By Moa Golster
The B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library is busy during common hour on March 27, but in a small, concrete room on the second floor – far away from deadlines, stress, and obligations – David J. Steinberg is peacefully enjoying his lunch. Dressed casually in a jumpsuit, and surrounded by old archive drawers, it is hard to recognize the former LIU President. It will soon be one year since he checked out after 28 years of presidency at the University. So what is life like for a retired University President?
“Less hectic, less chaotic, less pressured,” Steinberg said between bites of his sandwich. He said it is difficult to understand how he managed to be the president of three LIU campuses – Post, Brooklyn, and Southampton – for so long, constantly travelling back and forth between them. “But I loved every minute of it. I miss that.”
Although Steinberg is enjoying retirement, the last year has been far from a bed of roses. He has suffered from a chronic disease, lymphedema, for many years, and has had four surgeries since his retirement last spring. “So, retirement has not been a quick trip around the world, or a slow trip on a boat over to Asia. It’s been more in hospital rooms than I would want to remember,” he said. He is doing much better now, and explained that he is keeping himself busy.
Steinberg is currently doing research for a book on LIU from 1962 to 1972, describing the years as, “a critical decade in the life of the nation and certainly of our university,” and “one of the most dynamic, explosive eras of American growth.”
Passionately, he talked about the fundamental change in society during that time, which was directly related to issues of social justice; including racial equality, women’s rights, and universal education. “The Vietnam War sucked the air of civil rights in particular, and changed America,” he said.
He explained the rules, then, including separation of men and women, drinking obligations, and a notion of respect. “There was an explosive, generational divide of American students against the Vietnam War, against the ‘Establishment,’ against the notion that the adult community knows better. Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Brandeis, Berkeley, Free Speech, Foul Speech… All of these movements were changing American society in the most profound way.”
Steinberg explained that LIU students also participated in the revolution through different activities, such as demonstrations. During the early 1960s, Four-star Admiral and then LIU President Richard L. Conolly tragically died in a plane crash on his way to spring vacation. “The university was pitched into a kind of chaos, which it took decades to recover from,” Steinberg said. For the next decade, LIU had multiple presidents – some only staying for a few months – and there was an apparent disruption in whether to accept the new, modern student moves.
These years also included an LIU student tuition strike, and a historical faculty unionization, which made LIU the first private university in America to have faculty unions.
“It was all of this stuff going on. And what you have here,” Steinberg said and pounded one of the old looking archive drawers next to him, “are the ancient files of those people.” Steinberg explained that his illness and operations have delayed his work on the book, but he is hoping to start writing in a month.
Steinberg looks back at his presidency with satisfaction. He believes that his greatest achievement was developing the capacity to save the Brooklyn campus from closure. “There were 3,400 students [at the Brooklyn campus] when I arrived, and 12,000 now.” They rebuilt the Brooklyn Campus, spending over a quarter of a billion dollars, “refreshing it, renewing it, reconstructing it and repositioning it.” He explained that many other factors contributed to the success of the campus, especially new social and cultural efforts which were made in the Brooklyn area at the time.
However, Steinberg’s time at the university was not always successful. In 2006, the Southampton campus was sold to the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stonybrook, when LIU no longer could keep it financially viable, and Steinberg believes that to be his biggest failure. The problem was a lack of students, and, as a result of that, not enough donor support.
Three times during his presidency at LIU, Steinberg was offered to leave his occupation in higher education, and go onto the diplomatic corps. However, it was the unique optimism, youth, and energy, which students contribute to the institution that kept him from jumping into other opportunities. “If you ask me the question ‘are you happy that you had a career in higher education?’ –beyond the status of the job– the answer is ‘yes,’” Steinberg said.
Steinberg still has contact with some students, and said that watching a former student become a professional, a success, and a fulfilled human being, is one of the greatest rewards of his job.
Steinberg thinks that the greatest challenge for LIU in the future – as for all universities– is to withstand the assault of those in society who claim that college is a rip-off, that it doesn’t teach people enough, charges too much and puts people in debt. He said that education is more than getting prepared for a career; it is a chance to get prepared for life, and learn how to express feelings and formulate opinions. As society is changing, fast and radically, Steinberg realizes that education has to follow suit. “The challenge for all institutions is to know what to keep, and what to throw out,” he said.
Despite not being directly involved with LIU anymore, Steinberg and his wife still have many friends at the university. As a result of being active in the work with the Tilles Center, a concert was organized in their honor in May 2013. In addition, the Steinberg Museum of Art, located in Hillwood Commons, has been named after them; so has the imposing gymnasium, Steinberg Wellness Center, in Brooklyn.
With 28 years of presidency behind him, Steinberg is now only committed to his life as a husband, father, grandfather, and soon-to-be- author.