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Inaugural Address of President Maurie McInnis

Saturday, October 23, 2021

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Let’s cast our minds back nearly sixty years to October, 1962. A crisp fall day, like today. Trees are glimmering from yellow to red, and fewer than 800 students are living, working, and studying around the handful of new buildings that have risen out of a field where potatoes were farmed. Though it may not look like much, this collection of buildings constitutes our first year as a permanent campus…and there is a palpable sense of anticipation in the air, because everyone on campus knows that there are big plans for Stony Brook University. Out of these potato fields and these muddy woods on Long Island an educational powerhouse would soon emerge. 

In less than a decade, our University grew ten-fold to 8,000 students, and ambitiously recruited the faculty and staff that would come to define this institution and contribute to society for years to come. It’s almost as if this young University sent out a call — a call to all those scholars and students who wanted to join us and do something great. Who wanted to meet the future with creativity and collaboration. Who wanted to be united, for the next century, by curiosity and ambition. 

What did those brilliant scholars see in our university then? What did Nobel Prize-winning physicist Chen-Ning Yang, who in 1965 came to Stony Brook from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, sense in our potential when he agreed to be the first Director of our Institute for Theoretical Physics?  He must have sensed a university making big moves — breaking new ground in areas of science when our country needed it most. A university of ambition — one that embodied grit, tenacity, and vision in preparing for the future. 

Looking around the Arena here today, I see that same, bold spirit that attracted Yang and legions of other distinguished faculty.

Thank you for joining me as we celebrate the luminous, ambitious future of Stony Brook University. And thank you especially for the trust you have placed in me to lead this institution. I receive your trust with the utmost solemnity.  You should be pleased to know that education is my family’s heritage. At the turn of the 20th century, my great grandparents were both teachers in a two-room school house in rural Florida. My grandfather was a high school teacher and principal. My parents, Malcolm and Jackie, were both college professors.  My husband of nearly 30 years, Dean, is a first-generation college graduate. And our children, Ian and Fiona, are in the midst of navigating their paths through college. There have been scant few days in the last four decades when I have not thought about my role in amplifying the transformative power of higher education. I have dedicated my life’s work to this enterprise and I am thrilled and honored to apply my knowledge, experience, and energy to Stony Brook University.

Since beginning my tenure as President, I’ve immersed myself in our University’s history — the work of our faculty, the traditions of our students, and the ethos of our origin story. And what I’ve learned is that our institution…yesterday, today, and tomorrow…is a University of dreaming big, of expanding the reach of discovery, and creating knowledge for the benefit of society.  It is a University built on the ideals of service, student access and success, and scholarly ambition. I honor these values and will use them to guide our future.

In opening Stony Brook University, New York State was responding to a cultural moment. This University was born out of the promise of progress, of innovation, and of hope — there was an increasing demand for higher education in New York, a growing and more diverse student body, a critical need for better healthcare education, and an imperative for discovery. 

Our institution took shape with the ambitions and energy of 1960s America. It was the decade of the Civil Rights movement. A decade that marked a surge in federal investment in research, and New York’s investment in public universities. Leaders saw that higher education was the answer to our nation’s most urgent questions. And Stony Brook’s ambitions led it, ultimately, to stand among the finest public universities in the country.

It was in 1962 that President Kennedy urged Americans to reach for the moon and push for our most inspired, visionary achievements… “not because they are easy,” he said, “but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…” 

And so I ask you today, in 2021, what are the goals that we are unwilling to postpone?

As we gather this morning in our pandemic era, I believe we are standing in the doorway of another momentous decade. The last year alone has heightened the continued need for serious, systemic change in creating racial, social, and economic equality. It has revealed to us just how much we have and will continue to rely on the curiosity-driven research of public universities to answer society’s call in a time of crisis. It has demonstrated that art and creativity are our best path toward human connection and understanding. And it has proven that it is only through teamwork and multi-disciplinary collaboration that we are going to solve the many unparalleled challenges that we face in the coming century. 

I know we can do this. Because that same year that Kennedy gave his celebrated speech and officially announced our country’s shot to the moon, Stony Brook’s ambitions began to take shape in this very potato field. And yes, there was a long way to go, but it marked the beginning of a University that would define itself by many moon-shots — by many bold, ambitious, and urgent goals that it would set…and meet. We have done this before and we can do it again.

Not ten years into Stony Brook’s history, Dr. Oliver Schaeffer founded the research program for the Earth and Space Sciences Department in 1965. Soon, he was launching this University’s reputation quite literally past the stratosphere by analyzing the lunar “Genesis rock” brought back by Apollo 15 astronauts. In his innovative research, Schaeffer estimated the moon to be approximately four billion years old and, in that moment, became the first person in history to date celestial objects. Schaeffer conducted other important research in his long career at Stony Brook, yet I cannot help but think back to his dating of the “Genesis rock”…and how this was, really, the genesis for Stony Brook’s reputation for bold research.

Our first decade was nothing short of momentous. In 1968, Jim Simons became Chair of the Department of Mathematics. As chair, Jim developed important new mathematics, including Chern-Simons forms: pivotal structures in the theory of strings, fields and knots, and powerful tools in the quest for new materials and even quantum computers…an area in which this University has become incredibly strong. He also recruited other now revered faculty members to Stony Brook, building this University into a dynamo in mathematics and physics. Jim served on the faculty until he established Renaissance Technologies, and he remains Stony Brook’s most steadfast supporter, establishing, among other contributions, the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics — an international treasure that is leading the global rebirth of a mathematics-physics cross-fertilization.

In that same illustrious period, we welcomed Paul Lauterbur, a tenacious and inspired young physical chemist and veteran. In 1971, Lauterbur made the visionary discovery that nuclear magnetic resonance technology could be used for noninvasive medical imaging. He worked at night, when the chemistry department wasn’t using their NMR machine, and withstood numerous rejections — one, famously, from Nature magazine — in order to finally publish his findings on Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, technology. I find it incredibly symbolic that his original discovery coincided with the opening of the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, as Stony Brook was charged with providing superior clinical care to Long Island and pushing the research that would help define and reimagine medical history forever.

Since 1979, our Art Department has been graced by Howardena Pindell: I was honored to have an exhibition of her work open this Inauguration week. A cutting-edge painter and conceptual artist, she has pushed the boundaries of artistic expression, incorporating innovative materials into her practice and exploring the intersections of race and gender. The recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Grants and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Professor Pindell has said that she continues to learn from her students, even after so many decades — and this dynamic and reciprocal relationship between scholarship and teaching has long defined us as an institution. 

I am grateful to Professor Pindell, and scholars like her, for the legacy they have built at our University, ensuring that it is an institution of both scientific excellence as well as artistic expression. Recently, Stony Brook Studio Art alumnus and tribal member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, Jeremy Dennis, received a grant from Getty Images for his truly innovative series, Stories — Indigenous Oral Stories, Dreams and Myth, which stages depictions of myth and legends and creates concrete visual experience through his fine art photography. We are in a time that calls for creativity in tackling our world’s most pressing issues as well as new perspectives as we all push toward a point of critical understanding. Professor Pindell, Jeremy Dennis, and the strong artistic tradition at Stony Brook University are doing that inspired and challenging work.  

Our institution continues to reinvent and redefine our knowledge landscape. As recently as 2019, Stony Brook’s own Eden Figueroa, along with his collaborators at Brookhaven National Laboratory, celebrated the longest successful quantum communication link experiment in the United States. And just this spring, I was proud to present chemist Eszter Boros with the 2021 Discovery Prize, meant to help fund her early-stage research on the activation of anticancer drug molecules using a radioactive light switch, which could potentially transform the field of cancer care. They, and so many faculty, alumni, and students at Stony Brook, are answering the call in their curiosity-driven research and the creation of new knowledge.  

Stony Brook has proven that it is the kind of university that has the vision and capacity to build a better future...and just as we return, again and again, to reaffirm our commitment to our mission, we must also join together as one University to configure our ambitions for the twenty-first century. 

Now, Stony Brook, we have new goals to meet, obstacles to overcome, and questions to answer. What is our next moon shot? How do we prepare our University for the next student, the next faculty member, the next challenge, the next sixty years? How do we — and here I’ll borrow a line from the inaugural address of President John Toll in 1966 — enable our students, our scholars, and our community to “learn how to learn more?” 

It starts with investing in our scholarship, our research, our collaboration. It starts with empowering every single undergraduate, graduate student, faculty member, and employee to perform at their highest level. It starts with understanding that if we are going to lead the way into this new era of higher education and healthcare, we must address the needs of our community and tackle the enormous challenges facing our global society. 

Stony Brook was founded as a university for the modern era — a university that valued an accessible high-quality education; a university that provided opportunity both within its local community and for a diverse population; a university that saw research excellence and collective accountability as mutual elements of the same goal: to positively impact the world. 

We were the kind of university that in 1973 welcomed Rich Gelfond, the ambitious son from a disadvantaged household in Plainview, Long Island. He was the first college-bound individual in his family, and his admission to Stony Brook marked the first time Rich had set foot on a college campus. And yet quickly, Rich was working for the school newspaper, designing his own curriculum, winning an election to be the first student on the university council, even guest-teaching his own sports sociology class. He was delivering on all his potential and then some, because he had found a university that valued the promise of first-generation college students. He had found a university that wanted to empower its students to be their best. After college, Rich went on to become a successful investment banker, acquiring IMAX in 1994, where he remains CEO today, as well as a true friend and advocate for Stony Brook.

We remain that kind of university —  one that teaches its students to “learn how to learn more.” When Sabrina Thompson, Class of ‘07, was adjusting to her first semester at Stony Brook, programs like the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation provided academic planning and tutoring. Summer programs, including those offered through our partnership with Brookhaven National Laboratory, allowed her to develop a truly unique perspective on engineering, women in STEM, and the dynamic and symbiotic relationship between art and science. Now, Sabrina has found her calling as a NASA engineer, aspiring astronaut, and entrepreneur focused on introducing girls to STEM through art and creativity. 

Rich and Sabrina’s stories are illustrative of our mission. These are the students we have the privilege to educate. Many of our students come from under-resourced high schools, and many are the first in their families to attend college. They are diverse, talented, and ambitious young scholars who want to change the world. We will continue to amplify their legacies… through initiatives like our Women in Science and Engineering program, which has been shared globally by UN Women as a solution to creating gender equity in STEM, by giving Seawolves a strong foundation to turn their dreams into reality, and by building a new frontier of discovery that is molded by diverse perspectives. 
I want Stony Brook University to continue to be an effective launch pad for our young scholars. In order to do that we must cultivate student preparedness, academic and financial support, and a sense of belonging. This Fall marked the first of many new programs targeted toward first-year students, and in the coming years we will expand our student success initiatives. Our nationally recognized EOP/AIM program has a decades-long track record of helping economically marginalized underserved students lift themselves out of poverty through higher education, and we will be expanding the program with the recent state investment spearheaded by Speaker Carl Heastie. Our Diversity Professional Leadership Network, which provides underrepresented students with academic and professional opportunities, recently saw its largest cohort to date. Our Women’s Leadership Council, founded and chaired by Stony Brook Economics B.A. and Ph.D. Marilyn Simons, is a mentoring program that pairs outstanding women students with alumni and friends who can support their career journeys. A first-generation college student herself, Marilyn appreciates the power of mentoring as a way to help students achieve their dreams. We will work to constantly improve our student success strategies and build an even more ambitious, successful network of Stony Brook alumni —  individuals who can responsibly lead the world through the challenges of the twenty-first century.

The role of our excellent faculty is particularly profound — we look to them both to innovate and push the boundaries of critical thought, as well as mold the next generation’s ability to do so. Programs like the Presidential Innovation and Excellence Fund support our faculty’s worthy research. We will focus on supporting our faculty across the arc of their careers, and we will build out our office of the Vice President of Research with the goal of assisting all of our scholars with the resources, tools, and funding that can unleash their intellectual curiosity. 

The health of our society and the health of this University depend on an engaged, interdisciplinary, and collaborative approach to discovery. Nowhere has this been made more apparent than in our Stony Brook Medicine enterprise, where the past year and a half have highlighted the interconnectedness of patient care and research in serving our community. 

The pandemic has revealed our reliance on transformative, innovative research being done at universities like ours — intensifying the call for multi-disciplinary approaches to lead the way into a healthier future. I could not feel more confident in Stony Brook’s ability to meet this moment, with our rich history of investigation into causes and treatments for even the most complex diseases. It was at Stony Brook University, after all, that Dr. Jorge Benach — Distinguished Toll Professor of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology and Pathology — made the landmark discovery of the organism that causes Lyme Disease. It was at our University that, in 2019, Professor Christine DeLorenzo led a groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary team of faculty in Biomedical Engineering and Psychiatry to use A.I. technology in the fight against Alzheimer’s. A nationally recognized collaboration, it has the potential to arrest and even reverse the impacts of one of the most pernicious and troubling neurological illnesses. 

COVID-19 has presented a seismic shift in the way we think about our health, the way we internalize the concepts of personal responsibility and collective accountability, and the way we interact with one another. I am proud of the way Stony Brook Medicine has led us through the past year and a half, innovating continuously to provide superior patient care and extending our reach across Long Island to care for new communities. Our Stony Brook scholars pivoted their research to focus on the virus: from the shape of its spike protein to effective treatments; from clinical vaccine trials to a groundbreaking longitudinal study on its long-term effects. COVID-19 has proved an accelerant for scientific and medical research…and it has proved a catalyst for our sense of community. 

The power of a public research university is that it has the ability and the duty to benefit the community around it, as well as foster the groundbreaking discoveries that can impact the world for generations. 

As it did in the 1960’s, the federal government has pledged a significant increase for research, spearheaded by Senator Schumer, defining the moon shot of this decade, our era’s most critical problem: climate change. And from across our colleges and schools, Stony Brook has faculty, staff, and students who are answering this urgent call.  

Esther Takeuchi, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Interdisciplinary Science Department at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is the most prolific woman inventor in the country, with more than 150 U.S. patents and a career of innovative, interdisciplinary work on clean energy. In 2009, she was the recipient of the President’s National Medal of Technology and Innovation for her life-saving development of the battery that powers the world’s implantable cardiac defibrillators. Professor Heather Lynch, the first ever ecologist to receive a Blavatnik National Award for Young Scientists and one of the inaugural recipients of the Microsoft/National Geographic AI for Earth Innovation Grants, focuses on the population dynamics of Antarctic penguins in order to study the impacts of climate change. 

For years, this University has been a national leader in the push for sustainable innovation and clean energy. Our Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center is host to the National Offshore Wind Research Consortium, and has recently partnered with leading clean energy companies to advance offshore wind technology. And just weeks ago, Stony Brook University submitted its bid to be the anchor institution for the Governors Island Center for Climate Solutions. I have been inspired by the way our campus leaders, faculty, staff, and researchers have joined together to compile an impressive bid to create an integrated laboratory on Governors Island and be a global leader in the world’s development of solutions in the fight against climate change. I believe it is emblematic of the kind of bold, ambitious, and transformative moves this University can, and will, make in the coming decade. 

I mention these people, events, and stories not as isolated incidents to demonstrate all that Stony Brook has achieved, but rather as evidence of where this University is going. 

Stony Brook was founded to help address the needs of the state and the nation in that tumultuous and expansive decade of the 1960s. And now we must continue to be a catalyst for change. As a public institution, we are united in the common goal of making this a better world. The past year and a half have put many pressing questions before us: racial and social inequality, disparate healthcare outcomes, and the calamitous effects of global climate change. We have the resources, we have the ambition, and we have the will to answer. 

Just as our founders responded to their cultural moment, so too will we. 

I sensed this University’s character and strengths even before I arrived on Long Island. I attended the Class of 2020’s virtual commencement ceremony in May, so curious what the energy would be — feeling at once thrilled for our graduates yet anxious for the next phase of their journey. My family and I sat in Austin, Texas, wearing our new Seawolves gear. Even virtually, I drew sustenance and inspiration from Stony Brook University. I realized that this was a community whose hopes and dreams remained very much alive, whose ambitions were not postponed. It was the moment I knew that our collective efforts at Stony Brook could write history.  

Ours is a collective effort. We are going to do this together — every faculty member, student, and employee. We are going to do this with our wonderful partners. We are going to do this with the power of the State University of New York, the guidance of the Chancellor and the SUNY Board of Trustees, and the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature, led by our friend and alumnus Carl Heastie, Speaker of the Assembly, all of whom believe in the power of higher education to improve the lives of New Yorkers and the rest of the world. Together, we — the faculty, staff, and students at Stony Brook — will define the next generation of discovery. 

That is my goal, and my honor as the President of one of the most innovative public research universities in the world: to ensure that Stony Brook University is leading the way…serving our community, and tackling the global challenges that face us in the coming century. 

This is the work that we’ll set out to do, together, in the next decade. And, I look forward to seeing all we can achieve. The moment is upon us, Seawolves. Let’s answer the call to greatness.


Alternate Translations:

Chinese - Traditional
Chinese - Simplified