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Diversity is key at SUNY Cortland

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

SUNY Cortland President Erik Bitterbaum speaks to staff at Corey Union Thursday morning to kick off the second semester, which begins Monday.

Dealing with implications of the presidential election and the growth of the college were a couple of SUNY Cortland President Erik Bitterbaum’s main talking points during his 2017 “State of the College” address, Thursday morning.

About 200 faculty members attended the speech that laid out facts and ideas about accountability, college climate and affordability.

Bitterbaum first delved into the presidential election, saying he believes “there will be wholesale changes in the way we do things,” due to the ideas of the incoming administration. But while he cannot predict what those changes may be, one issue he referenced that can be addressed now by staff is the concerns of the students.

During the election process, and after the results, Bitterbaum said he saw a number of students upset. Even though the students have been away for about a month on winter break, when they return on Monday, he said their unhappiness will still be there.

To try to ease any tension, Bitterbaum advised his staff to not shy away from constructive conversations with their students.

“It is perfectly fine to have dialogue with students about things they are concerned about,” he said.

The issue tied in with the topic of college climate: creating a comfortable, beneficial experience for the students. Another aspect of that is diversity at the school. Bitterbaum said there is a diverse body of students pushing for more diversity on campus; a concern the school is addressing with the hiring of more minority professors, instructors and administrators.

Along with creating a more diverse atmosphere, the college is trying to design more attractive programs and a better online presence for current and incoming students, Bitterbaum said. The college is already seeing some progress with participation in its 2016-17 winter session class up 30 percent from the previous year.

“Our challenge is to think creatively and look at new programs that would be good to add,” he said.

He addressed the importance of college affordability and the surprise of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed “Excelsior Scholarship” program — which would provide free college tuition to college-age students attending a two- or four-year City University of New York or State University of New York school.

To him, it is a positive program that will get families talking about going to college. However, he said he has read about private schools unhappy with the scholarship and trying to defeat it.

Due to the uncertainty of the future economic condition of the state and country, Bitterbaum said he believes the college will be dependent on tuition revenue and it will become critical to search for potential out-of-state students.

The theme of accountability was a common thread throughout his speech, as the staff and the school as a whole is accountable for providing students with the best possible education and college experience.

SUNY Cortland professors Alexis Blavos and Dennis Weng gave a quick presentation about a survey conducted last year, asking students about their perception of campus diversity and classroom climate. Of the 510 students who answered, it was found 70 percent feel comfortable with diversity in the classroom and 87 percent are comfortable in the classroom in general.

The study found that students tend to rely on professors for help over any other faculty member. Although students rely on professors more when they are seniors than as freshmen.

Weng said while it is good that students can rely on their teachers for help, it would be better if freshmen could be as comfortable around their professors as seniors are.

“We can benefit from learning from each other,” Weng said. “It is important to be prepared for the new incoming generation.”

One of Bitterbaum’s closing statements was about his goals for how students should be changed by graduating from SUNY Cortland. He said they should feel like they have more meaning in life, be better people, be more accepting of themselves and others and thus better equipped to contribute to the world.

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