SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum offered optimism and a path forward through the COVID-19 pandemic during his opening of school meeting for faculty and staff on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021.
With spring semester classes starting on Monday, Feb. 1, President Bitterbaum noted a number of lessons learned last fall regarding the spread of COVID-19 on college campuses:
The biggest source of COVID-19 infection last semester was off-campus gatherings. While there are strict penalties for students caught violating safety protocols, speaking frankly with students about their potential impact on others and encouraging them to consider their actions is critical.
President Bitterbaum urged faculty and staff to talk to students about the public health situation and their choices throughout the semester.
“In numerous conversations I’ve had with our students, one thing is clear,” Bitterbaum said. “Students admire their faculty and staff and they hold you in the highest esteem. In many cases, alongside, and to my surprise, sometimes even higher than their parents. You have the opportunity to influence their behavior this upcoming semester.”
In addition to reinforcing messaging about face coverings, physical distancing and avoiding large gatherings, faculty and staff should also discourage students from traveling out of the immediate area and from inviting friends, parents and other family members from visiting them here in Cortland.
“I need all of us to speak with our students on a weekly basis on what it would take to keep this campus safe and healthy,” Bitterbaum said. “It’s more than just wearing your mask. You know the mantra. But really, it’s about engaging your students for a few minutes every week about how to be healthy and safe. We need them to think twice about gathering off campus.”
COVID-19 is not the only issue facing SUNY Cortland this spring. President Bitterbaum also touched upon significant topics such as admissions, racial and social justice and mental health.
Although SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras announced earlier this month that the SUNY system has experienced a 20% decline in applications over the past year, SUNY Cortland remains strong in attracting new students and has experienced the smallest decline of any SUNY comprehensive college.
Keeping enrollment strong in these challenging times, however requires continued effort. President Bitterbaum urged faculty and staff to assist the Admissions Office by extending their expertise to prospective students through email, phone calls and video meetings.
The conversations around social and racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 have led to a number of new initiatives at SUNY Cortland.
All members of the campus community are invited to take part in the 21-day anti-racism challenge to in part foster awareness, compassion and understanding. Learn more online.
President Bitterbaum also highlighted the university’s plan to continue to diversify the student and faculty populations alike.
“At SUNY, we have made diversity, equity and inclusion an integral part of our mission,” he said. “Social justice is in SUNY’s DNA. That’s why SUNY was invented. We must continue to improve student access and its success for all students as well as continue to diversify our faculty body to make it more representative of our student body.”
Mental Health is another significant challenge facing today’s college students, a challenge that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. Issues such as depression, stress and anxiety are rising among students.
President Bitterbaum noted that there are resources available to students, including SUNY Cortland’s Counseling Center as well as the system-wide Reach Out Mental Health Services Program launched last semester that provides access to a network of mental health care providers.
“I would ask you, in a gentle and encouraging way, to visit with your students and recommend that they visit with a counselor,” he said. “It’s very, very important.”
President Bitterbaum also thanked faculty and staff for their tireless dedication to other initiatives on campus, including:
“The pandemic is not ending tomorrow and the economy will not be rebounding tomorrow,” Bitterbaum said. “If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of feeling connected to each other with gratitude.”
President Bitterbaum’s remarks were followed by a talk led by Edward Fergus, associate professor of urban education and policy at Temple University, “SUNY Cortland Inclusion Survey: Perspectives on Racial Diversity in University Climate.”
The event also included a panel on the university’s Anti-Racism Action Plans Project, led by Lorraine Lopez-Janove, chief diversity and inclusion officer; AnnaMaria Cirrincione, director of Multicultural Life and Diversity; Mary Schlarb, director of International Programs; Kelechi Ibe-Lamberts, assistant professor of Health; and Christopher Ortega, assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies.
A recording of the meeting will be posted online.