After 700 Students Test Positive, a College President Resigns

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The State University of New York at Oneonta on Thursday announced the abrupt resignation of its president only weeks after it experienced the most severe coronavirus outbreak of any public university in the state.

The departure of the president, Barbara Jean Morris, is one of the most high-profile over the coronavirus crisis, which has thrown many colleges and universities across the country into turmoil as they try to maintain some semblance of campus life during the outbreak.

Last month, more than 700 students at Oneonta tested positive for the virus, causing the shutdown of in-person classes. The outbreak forced state officials to send a virus control crew to the university to keep the spread from reaching the rest of the city, which is in upstate New York.

On social media, posts about students being taken out of dorm rooms in the middle of the night by men in hazmat suits were widely circulated. Photos of students partying in quarantine dorms went viral, drawing the ire of parents, staff members and town residents.

The fallout from the crisis led to a state review, a change of coronavirus protocols throughout the SUNY system and now the resignation of Dr. Morris, who did not offer any public comment on Thursday.

Officials said the university would soon begin the search for a new president. Dennis Craig, who recently served as interim president at SUNY Purchase, was named as a temporary replacement.

Credit…Haley Dimonda

The mayor of Oneonta, Gary Herzig, said: “I think that we all recognize that this was a time where change was needed. It’s a time for a new start.”

In an interview, Mr. Herzig added: “There had been some loss of trust here amongst both the college community and the city community. Trust is everything. Sometimes you need to make changes in order to rebuild trust.”

Although the university did not directly tie Dr. Morris’s resignation to its handling of the outbreak, state and local officials at a news conference on Thursday announcing the change praised the efforts of Mr. Craig, who guided a successful reopening plan at SUNY Purchase, which is in Westchester County, just north of New York City.

SUNY Purchase has reported just seven cases at its campus of more than 4,000 students.

“SUNY Purchase has one of the best plans out of the SUNY system,” the system chancellor, Jim Malatras, said at the news conference. “They brought back about 25 percent of their students and they have had regular testing and a very low positivity rate. President Craig led the way on that.”

Mr. Malatras said Dr. Morris informed them last week of her decision to resign.

When asked if Dr. Morris’s resignation was related to her handling of the virus outbreak, Mr. Malatras skirted the question, saying she resigned of “her own volition.”

“I think everyone in the community would agree that there were problems collectively, but now we want to move forward,” he said.

The outbreak at Oneonta began modestly with only two cases on Aug. 25, but then spread quickly.

Initially, the university tied the cases to a series of parties near campus, which led to five suspensions. But group gatherings off campus were common, students said.

Within days, 29 more positive cases were found. By Aug. 30, the university announced that 105 students — or about 3 percent of the people who were on campus or using campus facilities by then — had tested positive.

By now, more than 700 students had tested positive.

Oneonta, a school of about 6,000 students, has had almost more than double the number of virus cases that any other school in the SUNY system had.

Parents, students and resident assistants were critical of the university’s reopening plan and what some called a lack of communication on the severity of the outbreak. Students were not required to provide a negative test before classes began or once they arrived on campus.

The university said the decision not to test asymptomatic students was based on guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Students who had traveled from a “hot state” or out of the country were asked to quarantine from seven to 14 days, the university had said.

It is unknown if SUNY Oneonta will reopen its campus for in-person classes for the spring semester. Rori Matthews, 20, a SUNY Oneonta student, said she doubted it would.

Ms. Matthews, who is immunocompromised and has asthma, said she was stressed by the rising number of cases and annoyed by how Dr. Morris handled the outbreak.

She said she was surprised by the news because Dr. Morris previously said during a virtual town hall event that she would not resign because of the outbreak.

Now, her resignation has just become another part of a whirlwind year.

“It was the next step in the long road that’s 2020 at SUNY Oneonta,” Ms. Matthews said.

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