SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum stressed the importance of faculty and staff connecting with students as both the reason for the university’s current success and as a key solution to upcoming challenges during his address at the Fall 2023 Opening of School Meeting.
Bitterbaum opened the meeting by mentioning several important updates about the university.
Cortland has recently used approximately $375 million in state aid to fund building renovations. Work is happening on Van Hoesen and Cornish halls that will upgrade the home of the Communication and Media Studies Department and refurbish offices, including Conley Counseling and Wellness Services. Corey Union will be completely renovated in the years to come. A long-term plan to improve Bowers Hall, Memorial Library and the physical education and recreation wing of Park Center are also underway.
“The state of New York is doing well,” Bitterbaum said. “When you look at other states, they are taking money away. We have been very fortunate and we give thanks.”
Improvements to the university’s athletic facilities include the Michael J. Cappeto ’71, M ’73 Team Room and the James J. Grady ’50, M ’61 Field at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex, both of which were funded by generous alumni donations.
Bitterbaum noted the role of the Division of Institutional Advancement in raising more than $30 million through its All In: Building on Success comprehensive campaign. The Cortland Challenge, a one-day fundraising event in the spring, brought in $472,000.
Cortland has been named to many best-of lists by national publications in recent years, including:
Students participated in many undergraduate research programs this summer. Twelve students were selected to be Summer Undergraduate Research fellows, earning a $4,000 stipend and having on-campus housing provided while they worked with faculty. Other students worked in the Chemistry Department or on National Science Foundation grants with Assistant Professor Amanda Davis and Professor Patricia Conklin in the Biological Sciences Department.
“When you bump into these students, and I’ve talked to many of them, and ask them about their research with their faculty, their eyes light up,” Bitterbaum said. “It’s extraordinary. During the school year we also have many of our students doing original research. When you visit with those students, you learn that it changes their life’s trajectory.”
These types of connections between students and faculty are part of the reason why Cortland has been able to retain 80% of first-year students, one of the best retention rates among SUNY’s comprehensive universities.
Cortland’s Urban Recruitment of Educators (C.U.R.E.) program continues to grow thanks to a recent grant of nearly $1 million that will provide funding for five years. C.U.R.E. provides scholarship support for students who pledge to teach in urban or underserved schools after their graduation.
“Superintendents and principals want our graduates, especially those coming out of the C.U.R.E. program,” Bitterbaum said. “I had one principal in New York City say they’d take our whole class if they could afford it. We hope that it can continue to expand. We are famous for the quality of our educators.”
SUNY Chancellor John B. King Jr., who began in that role in January 2023, has announced four key priorities that both mirror Cortland’s longstanding mission and will shape the university’s strategic planning in the years ahead. Those priorities are student success, diversity, equity and inclusion, workforce development and an investment in research and scholarship.
Bitterbaum also cited four primary challenges that Cortland will face in the future: the world of work, admissions, mental health and ChatGPT and artificial intelligence.
Teaching Generation Z students skills such as verbal and written communication, collaboration and teamwork and emotional intelligence will be key to their success in the workplace.
“Employers’ advice to us is that students need to understand that communication is valuable no matter what they’re majoring in," Bitterbaum said. “How these executives will look at them is based on the quality of their written word, the quality of their spoken word. Your faculty can start making it clear to students how much you value good writing and set high expectations for the quality of the work your students turn in.”
The university’s incoming class of first-year students is a sizable and impressive group. Cortland will welcome 1,250 first-year students, representing 17 U.S. states, and 513 transfer students from other institutions. Of those new students, 85% participated in athletics in high school, 188 are bilingual and five were their high school’s valedictorian.
However, the confluence of several factors is likely to lead to a decrease in national college enrollment over the next few years. A dip in the birthrate, particularly between 2009 and 2010, will result in fewer students than average graduating from high school. Concerns about affordability, debt and the general perception of higher education may also cause individuals to reconsider attending college, Bitterbaum said.
He urged faculty and staff to be aggressive in supporting initiatives of the Admissions Office and other enrollment efforts. Solutions include participating in campus visit programs such as Open House, being available during weekday campus tours and making one-on-one contact with prospective students and families.
The Admissions Office will continue to work with students who were rejected for admission coming out of high school by allowing automatic admission if they meet criteria by attending a SUNY community college before they reapply.
Bitterbaum also emphasized the importance of mental health resources, citing a study that found 77% of current college students know someone who has experienced a mental health challenge. He encouraged faculty and staff to support students by destigmatizing the topic, intentionally reaching out to those who may be “silent sufferers,” advocating for the university’s Counseling Center and responding generally with a culture of caring.
Artificial intelligence is an emerging issue for college campuses and in how faculty deal with the academic integrity of work completed by students. The university’s Faculty Senate is gathering a working committee to discuss ethical issues and a panel of faculty and staff are looking to host a Sandwich Seminar this semester to share their insight and gather feedback from others.
“This is the way of the future,” Bitterbaum said. “As a community we have to think about it in an appropriate way.”
Bitterbaum closed his remarks with stories from alumni who reflected on their time at Cortland by being grateful for the sense of belonging and the second chances the university provided them. He encouraged faculty and staff to continue forging meaningful relationships with students that make life-changing impacts.
Decades later, alumni reach out to Bitterbaum asking for contact information for professors who shaped their career paths and changed their perspective on the value of higher education. They want to express their gratitude for the mentorship and guidance they received as undergraduates.
Bitterbaum shared one of those messages from a former Cortland student.
“You should know that our students are always watching you,” he said. “In many cases they want to mirror who you are. They want to carry themselves the way you carry yourselves. That’s the kind of influence I’ve heard over the past few years. You are their role models and should be aware of that.
“Think about that for a moment. Faculty helping students in a moment of failure and embracing these students with kindness and a second opportunity. There is far more opportunity in the future than the error in the moment for these future alumni.”