look forward to joining you this summer with my husband and two children,” she said.

McInnis added that with such an announcement she normally would be meeting members of the university community but couldn’t because of the current COVID-19 precautions.

“I so look forward to meeting you all in person,” McInnis said. “And if not shaking your hand, at least elbow bumping because at that moment we will be on the other side of this unprecedented public health crisis.”