Bulletin News

President’s talk highlights success despite national challenges


SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum outlined key reasons for the university community to be optimistic despite the challenges facing higher education institutions during his Spring 2024 State of the University Address on Jan. 18.

Those reasons include a record number of first-year student applications, a strong retention rate and a commitment to new academic programs and initiatives.

For the second year in a row, the university has received historic interest from prospective students, with nearly 16,000 first-year applications for Fall 2024. SUNY Cortland’s healthy enrollment follows good news this past fall from the State University of New York system, which reported a statewide increase in first-time undergraduate enrollment of more than 2,500 students in 2023 and has seen a surge of first-year applications for Fall 2024.

“We’ve stayed stable, which is a good sign for us,” said Bitterbaum, while also referencing recent university closures across the U.S. and enrollment shortfalls that many campuses face.

A second reason for the university’s bright outlook is its stellar 81% first-year retention rate, a number that is roughly 20 percentage points higher than the national average for comprehensive public universities. Still, he noted that challenges such as student debt and some public perceptions of higher education threaten enrollment and student persistence across the country.

“For me, when I listen and talk to students, the key for them in staying here is you, our faculty and staff,” Bitterbaum said. “If you can think of ways to bring students into what you do, it says to them, ‘We see you and we care that you’re here.’”

The president described his student-first vision for SUNY Cortland, which holds that student success relies on the collective talents of academic departments and offices across campus. Those include Advisement and Transition, Career Services, Conley Counseling and Wellness Services, The Learning Center, Student Health Service, The Writing Center as well as Disability Resources, Institutional Equity and Inclusion, Multicultural Life and Diversity, Residence Life and Housing, Title IX offices and many others. 

“I think we have a reputation as a student-first campus,” Bitterbaum said. “We have a vision of ourselves that we’re here to help our students succeed and I think the entire community can make a real difference.”

During his discussion of new programs and initiatives, the president mentioned SUNY Cortland’s plan to create an online bachelor’s program in integrative studies for students who started their college education but never officially earned their degree. He cited approximately 40 million Americans who may fall into this group, including non-traditional students, military veterans and others looking to finish their studies.

“We think we can draw those students back,” he said.

On the topic of online learning, the president pointed to SUNY Cortland’s 12 graduate programs offered in online or hybrid formats and their success in attracting working professionals from places outside of Cortland. Those opportunities now include childhood education, community health, educational leadership, English as a second language, history, literacy education, physical education leadership, therapeutic recreation and sport management.

Bitterbaum mentioned the university’s newest undergraduate major in tourism and recreation while also celebrating highlights in many areas since the fall semester:

  • Student research: SUNY Cortland’s Michael J. Bond ’75, M.D. Alumni/Undergraduate Science Symposium saw the highest attendance of the event’s eight-year run, introducing student researchers to successful alumni scientists. Three undergraduates traveled to Cuba to present their independent work, marking the university’s first trip to the island nation since the COVID-19 pandemic. Five students also attended the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists in Phoenix to help strengthen their career goals in STEM.

  • International scholarship: Two more Cortland students earned a prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State: Frank Denteh, a biology major who traveled to India, and Ashton Patalidis, a criminology and sociology major who studied in Australia. This past fall, SUNY Cortland also welcomed 50 new international students, who brought the total number of scholars from other countries on campus to 88 — believed to be an all-time high for the university.

  • University accolades: SUNY Cortland was recognized as a top school for students with disabilities, ranking 42nd on a national list of disability-friendly colleges. More recently, the university was named among the nation’s best schools for outdoor experiences by the Bear Grylls-founded outdoors.com for its access to nature and academic programs tied to the outdoors.

  • Construction updates: Bitterbaum shared in-progress photos of the $27 million project taking place in Cornish and Van Hoesen halls. The renovation, expected to be completed in January 2026, will bring new facilities for the Communication and Media Studies Department, Conley Counseling and Wellness Services, Disability Resources Office and Educational Opportunity Program. The university’s Alumni Association also won a $500,000 New York state grant to support restoration projects at the Lynne Parks ’68 SUNY Cortland Alumni House near downtown Cortland.

  • Athletics success: A dominant fall sports season included five conference championships for Red Dragon teams in field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball. The university’s football team punctuated the most successful season in program history with its first-ever national championship and the 26th team title overall for the Athletics Department.

  • Honorary degree announcement: The president revealed that Ernest Logan ’73, former president of the labor union representing America’s public school administrators, will receive an honorary degree from the State University of New York at Undergraduate Commencement on Saturday, May 11, in recognition of his distinguished career in public service and education.

In his outlook for the year ahead, Bitterbaum encouraged faculty and staff members to be aware of current topics in higher education such as generative artificial intelligence in the classroom and recent First Amendment case studies. He also discussed the mental health concerns that many students face, including potential warning signs, recommendations and suggestions for course syllabi. 

A panel session followed the president’s talk, featuring insight from six current SUNY Cortland faculty members about why they teach and lessons learned in the classroom. Faculty speakers included Bryanne Bellovary, assistant professor of kinesiology; Odalis Patricia Hidalgo, assistant professor of modern languages; Qwynne Lackey, assistant professor of recreation, parks and leisure studies; Lin Lin, professor of childhood/early childhood education; Keith Newvine, assistant professor of literacy; and Anisha Saxena, assistant professor of history.

Bitterbaum concluded his remarks with a short exercise suggesting that people often remember the professors and staff members who provide inspiration and support.

“Our students are at a crossroads in their lives when they get here,” the president said. “We want them to grow intellectually, emotionally, socially and even spiritually. And it is our faculty and staff members who make such a difference. You create a positive ripple effect that has no ending.”