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Acting President Says SUNY Oneonta Is 'In A Better Place' For Spring

Dennis Craig
Provided by SUNY
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SUNY Oneonta Acting President Dennis Craig

SUNY Oneonta will welcome back roughly 25 percent of its students to campus this semester, after a COVID-19 outbreak forced the college to shutter its doors and return to remote learning in the fall. The outbreak – in which over 700 students were infected – led to the ouster of Barbara Jean Morris as college president. Former Purchase College Interim President Dennis Craig was tapped by SUNY to lead the push for spring, with 20 percent of classes expected to take place in-person as part of a “dual modality” model. Craig discussed the college’s plans with WAMC’s Jesse King.

Looking at what happened last semester, what's different in SUNY Oneonta's planning this time around? 

We are testing all of our in-person students every week, Monday and Tuesday. We have a very well-staffed testing operation. All of our students are required to self-isolate for a period of time before they return to campus, and they're required to produce a negative test result before they return. We've developed a plan, I think, to really pay a lot of attention to our off-campus students. We have programs and outreach to get them to the testing that's on campus. We're going to be hosting interactive town halls to work with them, to plan out what a safe, robust social activity calendar looks like, so students make good choices with their social time. We're training and we're bringing back a pretty large-scale group of students that are RAs, that will be helping us monitor the behavior of their peers, keep tabs on them. I will continue my weekly Wednesday afternoon meetings — I meet directly with students, virtually. 

We have about 1,500 of our students who will be taking at least one in-person type of class. So that's very low, and low density. Normally this time of year, we'd have about 6,200 [or] 6,300 students on campus taking in-person classes. So the lower density, I think, is going to help us out a whole lot. There were many students that decided to finish out their academic year being 100 percent remote. All of this, together, I think, creates a low-density environment with a lot of testing that makes us in a better place. 

The uniform code of conduct, the community standards, the people on campus who police and monitor things, the judicial system - that's been revised across SUNY. Students who don't cooperate or don't follow the rules, there's a quick process in place for immediate suspension from school At this stage in the pandemic, if people are still breaking the rules, there has to be consequences with conduct. And that's been strengthened. 

These are, I think, the key pieces of our plan that are different and were not in place when [SUNY] Oneonta began the academic year in the fall.

As acting president, what are some things you've learned so far about the campus, and what needs to be done to rebuild trust here? 

Spending a lot more time on communication, and being empathetic on the information that our people need. You know, one of our challenges has been getting our arms around all this information which comes in in different ways. Staying on top of that, and coordinating that, and turning it into a really empowering communications program is something that we're working on. There's a lot of concern within the community about mental health issues - not just for our students, but for our employees. We've had discussions, we're working on doing some surveying to learn a little bit more about that, to see where we can shore up resources to be more supportive to one another, and doing what we can with mental health resources. And finding, I think, more opportunties to have interpersonal communications, and all of us kind of getting to know one another, and ways that we can solve problems together. That requires a lot of outreach on my behalf.

I've been meeting with different departments across the college, in smaller groups — usually through Microsoft Teams or Zoom or something like that. Our first responders and front line workers, like custodial staff, who are so important for cleaning and making people feel confident — when I go to the office, there's blue tape on the doorknob that indicates it's a safe space to enter, everything's been sanitized and cleaned — those people do a whole lot. A good example of the communications challenge [is that] these are people who aren't sitting in front of a computer, so an email message isn't something that will get to them. I had meetings from 8 o'clock in the morning until 10 p.m. meeting the different shift workers in different spots across the campus, small groups, wearing masks, talking, listening to concerns. It's a lot of work, but it's important and valuable work. I believe that's helping us turn the corner with both morale and communication issues — and, I think some of the trauma that my campus has lived through. 

I did hear from some teachers about a month ago who were voicing some pushback to the spring plan, and particularly over the idea of "dual modality." There was a petition asking the school to stay remote, and teachers expressed confusion over whether they had a choice in in-person teaching. I wanted to ask how that all went down on your end. Has there been more discussion with teachers over this? 

There has, I think it culminated with the college senate meeting at the end of last semester. But before that, to correct the record, I think there is an important distinction to make: no one required or mandated our faculty to teach [in-person]. We had enough volunteers to meet our goal of having about 20 percent of our classes be in an in-person modality, to meet the needs of what our students wanted and needed — and to be much more similar to what our sister colleges are doing all across the state. At the time I entered Oneonta, after what happened at the very beginning of the fall, only 2 percent of our students had an in-person class. So we had enough volunteers. 

In this information age, I think sometimes one of the hindrances we have is that there's misinformation that can perpetuate about things. I think it took a little extra time, being a new person. The previous institution that I had worked with, Purchase College — I was president there — I was very able to pull together a plan that was successful this past fall. I think when I left there in mid-October there were only three COVID cases. And in part, I think, I was familiar with the culture there. People trusted me, because they knew me for many years. I think that my entry into the middle of the semester [at SUNY Oneonta], to be quite honest — it was a challenge and a handicap of getting to know and kind of having a rhythm with the team there. But I think that's behind us now. 

Did the fall's outbreak have an impact on the school's finances or recruitment at all? 

Absolutely. It has influenced every campus across the country. Visits were completely on hold for obvious reasons last semester, which is a peak period, I think, where all high school students are looking at different colleges. There's been a huge slowdown in terms of application numbers coming in — and that's not unique to [SUNY] Oneonta, that's happening across the country. Financially, not having students pay residence hall fees in the numbers that they do, and purchase meal plans — all of this provides an economy of scale that has been completely disrupted. So, yes. 

Are things alright? How big is this semester for SUNY Oneonta? 

We're doing relatively well. The college has a financial oversight system that includes financial reserves where we can handle one-time emergencies like this. Worst case scenario, we could probably get by in this environment for a couple years, and then, like most schools, we would be in real trouble. 

Are you worried at all going into this, or having a backup plan at all? 

I think we're all worried right now. If you work in higher ed, and you are a residential college, it would be bizarre to not be worried and concerned. But we're also confident: we have a planning team of 55 people in our COVID response team, they're broken down into different groups. Our plan is fluid. It shifts and turns depending upon what's happening with the virus, how it's manifesting itself. Our people are dedicated to taking this on. We will all across the state have the expectation that there will be pivot points where we shift from in-person to remote because the infection rate goes up. We're prepared to do that. 

Do you think they're gonna be able to have an in-person graduation this year? 

Most likely not. The planning for that would really need to be in earnest, you know, mid-February. Having thousands of people at an in-person commencement ceremony in this environment would really be just fifteen weeks away from now, [so it] doesn't seem likely to me. Not just at [SUNY] Oneonta, but at most schools across the state. 

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SUNY Oneonta serves more than 6,700 students, according to its website. Classes start online Monday, with in-person classes launching with the rest of the 64-campus SUNY system on February 1. 

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