A Little College Reaches for the Stars

Stony Brook Southampton’s programs in creative, career fields fuel resurgence
From his hive of creativity, Robert Reeves, the associate provost of the Stony Brook Southampton graduate arts program, oversees an impressive array of creative offerings in writing, literature, film, and beyond. Judy D’Mello

“Think of it as an arts colony for credit.”

So reads the online directive of Southampton arts, a department of the State University at Stony Brook that offers graduate programs in creative writing, children’s literature, audio podcasting, and film.

It is, in fact, one of three colonies that exists at former Long Island University’s former Southampton College, which Stony Brook acquired in 2006. In addition to the arts program, undergraduate and graduate courses in marine sciences and graduate and postgraduate degrees in health care technology and management are offered at the 82-acre campus tucked between the old and the new Montauk Highways in the hills of Shinnecock.

“The Southampton campus never closed,” said Matthew Whelan, the vice president for strategic initiatives at Stony Brook University, referring to 2010, when the university, citing an $82 million loss, suspended its undergraduate programs in Southampton.

That the campus has been continuously operational is not a surprise — the summer writers conference is well known, as is the annual Young Artists and Writers Project — but just how vibrant and innovate Southampton’s institution of higher education is may come as news to many residents east of the Shinnecock Canal.

Approximately 590 students were enrolled last year at the Southampton campus, which together with the main campus at Stony Brook and an outpost in Manhattan form the university’s triumvirate. Approximately 60 students live in dormitory rooms in Southampton; the maximum capacity is about 200. The Amagansett Food Institute operates the South Fork Kitchens Cafe at the student center, serving freshly prepared farm-to-table meals. The cafe’s kitchen is part of a food incubator program, which offers culinary entrepreneurs the use of a commercial kitchen for little capital outlay. In fact, Carissa’s Bakery, the successful East Hampton enterprise, started in this kitchen.

Of the three academic disciplines offered in Southampton, perhaps the best known is the school’s graduate arts program, at the helm of which sits Robert Reeves, its associate provost.

Mr. Reeves, who worked in a similar capacity during the Long Island University days, is one of four faculty members who stayed on after the college’s reincarnation. He has initiated and overseen the evolution of the department, which today offers a dizzying selection of courses in poetry, fiction writing, literature, nonfiction, publishing and editing, screenwriting, television writing, directing, and producing.

The M.F.A. creative writing program is the crown jewel of the college. It has drawn a panoply of lauded authors to Southampton: Amy Hempel, Meg Wolitzer, Paul Harding, Susan Minot, Roger Rosenblatt, and Cornelius Eady are among the faculty roster. Another faculty member, Ibi Zoboi, was selected as a finalist for a 2017 National Book Award. Julie Sheehan, a celebrated poet who is a professor and the director of the creative writing and literature department, recently won a coveted residency at Cornell University, where she will teach this spring.

Stony Brook’s M.F.A. film program is primarily centered in Manhattan, but the Southampton campus also offers courses in what the website describes as “the only graduate program in the SUNY system fiercely dedicated to independent filmmaking.” In other words, according to Christine Vachon, the program’s powerhouse artistic director and the founder of Killer Films, her roughly 150 students receive hands-on, experiential learning in film and television writing and programming from faculty who have made their careers in the field — and all of this at state university prices.

Mr. Reeves, who has introduced “about one new entrepreneurial program a year,” wants to see Southampton’s creative offerings continue to grow. Last year, the Food Lab at Stony Brook Southampton was introduced, with the goal of becoming a center of food education and enterprise. August will see the launch of a one-year fellows program in audio podcasting, in association with WSHU Public Radio. Touted as “the first of its kind in the U.S.,” the podcast program will be under the direction of Kathleen Russo, a producer of Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s the Thing” podcast, and offer 12 students advanced training in all aspects of podcasting, from development through to the pitch.

“We’re like sharks,” said Mr. Reeves, sitting behind a wall of books stacked on his office desk. “We have to keep swimming to survive.”

The watery metaphor is somehow fitting. A few hundred yards down the hill, across Old Montauk Highway, sits the university’s $10-million, state-of-the-art School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, which offers undergraduate and graduate degree courses in marine sciences.

Approximately 100 undergraduates and 20 graduate students are currently enrolled. As with the creative arts, nationally and internationally renowned experts in the field teach here. Four faculty and emeritus faculty were involved in the intergovernmental panel on climate change with Al Gore that won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007.

The impressive Gobler Laboratory, spearheaded by Christopher Gobler, a professor specializing in coastal ecosystem ecology and climate change, sits at the edge of the Shinnecock Bay. It is an epicenter of scientific research, with more than 150 species of phytoplankton and zooplankton in culture and giant vats where bivalves and finfish are raised and studied. An entire wall is lined with enormous tanks of rust, brown, and blue-green water — stores of the various harmful algal blooms the lab continues to monitor. In addition, the center owns a fleet of small research vessels, used for students who sign up for semesters by the sea.

Dr. Gobler, who began teaching at the center in 1999, when it was still owned by Long Island University, plays a lead role in the Long Island Clean Water Partnership and has been contracted by the East Hampton Town Trustees to monitor dozens of waterways, including Georgica and Wainscott Ponds. He also leads the Shinnecock Bay restoration program, an initiative that aims to cleanse the water in the western side of the bay through the introduction of shellfish. In 2015, the program seeded its millionth clam.

Last summer’s merger of Southampton and Stony Brook University hospitals suddenly offered access to job opportunities in the medical world to the 225-plus graduate and postgraduate students enrolled in Southampton’s health sciences programs. 

The introduction in 2013 of Southampton’s first health science degree, a doctorate in physical therapy, has since been augmented by master’s programs in occupational therapy and applied health informatics, a new discipline that focuses on health care management. In addition, a new master’s in health care administration was added last year as a hybrid program of online courses and on-site lectures.

“Health services is a high-demand field,” said Dr. Whelan, who joined Stony Brook University in 2006 and was called upon by Samuel L. Stanley, the school’s president, in 2013 to “ensure that we are using Southampton to its fullest potential.” The resurgence of the university after the fiscal setback of 2010 bears testament to all three Southampton departments recognizing the changing face of education and offering “high-needs, high-demands” courses, said Dr. Whelan.

That sentiment was echoed by Mr. Reeves, who is a novelist, essayist, and literary critic. “We will keep trying to respond to demand,” he said, “and implement programs where students get something more than just credits.”

Chris Gobler, left, a professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences in Southampton, and Chris Paparo, the center’s manager, monitored algal blooms in the school’s state-of-the-art indoor seawater laboratory. Judy D’Mello