“…Stony Brook was virtually built top down, starting with excellence in research and graduate study, even before there was a secure base of undergraduate education on which to build.”
Print Speech 1 of 6
Presented in Fall 2007
Shirley Strum Kenny, President
Fifty years ago, on September 17, 1957, 148 students came to Planting Fields, the William R. Coe estate in Oyster Bay, as the trailblazers for the new State University College on Long Island, or SUCOLI, later to become SUNY Long Island Center, later still SUNY Stony Brook, and now Stony Brook University. We have to believe the 148 students, 14 faculty members, and four administrators were a stunning if youngish group because they included amazing people like Frank Erk and Cliff Swartz as faculty and Les Paldy as a freshman. That first year there were three divisions: Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Science; in the Division of Natural Science was one chemist, two physicists, and one biology professor, Frank Erk, who also served as chair of his division.
Francis Bonner, who came to SUCOLI in its second year, gives a flavor of the times in Chemistry at Stony Brook: From SUCOLI to SBU, his memoir of his years at Stony Brook:
“Coe Hall is an authentic Tudor mansion whose Great Hall includes a fireplace large enough, as one visitor presciently remarked, to roast a faculty member whole...The College held some classes in Coe Hall, others in a series of prefabricated Butler buildings, and later on in an array of geodesic dome structures. The Coe Estate’s extensive stables were converted from equine to student residential use…”
The stated mandate of the college originally was to train science and mathematics teachers and engineers. The timetable was accelerated because, 17 days after the opening, Sputnik was launched.
To promote school spirit, the first-year classes were cancelled on October 30 to establish a new tradition, referred to as Nameless Day. According to Stony Brook: State University of New York, a book by Kristen Nyitray and Ann Becker, “Students challenged the faculty to softball and volleyball games, tug-of-war competitions, and egg-tossing contests.” Somehow, Nameless Day is no longer on our calendar.
In 1960 the Heald Report, commissioned by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, recommended a major new public university be built on Long Island to “stand with the finest in the country.” There was land, 480 acres, given by the shoe magnate Ward Melville. The name was changed to State University of New York Long Island Center (I guess that would be SUNYLIC).
Instability and administrative perturbation marked the early years. It was not until January 1961 that the first president, John Francis Lee, who had been chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at North Carolina State, began his tenure. He is not with us here today, and he was not with the University very long, being summarily fired by the SUNY trustees on November 9 of that same year after complaining about the mismanagement of the earlier administration.