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Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis. Photo from Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University has been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic, as hospital staff has treated and comforted residents stricken with the virus, and researchers have worked tirelessly on a range of projects — including manufacturing personal protective equipment. Amid a host of challenges, administrators at Stony Brook have had to do more with less under budgetary pressure. In this second part of a two-part seriesPresident Maurie McInnis offers her responses in an email exchange to several questions. The Q and A is edited for length. See last week’s paper for an interview with Interim Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos.

TBR News: What are the top three things that keep you up at night?

President Maurie McInnis: My first and foremost priority is to make sure we never compromise or become complacent when it comes to the health and safety of our campus community. Another priority is to develop strategies for best working through our budget challenges, which were exacerbated by COVID-19. And the third thing that keeps me up at night — and fills my waking hours — is making sure I am doing all I can to bring our vast resources together so we can continue to uphold the mission and values of Stony Brook University.

TBR: How do you feel the University has managed through the pandemic and what are some of the strategies you found particularly effective?

McInnis: Stony Brook’s successes in keeping our doors open for in-person learning during the fall semester are well-documented. And I continue to be impressed by, and grateful for, what our entire campus community did to make that happen… From testing students before they came back to campus, to everyone joining together as a community to follow our safety protocols. COVID-19 has revealed our unique strengths — our community engagement, seriousness about academics, personal sense of accountability and collective responsibility for one another.

TBR: How do you feel the University has managed through the economic crisis?

McInnis: Even as the COVID crisis highlighted our strengths, it’s also shone a light on some problematic patterns — particularly in the area of budgets — that in previous years were able to slip by, for Stony Brook and other universities. Our priorities right now are to learn from this moment and build for a more sustainable future.

TBR: Even in the midst of historic challenges, what things still excite and inspire you about Stony Brook University?

McInnis: The short answer is that the things that drew me to Stony Brook initially are the same characteristics that excite and inspire me today. I’m talking about its commitment to a diverse and talented student body; faculty’s dedication to delivering world-class research, scholarship and patient care; its impressive record of high-powered research and student success; its role as a major economic engine in the region; and, its emphasis on community, civility and cross-cultural exchange. Our unique dual role as a top-rated, research-oriented university and hospital stood up to the test of the historically challenging year we’ve had.

TBR: How has Stony Brook’s hybrid learning platform differentiated it from other university online platforms?

McInnis: What made Stony Brook’s learning model so successful is the fact that we worked with areas across campus, intensely and continuously, to make sure we had the right fit for our school, students, faculty members, staff, community, everyone. A hybrid model made the most sense, safety-wise and to ensure the best academic experience.

TBR: If you weren’t in triage mode, what would you be doing?

McInnis: When I came to Stony Brook, I identified three areas that we will continue to focus on during, and post-pandemic, and as we tackle ongoing budget challenges. First, we will continue to support our world-class faculty. We’ll do that by creating an environment in which students succeed, and by continuing to enable cutting-edge breakthroughs in research and medicine. Second, we will embrace our own diversity to strengthen the intellectual and social environment at Stony Brook by creating a ‘one campus’ culture through increased multidisciplinary efforts. And third, we will continue to drive social and economic change on Long Island, in New York State and across the country by staying community-focused and engaging in partnerships that benefit the region.

TBR: What do you plan and hope for a year from now? What’s the best and worst case scenarios?

McInnis: I hope that we can use our experience during this pandemic to spark positive change for future generations of Stony Brook students, faculty and community members, and build on our strengths. We are the number one institution in reducing social inequality. And we need to continue to embrace our incredible impact in driving intergenerational socioeconomic growth and social mobility. Connecting students with opportunities after they graduate — from research positions to internships to career advising — will be important in expanding that impact.

I also want to build on our strengths as both a state-of-the-art healthcare facility and cutting-edge research institution. I want to bring these two areas closer together, blending our expertise across disciplines, as we’re already starting to do. We also plan to apply lessons learned from our shift to remote and hybrid learning.

TBR: Are there COVID research initiatives that Stony Brook is involved with that you hope to continue?

McInnis: Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has required researchers from many disciplines to come together, demonstrating the depth and breadth of our capabilities. Stony Brook is involved in more than 200 dedicated research projects across all disciplines. These projects span 45 academic departments and eight different colleges and schools within the University, and I’m impressed with the caliber and sense of urgency with which this work is being done.

TBR: If you were offered the opportunity to take the vaccine today, would you?

McInnis: Yes, I would take it in a heartbeat, right now.

Stony Brook University. File photo

Stony Brook University has been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic, as hospital staff has treated and comforted residents stricken with the virus and researchers have worked tirelessly on a range of projects, including manufacturing personal protective equipment. Amid a host of challenges, administrators at Stony Brook have had to do more with less under budgetary pressure. In a two-part series, Interim Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos and President Maurie McInnis share their approaches and solutions, while offering their appreciation for their staff.

Part I: Like many other administrators at universities across the country and world, Fotis Sotiropoulos, Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Interim Provost of Stony Brook University, has been juggling numerous challenges.

Named interim provost in September, Sotiropoulos, who is also a SUNY Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering, has focused on ways to help President Maurie McInnis keep the campus community safe, keep the university running amid financial stress and strain, and think creatively about ways to enhance the university’s educational programs.

Stony Brook University which is one of two State University of New York programs to earn an Association of American Universities distinction, is in the process of developing new degree programs aimed at combining expertise across at least two colleges.

“We have charged all the deans to work together to come up with this future-of-work initiative,” Sotiropoulos said. “It has to satisfy a number of criteria,” which include involving at least two colleges or schools and it has to be unique. Such programs will “allow us to market the value of a Stony Brook education.”

Sotiropoulos said Stony Brook hoped that the first ideas about new degrees will emerge by the middle of January.

Fotis Sotiropoulos. File photo from SBU

Under financial pressure caused by the pandemic, the university has “undertaken this unprecedented initiative to think of the university as one,” Sotiropoulos said. Looking at the East and West campus together, the university plans to reduce costs and improve efficiency in an organization that is “complex with multiple silos,” he said. At times, Stony Brook has paid double or triple for the same product or service. The university is taking a step back to understand and optimize its expenses, he added.

On the other side of the ledger, Stony Brook is seeking ways to increase its revenue, by creating these new degrees and attracting more students, particularly from outside the state.

Out-of-state students pay more in tuition, which provides financial support for the school and for in-state students as well.

“We have some room to increase out-of-state students,” Sotiropoulos said. “There is some flexibility” as the university attempts to balance between the lower tuition in-state students pay, which benefits socioeconomically challenged students, and the higher tuition from out-of-state students.

While the university has been eager to bring in talented international students as well in what Sotiropoulos described as a “globally-connected world,” the interim provost recognized that this effort has been “extremely challenging right now,” in part because of political tension with China and in part because Chinese universities are also growing.

Stony Brook “recognizes that it needs to diversify right now. The university is considering strategies for trying to really expand in other countries. We need to do a lot more to engage students from African countries,” he said.

Sotiropoulos described Africa as an important part of the future, in part because of the projected quadrupling of the population in coming decades. “We are trying to preserve our Asian base of students,” he said, but, at the same time, “we are thinking of other opportunities to be prepared for the future.”

While the administration at the university continues to focus on cutting costs, generating revenue and attracting students to new programs, officials recognize the need to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts for students. “Assessment is an integral part,” Sotiropoulos said. The school will explore the jobs students are able to find. “It’s all about the success of our students,” he added. The school plans to assess constantly, while making adjustments to its efforts.

Pandemic Response

Stony Brook University has been at the forefront of reacting to the pandemic on a number of fronts. The hospital treated patients during the heavy first wave of illnesses last spring, while the engineering school developed ways to produce personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, and even MacGyver-style ventilators. The university has also participated in multi-site studies about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Stony Brook has been involved in more than 200 dedicated research projects across all disciplines, which span 45 academic departments and eight colleges and schools within the university.

Sotiropoulos, whose expertise is in computational fluid mechanics, joined a group of researchers at SBU to conduct experiments on the effectiveness of masks in stopping the way aerosolized viral particles remain in the air, long after patients cough, sneeze, and even leave the room.

“Some of these droplets could stay suspended for many minutes and could take up to half an hour” to dissipate in a room, especially if there’s no ventilation, Sotiropoulos said, and added he was pleased and proud of the scientific community for working together to understand the problem and to find solutions.

“The commitment of scientists at Stony Brook and other universities was quite inspirational,” he said.

According to Sotiropoulos, the biggest danger to combatting the virus comes from the “mistrust” of science, He hopes the effectiveness of the vaccine in turning around the number of people infected and stricken with a variety of difficult and painful symptoms can convince people of the value of the research.

Sotiropoulos said the rules the National Institutes of Health have put in place have also ensured that the vaccine is safe and effective. People who question the validity of the research “don’t understand how strict this process is and how many hurdles you have to go through.” 

Part 2 will appear in next week’s issue.

Right, Laura Burns of Nesconset just recently graduated from St. Joseph’s College, though she finds her job prospects diminished due to the pandemic; left, Matthew Hoth of Miller Place said he was unable to do his internship at a mental health care facility due to COVID-19. right photo by Claudia Reed; left photo from Hoth

Recent college graduates on Long Island are faced with uncertainty as they begin to pursue their respective careers. Their 2020 graduating class will encounter a number of challenges as they enter one of the most daunting job markets, not seen since the Great Recession of 2008. 

Not only did the COVID-19 crisis truncate their last semesters of college, it stripped them of graduation ceremonies. It put jobs, internships and other opportunities on standby. Some local graduates are being forced to adapt and stay sharp while they wait for the job market to rebound. 

Nesconset resident Laura Burns, who recently graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue with a political science degree, said when the pandemic hit it felt like “everything was spiraling out of control.” 

“A lot of my classmates, myself included, lost a lot of local opportunities because of COVID-19.”

— Matthew Hoth

“I remember taking my last midterm and then they canceled all classes before spring break. We didn’t even get a last goodbye,” she said. “It felt like we were forgotten.”

Burns was disappointed that she could have a proper graduation ceremony, saying it would have been a special moment for her and her family, as her mother also graduated from the college.  

The St. Joseph’s grad had to rethink her initial future plans. 

“Before COVID hit I was thinking about maybe pursuing a graduate school or law school — that’s what I felt was the practical thing to do,” she said. “Even if I wanted to try to get a job in political science it would be pretty difficult right now.”

Burns said some of her friends have gotten part-time jobs working at grocery stores for the time being. 

Potential short-term options such as working at a restaurant or other retailers are unavailable, as Suffolk County is only in Phase One of the reopening process. Most retailers will be able to reopen more during Phase Two. Restaurants will have to wait even longer. 

Burns said she will most likely plan on taking classes at Suffolk Community College and could continue to pursue acting, something she has done since she was younger. 

This past February, the job market looked promising with employers adding 273,000 new positions, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor. 

Just last week, more than 2 million U.S. workers filed for unemployment benefits, according to a U.S. Department of Labor weekly report. It brought the total number of jobs lost to over 40 million. 

Matthew Hoth of Miller Place, who graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh with a master’s degree in data analytics, is trying to stay optimistic and positive about his future job prospects. 

“A lot of my classmates, myself included, lost a lot of local opportunities because of COVID-19,” he said. 

Hoth had an internship lined up with a local health and mental health care facility, but that all changed when the coronavirus hit.  

“I had talks with them for a while, I was really looking forward to interning there,” the recent graduate said. 

In addition, his last semester was going to be used to network and make connections in his field. He and his peers missed out on attending workshops that could have brought him face to face with potential employers. 

“I had some leads on some jobs locally, but then everything kind of stopped dead in its tracks,” Hoth said. “Right now, I’m trying to get more program certifications to add to my resume and updating my LinkedIn [account].”

To fill the void of the internship and in an effort to add some work experience to his resume, Hoth is considering freelancing, special projects and working remotely.  

“With companies cutting and laying off people it is discouraging to see,” he said. “But I’m optimistic that the economy and job market will eventually bounce back,” he said. 

Victoria Arcuri

Victoria Arcuri of Holbrook, a recent graduate of Fashion Institute of Technology, was looking forward to starting a full-time position at a creative agency in New York City she had interned at during her last semester of school. Due to the effects of the pandemic, the agency had to put her postgraduation hiring on hold but extended her internship. 

“My boss was like, ‘right now we are not in the position to hire you, but there is still a possibility for a full-time position,’” she said. “Without COVID, I’d have a full-time job right now.”

“I remember taking my last midterm and then they canceled all classes before spring break. We didn’t even get a last goodbye.”

— Laura Burns

Due to social distancing restrictions, Arcuri, who studied graphic design, and her fellow classmates also missed out on other potential professional opportunities. Their senior exhibition, an event where students get the chance to present their portfolio in front of professors and professionals in the industry, was instead held online this year. 

“At first I was disappointed, but I realized there were worse things going on than not having the show,” Arcuri said. 

After commuting to school for the majority of her college career, the FIT grad had hopes of moving to Brooklyn once she started her full-time job. Those plans have now been stalled as well. 

The Holbrook resident said if she can’t secure a full-time position with the agency, she’ll look for other options in the short term.  Freelancing and contract work could be a possibility, given a potential business climate where there is more work done remotely. 

At her internship, presentations and meetings with clients are done through Zoom and they can send most of the things they’re working on via email. 

“In graphic design we do most of our work on a computer or on our laptops, so it wouldn’t be too bad if I worked from home,” Arcuri said. “Though if I had a choice I’d prefer to be in a studio.”

She reiterated that many college grads are a bit scared about their own futures.  

“Some companies and businesses might not come back the same, a lot of them have taken a big hit and that will affect us,” Arcuri said.

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College is expensive. Actually, college is ludicrously expensive these days, as 60 percent of graduates from colleges and universities in New York are coming out of school with a debt of more than $26,000, according to the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success.

With these numbers in mind, we support Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci’s (R-Huntington Station) push for increasing the maximum amount of financial aid awarded through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program.

While college costs have increased drastically over the last 10 years, there has been no substantial increase in the maximum TAP award a student can receive. Individuals can currently cash in a minimum grant of $500 and a maximum of $5,165 each year.

Lupinacci said he wants to raise the maximum to $6,470, while also increasing the maximum eligible household income from $80,000 to $100,000. We wholeheartedly support this measure, as the increases would better align with SUNY and CUNY tuition rates for in-state residents and the high cost of living in New York.

For the 2014-15 school year, a typical undergraduate student studying at a SUNY college will pay a little more than $7,500 for tuition and student fees. Add room and board, and that cost becomes about $19,600.

Raising the maximum TAP award would provide many students — who may be supporting themselves and working full-time — an easier pathway to obtaining their degrees. This program could be especially crucial to students who are on their own and may not have someone to co-sign a loan.

We often use the phrase “every penny counts,” and in this case it couldn’t be truer. The purpose of public education is to increase access to an important service. Increasing TAP will help further that goal.

State Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci. File photo by Rohma Abbas

Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci (R-Melville) is calling on Albany to increase the amount of financial aid it awards college students through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program.

The hike is needed, Lupinacci said, because there’s been no significant increase to the maximum TAP award in more than 10 years. Lupinacci is calling for a 25 percent increase in the maximum grant amount.

TAP funding is a grant that is intended to help cover tuition costs at New York State universities and colleges. The minimum TAP grant awarded per school year is $500 and the maximum is $5,165, according to the program’s website. Lupinacci wants to raise the maximum TAP award to $6,470 and increase the maximum household income for TAP eligibility from $80,000 to $100,000.

“As a college professor, I see every day how important TAP is for thousands of students,” he said in a recent statement. “An increase in funding would give students the relief they need to hit the ground running after graduation.”

TAP is awarded annually to New York State residents who study at full-time colleges within the state. Students who receive the grant must stay in good academic standing and meet the income requirement. According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) website, nearly 400,000 students across the state received a TAP grant in 2013.

Assemblyman Andy Raia (R-East Northport) has signed on as a co-sponsor to Lupinacci’s bill and said an increase in the funding and eligibility is definitely needed for students across the state.

“The price of public education has gone up tremendously in 10 years,” Raia said in a phone interview.

Raia said while $80,000 seems like a lot of money, given the cost of living it is not as much for a family of four living on Long Island when compared to the same family of four living upstate. He said the cost of living is higher here and the increase in a maximum award is greatly needed.

Lupinacci, who currently teaches at Farmingdale State College, said it is important to have this increase in an effort to ease the financial burden on students. He said it would help cover significant portions of tuitions at State University of New York and City University of New York schools, and whatever it could for private schools’ tuitions.

Currently, the bill that was introduced on March 5 is being referred to the Assembly’s Higher Education committee, where Lupinacci is a ranking member. If this bill is approved, Lupinacci hopes the increase kicks in beginning April 1, 2016.

The most recent TAP increase was for $165 back in 2014. Cuomo announced the increase, nearly 15 years after the last one. The bill also has a state Senate sponsor, State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who has not seen the bill, said he favors a TAP increase.

“I think it’s a great investment in young people, who are the future of our state,” he said in a phone interview.