Daniella Fishman, Culture Editor |
SUNY Oneonta’s acting President Dennis Craig has just entered his fourth week in the position. Within these few weeks, acting President Craig has created numerous groups to deal with various campus and community issues. While some of the actions done by the acting president and his teams sometimes go unnoticed due to the influx of messages we get daily, many steps are being taken to rebuild SUNY Oneonta’s relationship with its community.
Acting President Craig agreed to be interviewed by The State Times as a means of communicating to the student body on a more personal level. If you have any further questions for Acting President Craig, please email [email protected].
Fishman: How has your previous experience working at SUNY Purchase, NYU, Montclair State, Pace University and other schools qualified you to take up the President’s seat at Oneonta?
Craig: I have been a college president during the pandemic, a vice president for 13 years and have directed areas in enrollment management, student affairs, government relations, college advancement, and alumni relations, as well as marketing and communication. Early in my career, I had experience in teaching courses. I have led during emergencies and reputational crises. I also have experience as a SUNY student, having graduated from Plattsburgh State. All of my jobs provided somewhat of a practice background. Working as a VP, solving issues together taught me a lot about framing issues from different perspectives, and learning other areas of expertise from my colleagues.
F: As an outsider coming into the SUNY Oneonta bubble, what has been your opinion on the way SUNY Oneonta’s communication with students and the community was handled?
C: I am not in a position to judge, since I was not here. My perspective since arriving is that infrastructure is needed that ensures timely communication to all stakeholders as well as an organization around crisis communications and ultimately building up the visibility of Oneonta in the region. I will be charging a task force to review best practices at other colleges and universities and I am committed to getting the college to deliver effective communications. Ever since the COVID-19 situation this semester, press on the school had been primarily negative until your appointment to Interim President. However, though media coverage has been slightly more positive, the school’s rapport with the overseeing community has been unfavorable, to say the least. Part of my job is to be out there representing the college – so doing my work will lend visibility to the college
F: How do you plan on rebuilding campus and community relations?
C: That will be a team effort. I will continue to meet with the mayor, our local and state officials, Hartwick College’s President and others. Discussions should always involve determining our desired future state, shared goals and how we can get there together.
F: What will be done about businesses that continue to turn SUCO students away?
C: As good citizens, we have available to us friends and officials in city governance, the Chamber of Commerce, and other areas. They want to help us resolve these issues as well.
F: How has communication been between the school and Mayor Herzig?
C: Excellent. I have enjoyed all of my interactions with the Mayor. He has already been helpful to me and to the larger college in just a few weeks. I make sure that key announcements are shared with our elected officials and I participate in discussions about the climate and future of Oneonta.
F: As we begin to finish SUNY Oneonta’s first majority online semester, the students and faculty all admit to feeling an intense level of burn-out. Keeping the pace has been exhausting. Many, if not all, of those involved in online learning, agree that this has been an unprecedented challenge. How is the school preparing to help students and faculty deal with their eventual Spring 2021 burn-out?
C: We have some time to reflect and prepare, right now it’s just a matter of getting to Thanksgiving. In terms of next semester, in-person classes don’t start until Feb. 1, so we do have some sort of a buffer between now and then. The changes to the spring calendar were obviously very stressful for everyone, but those concerns were really out weighted by public health and people traveling during the holidays cannot be overlooked.
I think that when the plan from the Provost comes out on the sixteenth, there will be addendums in areas that we need to supplement and complement how we are going to take care of mental health and burn-out issues. It’s very important that those mental health [wellness] days are taken advantage of.
This is a lot of work we need to get done before the 16th. But even between the 16th and the start of next semester, there will be updates to look out for.
F: Regardless of COVID, the counseling center’s limit for mental health sessions has been a point of concern throughout the campus community. Will the 8-10 mental health session limit be voided like many other rules, in order to allow more access to counseling?
C: I’ve had discussion with Melissa Fallon-Korb about getting the proper staff. Right now, all colleges are dealing with the issue of the need being greater than the supply when it comes to access to mental health professionals. It’s a complex problem no matter the context.
SUNY Oneonta has its own group of mental health contractors. However, the industry is very competitive right now. It’s nearly impossible to find mental health professionals, they all seem to be far and few between.
We are committed to giving everyone the proper support.
F: What would you have done differently had you been president during Fall semester last year?
C: I don’t know blow-by-blow what happened. However, I can tell you when things have happened, how I’ve been involved. Generally, when I was the Interim President at Purchase, I had the police report directly to me. When an incident would happen, I would be notified and the incident commander of the emergency response team would be notified as well. Crisis communication is all about protecting your reputation, but that comes second when there are lives in danger. In a situation like that, it’s important to first determine the nature of the threat, what safety the crisis needs, if resources need to be dispatched, they can ask for help to come into the campus. In the meantime, very quickly you’ll have a parallel group running, solely focused on communication.
It’s clear to me that those roles were not clearly understood or defined. It’s something that I’m looking into to get a better look at what went wrong and what the issues were.
F: Everyone who saw the incident unfold now understands that the school was nowhere near prepared for an incident like that to occur. Was it due to SUNY Oneonta’s inability to plan a “what-if scenario,” or did the SUNY System not provide SUNY Oneonta with the proper protocol?
C: Having not been here, it’s hard to say. But, from what I’ve heard, the most major issue to correct here is one of communication, miscommunication, and no communication at all. An incident can be pretty complex, but those three factors are the most simple aspect to a situation. During an incident, students, faculty and the community need to know how a command center is operating, where updates will be posted and how frequent? Even if the communication is “there is no new information at this time” is a lot different than radio silence.
F: There seems to be confusion about what information comes from where. Most of the messages come from the Office from the President’s email, yet within the short time you have been president, we have heard from virtually none of the committees about their findings and decision. While the recent Town Hall was greatly informative and a great introduction to the many teams, will we be hearing from the separate teams be reaching out to the student body separately, or will their findings keep being reported from your Office?
C: For every audience, there should be a specific spokesperson. So, for the emergency response team, there needs to be an incident commander that’s known and assigned by the campus. When I was at Purchase College, we had two-yearly active shooter drills. The community would be notified about what was taking place, and they would be told how to participate, and get a R.A.V.E notification; that wouldn’t come from the President.
You don’t build confidence on a campus if every communication comes from the President. Unfortunately, there have been two faculty-death announcements and they both came from The Office of the President. My personal feeling is that those emails should come from the areas of the college where the employee resided… or the President turns into the Grim Reaper. I’m going to keep sending out messages until all of our task forces are able to send their own updates. When that happens you’ll be hearing a lot less from me.
F: Back in October, there was a large number of students who went home for a week, in place of the usual October break. Spring Break was the only substantial break within the Spring semester. As Fall 2020 burnout continues, the student body fears that the four wellness days will not be enough to mentally relax from the stress of online learning. That being said, what is to stop the students from also leaving around the time of Spring Break, regardless of it not being in the calendar? Is the school prepared for another superspreader event?
C: I can clearly see, in speaking with the COVID Response team, that the direction the Spring plan is heading is to house approximately 900 students on campus, and eventually more. We quickly determined that the existing schedule was inadequate. We decided that mask-to-mask hybrid courses would be best to create the option for those that want an in-person option. There needs to be a layer of in-person social, intellectual activities, things you’d expect from a college campus. From there, students will have a sound reason if coming back to campus would be worth it, or not, for them.
There are two layers in place that aren’t ideal. One is the regular testing and the other is the testing upon return and exit. I think both will be very important to work on and uphold. We have to be realistic though: the college can’t control a free society and the students have rights and free will but we need to remind them that they have responsibilities towards one another. These responsibilities often involve personal sacrifice, I’m not sure we as a society know the real meaning of “personal sacrifice,” that in order for the greater good sometimes we need to give up something we care about. It’s not about doing what we want to do, it’s doing what we should do. I think that’s especially hard to do when you’re in between the ages of 18-22. All of us have a shared responsibility now.
F: Regarding the Pass/Fail option not being applicable for Spring 2021, in the Town Hall, it was stated that P/F could be “harmful” to the students. How is this decision protecting the students?
C: There are many students that work hard for a grade; they know it’s going to be a good one. They might have a scholarship/ reasons as to why they need the letter grade. There are students that don’t benefit from Pass/Fail.