In Places Like Oneonta, Town Needs Gown And Vice Versa


In Places Like Oneonta,

Town Needs Gown, Vice-Versa

Both college presidents, SUNY Oneonta’s Nancy Kleniewski and Hartwick’s Margaret Drugovich, were key members of the City of Oneonta’s DRI committee. It was formed in 2015 to figure out how best to spent $10 million provided by Governor Cuomo’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

The committee, no doubt, benefited mightily from both leaders’ wisdom, experience working within institutions and calm demeanors; no bomb-throwers there. In turn, Kleniewski and Drugovich likewise benefited, no doubt, by getting to better know the city’s movers and shakers and the key issues facing the “City of the Hills.”

The City of Oneonta and the two colleges are joined at the hip, like it or not.

When the undergrads return each fall, the city’s population doubles, from 7,000 to 14,000. Problems – let’s call them challenges – always arise, ranging from public mischief of all sorts to actual crimes, from OH Fest to blowouts in otherwise quiet neighborhoods.

In the past, an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation helped the college presidents and top city officials work through the town-gown issues.

The tip-off that something was awry with the administration of Barbara Jean Morris, who departed abruptly two weeks ago after presiding over the largest on-campus outbreak of COVID-19 in the country,
happened a week before the cataclysm.

The president was declining to meet with Mayor Gary Herzig, to his dismay. And, after City Hall cancelled nighttime bus rides back and forth to campus, the Student Activities Office went ahead and leased buses through another company.

Bad omens.

When COVID exploded on campus after one particular party on opening weekend, Aug. 21-23, it was too late to build bridges.

When infections topped 100 on a single night the next weekend, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras stepped in and, in effect, assumed Morris’ decision-making authority until her resignation “to seek other opportunities,” submitted quietly 10 days before the Wednesday, Oct. 14, press conference announcing her successor, SUNY Purchase Interim President Dennis Craig.

SUNY Purchase may have dodged the bullet by happenstance: SUNY Oneonta opened a week earlier, seven days when “pool testing” – of 20 students’ saliva at once – quickly expanded so health officials could identify outbreaks sooner and drill down to “patient one” more quickly. Still, success is success:

Malatras credited Craig’s leadership with limiting campus infections to 25; astonishing, when you
think of what happened here.

Dr. Morris was likeable, at first blush dynamic, with a record of some success. Her formulation of a 13-word mission statement was brilliant: “We nurture a community where students grow intellectually, thrive socially and live purposefully.” It’s possible to mourn and, still, try to understand what happened.

Regrettably but necessarily, a college president faces many demands – from the faculty and staff, implementing SUNY-wide policies, maintaining buildings and grounds, law enforcement, relations with local state legislators and community leaders. It goes on and on.

Students and pedagogy are the fun part, but most of a college president’s duties aren’t fun.

It also might be that Morris didn’t understand COVID virulence, that she trusted 19-year-olds too much, that she didn’t realize that student care needed to take a back seat to public health – for days or weeks or months.

A telling indicator, perhaps, was her concern, expressed at a town-gown “Control Room” meeting, about the negative psychological impact on tender students of HAZMAT-suited EMTS knocking on dorm doors in the middle of the night to escort young people to isolation dorms.

Sympathy is fine, but a potentially life-and-death situation called for sterner stuff.

Things got away from Dr. Morris, and there was no one on her side apart from a loyal and admiring inner circle.

(It’s worth noting again that, where President Drugovich realized a successful response to COVID could be a life-and-death matter for Hartwick, the SUNY campus didn’t have to worry: Empire State taxpayers would continue funding SUNY, come what might.

(Hartwick kept total infestations to 21, or 2.9 percent of SUNY-O’s number, even though its enrollment is 25 percent of the larger school’s total.)

For the good of all, let’s, as a community, get behind President Craig, and give him all the support we can to help him duplicate his Purchase success here.

A final thought: When Barbara Jean Morris was recruited, her “two-fer” status – she was a woman and a Native American – was heralded.

By all means, hire whomever of whatever background. But chairman Patrick Brown and the College Council shouldn’t have stars in their eyes, distorted, if you will, by PC prerogatives.

They have a responsibility – to the campus and the Oneonta community; (City Hall alone is losing
$1 million in revenue per semester): Whoever succeeds Dr. Morris must be focused enough, tough enough, realistic enough, experienced enough to truly understand the daunting requirements of a college president’s job, and temperamentally able to handle them.

Getting that under control will allow the focus to return to raising the campus’ quality and reputation, which is what it’s all about.

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