Bulletin News

President Looks to Future at Opening Meeting


SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum offered a peek at the future of higher education during his Spring Opening of School Meeting Tuesday, describing challenges on national, state, SUNY system and campus levels and explaining some of the ways the College will face them.

Speaking to a large crowd of faculty and staff members in the Corey Union Function Room, the president addressed topics that included state funding, online learning and SUNY-wide “systemness.”

“I consider ourselves lucky that we’re not being cut,” he said, speaking about the lack of new state funding nationally. “The new normal is not getting cut, which is kind of an interesting perspective.”

A rational tuition policy instituted by the State University of New York two years ago — which bumped tuition by $300 per student, per year over five years — gives SUNY Cortland the ability to hire 16 new faculty members for the 2013-14 academic year. It hired 11 new faculty members in 2012-13.

The College, however, does not keep all of the new tuition money. Some goes to SUNY’s four major research centers, and a portion goes to other SUNY institutions with a higher population of Tuition Assistance Program students, Bitterbaum noted.

“We’re getting back to where we need to be,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”

Other national issues that affect SUNY Cortland include added emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); a shift towards more online learning and massive open online courses; and the government’s response to growing student debt.

“I have always felt that students will always want to come to a college…because there’s something very special that occurs on a college campus,” Bitterbaum said. “But there will be more and more pressure on us (to create online learning opportunities) as time goes on.”

Just last week, SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher made a pledge to beef up the State University of New York’s online offerings to maintain access and affordability in higher education.

Those are key issues statewide, as are the state’s adoption of performance-based funding for colleges and an expected capital budget hit in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Bitterbaum said.

As the largest comprehensive system of public universities, colleges and community colleges in the U.S., SUNY will depend on the concept of “systemness” that Zimpher has popularized. Bitterbaum said that means more collaboration among the 64 campuses, such as adopting uniform software programs for student records.

The College will be the launching site for a series of SUNY discussions on shared services Wednesday, Jan. 30. That may be fitting, given a statistic Bitterbaum mentioned related to the smart use of its resources. SUNY Cortland spends roughly 22 percent more on instruction and academic support than similar institutions, according to the 2012 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System report..

The president also called attention to the College’s performance based on the system’s report card. In nearly all of the report card’s criteria — graduation rates, credits earned at graduation and student/faculty ratio — SUNY Cortland met or exceeded both the system average and a three-year target with its 2010-11 data.

“We’re doing a magnificent job based on the way the system views us,” Bitterbaum said.

The College’s six major construction projects highlighted the campus-related news shared by the president, along with a mention of SUNY Cortland’s inclusion in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine as one of the top 100 best values in public colleges for 2013 and the College’s AmeriCorps efforts in the local community.

“Our reputation continues to grow,” he said.

He also praised four faculty-led grant efforts totaling more than $470,000 from the fall: Theresa Curtis, an assistant professor of biological sciences, received $11,104 from the U.S. Army Medical Research ACQ; David Franke, a professor of English, was awarded $20,000 from the National Writing Program; Angela Pagano, an associate professor of biological sciences, and Mary Gfeller, an associate professor of mathematics, collaborated on a grant worth $429,197 from the New York State Education Department via the U.S. Department of Education; and Orvil White, an assistant professor of childhood/early childhood education, earned $11,880 in grant funding from the Office of the Basic Education Commission in Thailand.

Bitterbaum cautioned that the nation’s Northeast was seeing a declining number of high school graduates, which will force the school to become increasingly competitive. Although SUNY Cortland remains highly visible and is expected to draw more than 10,000 applications, the trend continues to impact many colleges and universities nationwide.

The president concluded his talk by thinking back to a conversation he shared recently with a former Cortland mayor who asked him if he gets nervous, given the obstacles faced by many colleges and universities.

“I said no” Bitterbaum said. “I said: ‘Because I love talking to my colleagues because I know that they’re going to have a chance to educate an amazing class of students.

“’That’s why I want to live my life on a college campus.’”