Bitterbaum named ‘Trailblazer in Higher Education’

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Bitterbaum named ‘Trailblazer in Higher Education’

06/25/2024 

A statewide publication recently confirmed what members of the SUNY Cortland community have known for years: President Erik J. Bitterbaum is one of New York’s most respected leaders in higher education.

Bitterbaum has been named to the inaugural “Trailblazers in Higher Education” list published by City & State New York, a multimedia news organization that covers local and state policy. The honor recognizes 100 individuals — college and university administrators, labor representatives, philanthropists, leaders of non-profit organizations and others — who have excelled through their work in higher education.

SUNY Cortland’s president since 2003, Bitterbaum has earned admiration across the university’s campus and the State University of New York (SUNY) system thanks to his sharp mind, optimistic outlook and tireless support of students, employees and alumni.

“This type of recognition speaks to the talents of many extraordinary colleagues,” Bitterbaum said. “I like to say that it takes a village, and I have always tried to lead with the belief that students are central to everything that we do — that our university exists to help them reach their greatest human potential. That mindset guides our most impressive work as an institution, and it’s why I am honored to serve as president of SUNY Cortland.” 

Bitterbaum holds the distinction of being the longest-serving president among the SUNY system’s comprehensive campuses. His 21-year tenure is second among 64 SUNY presidents, behind Joyce F. Brown, who has served as president of the Fashion Institute of Technology since 1998.

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Under Bitterbaum’s guidance, SUNY Cortland’s campus has been transformed and the university’s reputation has grown across the state, the nation and the world. Cortland has consistently earned high marks for affordability, value and return on investment, most recently placing No. 45 in the nation among master’s universities, according to Washington Monthly.

Nearly $450 million in new construction and renovation has taken place since Bitterbaum became president, including a state-of-the-art science complex, new teacher education facility, the creation of New York’s “greenest” residence hall and the most comprehensive recreation facility in the SUNY system. 

Commitments to civic engagement, sustainability, study abroad opportunities and undergraduate research have been core components of Bitterbaum’s presidency, along with continued efforts to diversify the campus and support initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Students from underrepresented groups made up roughly 4% of SUNY Cortland’s student population when Bitterbaum arrived in 2003, compared to roughly 25% in 2024. He also implemented the President’s Council on Inclusive Excellence.

Among highlights of Bitterbaum’s SUNY Cortland tenure:

  • He is a former commissioner of the national Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Preparation (CAEP). During his decades as president, SUNY Cortland has maintained the distinction of housing the largest teacher education program among New York’s public universities and one of the most respected programs in the nation.

  • He was a charter signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, continuously approving changes to infrastructure and practices that have helped make SUNY Cortland one of the most environmentally sustainable campuses in the U.S., according to annual ratings by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

  • Bitterbaum has presided over the two largest capital campaigns in SUNY Cortland’s history, raising more than $57 million collectively to help support students, faculty and staff members in their educational pursuits. His tenure also has been marked by consistently strong student enrollment.

  • A former member of the NCAA Division III President’s Council, Bitterbaum is a well-known supporter of an athletics powerhouse that has produced 26 national championship teams and consistently ranks among the nation’s top 30 programs. From 2009 to 2014, SUNY Cortland also partnered with the NFL’s New York Jets to hold five summer training camps on campus, which provided valuable internships for students and boosted the regional economy by an estimated $24 million.

Among SUNY Cortland community members, he is perhaps best-known for attending countless campus events with his wife, Ellen Howard Burton, and offering his constant support.

A biologist who specializes in tropical ornithology, Bitterbaum holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Occidental College and a Ph.D. from the University of Florida. He previously served as president of West Virginia University at Parkersburg and regional vice president at West Virginia University’s main campus.


Above right photo: SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum poses for a photo with a group of students during the university’s Welcome Week activities.


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