Ready to Launch
With its new leadership team now assembled,
Stony Brook is primed to reach even greater heights
By Shelley Catalano
The first year in office for any new president often presents unpredictable challenges amid the excitement of great possibility for change and growth. But for Maurie McInnis, who navigated a worldwide pandemic at the start of her tenure as president of Stony Brook University, the experience only reinforced her belief in the necessity of collaboration, connectivity and togetherness — important attributes she looked for as she began assembling the team of leaders who would help her guide Stony Brook forward.
“As I recruit talented new leaders to join us at Stony Brook University, I am first and foremost looking for individuals who want to be part of an integrated, collaborative leadership team,” President McInnis said. “We are best served by leaders who understand that while we each have particular areas of focus, expertise and responsibility, the fact remains that inevitably, each of our portfolios will overlap with others’. We’ll build the strongest institution if we’re all together, at the same table and with a collaborative attitude, as we talk through the issues in front of us.”
Rose Martinelli, the first new team member added in October 2020 as vice president for strategic initiatives, agrees. “President McInnis is creating a team of great advisors who are real collaborators, ready to discuss issues that may not be their area of expertise,” she said. “You can learn so much more from people who share their points of view freely, welcomed by a president who wants to learn from the experts and make the best decisions collectively for the university — a shared vision of leadership, and that is really extraordinary.”
With more than 30 years in higher education, Martinelli is now using her wide range of expertise as a facilitator, working on guiding different experts across campus toward solutions, such as the first project she spearheaded, the Strategic Budget Initiative (SBI). Through the work of five distinct task forces, SBI explored ways to increase productivity, strengthen our academic and research programs, and identify more ways to work collaboratively across campus. “SBI will help us to do what we do better, increase our revenues, and reduce the barriers to the way we work,” she noted.
“Coming to Stony Brook gives me a chance to give back to higher education and support a courageous leader who can listen, distill and bring about change. President McInnis has an incredibly strategic mind and an amazing ability to empathize and delegate to figure out big issues. It’s shared governance as we try to build trust and build a belief that we can do great things together.”
— Rose Martinelli
As the SBI task forces move to implement their plans, Martinelli is shifting her focus to other initiatives, including overseeing the proposal for Stony Brook to anchor a center for climate solutions on Governors Island; working with the provost and others to increase faculty support to enhance research productivity; and making preparations to launch a campus-wide strategic planning process in the new year.
“We have an amazing opportunity to unleash our ambitions, reclaim our scrappy history as a young institution, and have a major impact in the research that we do,” she said. “But we need to get moving to leap forward and get out of our own way.”
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Opportunity was one reason that drew Paul Goldbart to Stony Brook to become its provost and executive vice president this past March. The former dean of the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, Goldbart saw incredible potential in Stony Brook’s array of expertise, from arts and the humanities to engineering and medicine.
“We don’t say it enough but major public research universities like Stony Brook really matter. They matter for students who come here to discover who they can be and how they can contribute throughout the remainder of their lives. We as institutions matter as crucibles of human creativity, guardians of human capability,” he said. “And I really think of these institutions as humankind at its very best, blending creativity and reason to produce things of great beauty and great impact.”
To learn how he can best help SBU to make a greater impact, Goldbart is first doing his own research to get to know the campus community. “What do people need, what are they struggling with, what are they excited about,” he said. “It’s important, especially at the start, for me to pause and listen for a while to our scholars, researchers, creative artists and students. Together, we’ll figure out what we must do to be an utterly extraordinary place. We’re pretty close already.” (Learn more about Goldbart’s plans in It’s All Academic.)
The university’s focus on inclusion is an integral part of President McInnis’ mission to make Stony Brook extraordinary in every aspect. And to make sure conversations about equity, diversity and social justice continue to be at the forefront of all university discussions, McInnis expanded Chief Diversity Officer Judi Brown Clarke’s role shortly after she became president, making Clarke vice president for equity and inclusion.
The role goes beyond offering training resources, adding strategic planning, recruitment and retention, curriculum, and outreach and engagement. “As long as our name is on the door or someone has a Stony Brook University badge, we want you to have an equitable experience with us,” she said. “And that means we have to look at everything we do to make sure we are providing access and being inclusive — from how a faculty member creates a syllabus, to how we can best communicate with non-English-speaking patients at the hospital, to being mindful of sensory issues for a veteran student with PTSD.”
To do that deep dive, Clarke has asked that every school, college and campus unit form a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic planning committee to address their own unique needs and opportunities. “We created a decentralized model,” Clarke explained. “You have to empower people where they are. Every college has a diversity liaison and almost every unit has a diversity committee that will soon start meeting to work on a plan of action to improve equity and inclusion in their own areas.”
Dawn Medley, who started at SBU this past July as the vice provost for enrollment management, is taking a closer look at how the university can cut through the recruitment competition in the Northeast to grow the student applicant pool and provide more opportunities to a wider range of students.
Medley brings with her more than 25 years of higher ed experience, most recently as associate vice president of enrollment management and chief enrollment/financial aid officer at Wayne State University. And she understands the power of opportunity as a scholarship recipient herself. “I was a first-generation Pell student. So, when you talk about social mobility and opportunity, I’m the living, breathing example. If I had been interested in studying sustainability and I had found out about Stony Brook, I might have thought that I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. We have to make sure that all students know that there are opportunities here for them and that they can be supported,” she said. “And then we make sure that we deliver on what we promise to them.”
“I’m from the South, where if you go to somebody’s house and they offer you a cup of tea and you comment on how pretty the cup is, they will try to send you home with it. That’s what we call radical hospitality. It’s not telling someone where the library is; it’s walking them to the library and the student feels that somebody cared enough to walk them there. That ‘radical hospitality’ will make a difference in how that student feels about Stony Brook.”
— Dawn Medley
As Medley gets to know her Enrollment team, she has also begun new collaborations with Admissions staff in the health sciences schools and the Graduate School. Most critical, she noted, is to find ways for her team to reach out and connect with students. “If we can systematize some of the repetitive tasks that we’re doing, this will allow our staff to have time to forge deeper connections with the students they’re recruiting, and that’s vastly important when we’re recruiting so many first- generation students. They need to know that somebody is here for them,” she said.
“I live in a world where I think you should do all you can where you can, and that’s a really simple philosophy. If I see a student who needs something, I should do all I can to fix that situation,” she continued. “That’s transformative when it comes to students and people feeling valued and connected in the work they do. Every single person on campus who works here is a retention specialist; they just may not know it…yet.”
For Justin Fincher, vice president for advancement and executive director of the Stony Brook Foundation, every Seawolf — alumni, friends, current students, faculty and staff — is a potential advocate for Stony Brook. “We are all stewards of the institution. When young students or alumni tell their friends to check out Stony Brook, that builds our reputation. We want to create the largest, most ardent network of ambassadors of any institution in the country. If we can get more people talking about the strengths and the future of Stony Brook, then everything else will fall into place.”
Building that network with the university’s departments, students and young alumni especially, is a priority for Fincher, who started at SBU in late August after eight years in a similar role at The Ohio State University. This ties in with his fundamental belief that Advancement exists to support the academic mission of the university. “We need to work closely with the president, provost, deans and department chairs to understand what their academic vision is and then determine how we can best support them. Everything Advancement does — communications, fundraising, hosting alumni events, stewarding our friends and alumni — is in service to supporting the mission.”
A first step for Fincher will be to make sure his team is fully optimized to handle the lift of engaging with 200,000+ alumni, and that will mean adding staff, too. These “chief experience officers” will be charged with nurturing existing relationships while forming new ones, beginning when Seawolves are students and lasting throughout their lives, showing them that their alumni network will help them not just professionally but personally. “Not everything has to be an in-person experience to connect someone more deeply to Stony Brook,” he said, noting the many successful virtual events the Alumni Relations Office held during the pandemic. “But the challenge is understanding the different pathways and how they would work best to ensure that whether someone is logging on to Zoom or walking through the gates to Homecoming, they will have a similar emotional connection at the end of the experience,” he added.
“All of these individuals possess a unique understanding of what it means to navigate the complexities of a large, public research institution,” said President McInnis. “But perhaps even more pointedly, they each bring an extraordinary depth of knowledge and range of experiences — they’re people who I know will be bringing to Stony Brook University exciting new ideas and models that are designed for an ambitious future.”
Shelley Catalano is managing editor of Stony Brook University Magazine.