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The Little College That Couldn’t

Thu, 02/16/2023 - 09:59


Southampton College may have been doomed from the start. When the private Long Island University’s board of trustees voted unanimously around Christmas 1963 to go forward with its creation, it had a big idea but not nearly the funding. Today, the campus languishes from years of neglect as an afterthought in the State University of New York system, according to State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who has demanded new management, a five-year plan for repairs, and the campus’s use for affordable community housing.

Money was tight in 1963, so an ad-hoc College Committee of Eastern Long Island stepped in to help raise the $375,000 necessary for the purchase and renovation of the Tucker Mill Inn. There was plenty of community support for the fledgling college. Donations of money came from the Elks Club and an auto dealership. A freshman class of about 245 students drawn from among 600 applicants was to enter in the fall. There were night school classes. The first graduation was in 1967. Little more than 40 years later, Southampton College was gone, the victim of the Long Island University leadership’s distance in Brooklyn and lack of money.

Tim Bishop, who was the Southampton College provost from 1986 to 2002, before leaving to run for Congress, said it had always struggled because of “the problems posed by the lack of funds and a poorly designed campus built on the cheap.” Despite the challenges, the faculty and staff managed as well as they could. By 1970, the college could boast national recognition for its marine science program, with an expanding department and a new laboratory. In 1983, the student body was 1,305. But there was trouble ahead.

Facing the prospect of a $77 million debt, Long Island University announced that Southampton College would close. The last graduating class received its diplomas in 2005. The following year the L.I.U. trustees voted to accept an offer from the State University of New York to buy the campus for $35 million. Now part of Stony Brook University, the next chapter may be as a new medical center to replace the cramped and dated Southampton Hospital. Still, the 80-something acres with views of Shinnecock Bay seem a ghost town, and its former centerpiece, Southampton Hall, is unusable, condemned as unfit by the university fire marshal.

Stony Brook is not making any promises that conditions will improve, though it said it wanted to hire a new administrator, “whose work will include a focus on determining an overall strategy for our Southampton campus.” That is not reassuring. Vague talk of a “strategy” without placing education as the guiding principle does not serve the people of eastern Long Island.

A vision for a vibrant, four-year or community college on the East End should be part of any new plan. With an increasing regional population, employers clamoring for qualified staff, and no nearby options for higher education, the need for a strong Southampton College is clear.

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