President Erik J. Bitterbaum highlighted SUNY Cortland’s commitment to staying true to its student-focused mission, especially amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, during his Fall 2021 Opening Address on Thursday in the Corey Union Function Room.
Bitterbaum also spoke about SUNY Cortland’s strong enrollment, the university’s many efforts to ensure racial and social equity and inclusion and offered updates on several campus initiatives.
Faculty and staff were applauded for their efforts to continue to provide students with access and opportunity, place students at the center of their focus and serve as “stewards of place” for local and regional partners in the greater Cortland community.
“We did not stop despite the pandemic,” Bitterbaum said. “We removed obstacles and found new ways to connect and embrace new approaches to teaching, service and scholarship. As I look back over this past year, it was for me truly amazing what you all accomplished together.”
Direct, personal engagement between faculty and students was a major factor in enabling students to thrive in an academic environment of virtual and hybrid instructional models over the past 17 months. Faculty listened and adapted to student concerns about learning from home, having a lack of access to campus facilities and friends and that has made the current climate more conducive to the enriching educational experience SUNY Cortland strives to achieve. Bitterbaum urged faculty and staff to continue this outreach to students even as campus life begins to return to normal.
“Are there things we can do for our students?” Bitterbaum said. “Can we ask our students, ‘How can we help further their education knowing some of the difficult situations they are in?’”
COVID-19 safety remains a top priority for the university. Bitterbaum noted that FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday has led to a new SUNY-wide mandate requiring all students to be vaccinated by Monday, Sept. 27 to access many campus facilities. SUNY Cortland had earlier announced that all students living in campus residence halls would be required to be vaccinated. A small number of students may be granted medical or religious exemptions.
Other safety procedures for the Fall 2021 semester include arrival testing for all residential students and regular surveillance testing for all students and employees.
Bitterbaum recognized all employees who organized, operated and volunteered for the massive surveillance testing that took place throughout the 2020-21 academic year.
A number of other highlights from across the university included:
SUNY Cortland’s fundraising efforts are providing opportunities for scholarships and vital student emergency grants. Through the 2019-20 fiscal year, the university raised $5.195 million, leading all SUNY comprehensives in dollars raised.
The Cortland Fund raised $1 million for a second consecutive year and The Cortland Challenge set new records with 2,300 donors and $314,000 raised in a 24-hour period on April 21.
The Campaign for Cortland, “All In: Building on Success,” has raised $24 million of its $25 million goal heading into its final year. More than $12 million of that total will go to student scholarships.
The Student Emergency Fund, created to help students deal with unexpected expenses related to the pandemic, has raised more than $400,000 and distributed more than 1,000 grants to students in need.
Bitterbaum shared details of a recent conversation he had with James Meredith, who became a national leader in the struggle for civil rights after being the first Black student admitted to the then-segregated University of Mississippi in 1962.
Archivist and Instructional Services Librarian Jeremy Pekarek noticed that SUNY Cortland’s student government wrote a letter of support to Meredith in 1962. Meredith responded to their note and both were published in the student newspaper, The Hilltop Press.
Bitterbaum found a phone number for Meredith and called him. Meredith, now 88, was later wounded in a civil rights march. They spoke about those messages as well as SUNY Cortland’s current anti-racism initiatives, including the formation of the President’s Council on Inclusive Excellence.
“This is what he wanted me to share with you,” Bitterbaum said. “Tell your faculty and staff they’re doing God’s work. What they’re doing is great.”
Other examples of SUNY Cortland’s commitment to diversity and inclusion include the recent hiring of five new faculty members through SUNY’s Promoting Recruitment, Opportunity, Diversity, Inclusion and Growth (PRODiG) program, which aims to increase the number of historically underrepresented faculty.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education will be visiting campus in April 2022 as part of its regular reaccreditation process. Bitterbaum thanked the faculty and staff who have been working on this task throughout the pandemic as well.
To conclude, Bitterbaum shared a quote from Teddy Roosevelt: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
“What we do here at this college is so, so important,” Bitterbaum said. “I can only say thank you and I wish you a wonderful semester. Let’s try to beat this pandemic.”