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SUNY Oneonta President Resigns to Restore Public Trust After Virus Outbreak

After an outbreak where more than 700 students tested positive for COVID-19, State University of New York at Oneonta (SUNY Oneonta) President Barbara Jean Morris resigned. Neither Morris nor the school gave further details about the resignation. 

The only response was from Chancellor Jim Malatras, who said at a news conference that Morris’ resignation was “of her own volition” and that he was informed the previous week. 

Breakdown of Trust

Malatras admitted that “everyone in the community would agree that there were problems,” so there was a need to move on. 

It is widely believed that Morris left her post because of the public backlash arising from last month’s COVID-19 outbreak. There were social media posts that showed students partying, which irked parents and town officials.

The mayor of Oneonta, Gary Henzig, admitted in an interview that the school and the town needed “a new start.” He added that “trust is everything” and that you need to make some changes before trust is restored.

Lack of Preparation

There was disagreement between Mayor Henzig and former President Morris regarding the school’s opening preparations for the fall semester. Herzig said he called for the pre-testing of  SUNY students in April. Morris did not heed his recommendations and insisted that the college’s plan to use the testing of wastewater along with saliva pool testing, if needed, was sufficient.

Henzig reasoned that almost 3,000 of the 6,000 students enrolled in SUNY Oneonta resided off-campus, so they could not rely on the wastewater tests since they were not isolated. Eventually, the cluster where the outbreak started consisted of off-campus students.  

Students also wanted a stronger response from the college administration. Jacob Adler, a senior in SUNY Oneonta, narrated in local newspaper The Daily Star that students were not wearing masks even after the outbreak. He also said the students who partied were only suspended when “the punishment should be more severe.”

Adler concluded that, in general, “the lack of planning on the part of the administration” caused the situation to spiral out of control.

Swift Transition

SUNY Oneonta promptly named Dennis Craig as interim president, the previous interim president of SUNY Purchase. He was commended for his COVID-19 crisis management as the campus of 4,000 students only recorded seven positive cases in the opening of the fall semester.

Chancellor Malatras praised Craig for controlling the situation at the Purchase campus, considering that they are located near New Rochelle, the first COVID-19 hot spot in New York state.

Craig’s appointment was met with pledges of support from the Oneonta mayor and other community leaders.

Repeating His Feat

Craig’s feat of conducting the safe reopening of classes in the SUNY Purchase campus was seen as a model response by school and community officials. His implementation of strict safety protocols for housing, face-coverings, density on campus, and social distancing on campus successfully prevented the virus from spreading.

Craig thanked Malatras and the Oneonta community for the trust they bestowed on him but noted that “success will require an effective partnership with students and families.”

He assured that he will listen to the local government and other stakeholders. Craig’s main priority is to ensure a safe reopening for the spring semester on the Oneonta campus.