Governor's Adviser Lined Up to Lead SUNY

The State University of New York Board of Trustees will likely forgo a national search for a new chancellor despite faculty opposition.

August 21, 2020
 
Stefani Reynolds/Stringer via Getty Images
Jim Malatras, left, and Governor Andrew Cuomo

The State University of New York Board of Trustees is expected to appoint Jim Malatras as the system's chancellor today, forgoing a national search to fill the open position with a key confidant of New York governor Andrew Cuomo.

Malatras -- president of SUNY Empire State College and a key player on Cuomo’s coronavirus task force -- would succeed Kristina Johnson, who announced in June she was leaving the 64-campus university system to serve as president of Ohio State University. She begins her new role Sept. 1.

The likely appointment has angered faculty members. They see the move as a political appointment and have advocated for a transparent, thoughtful national search, which they say the system has done in the past. Others have praised the board’s expected choice, encouraged by his good relationship with the governor and experience with K-12 and higher education.

Malatras has not publicly commented on his potential appointment. He did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

At 64 campuses and 468,000 students, SUNY is one of the largest public university systems in the country. It's also a key test case for the free college movement, as it's covered under Cuomo's Excelsior Scholarship, a program announced in 2017 offering free tuition to New York students at public two- and four-year institutions who agree to certain terms.

Peter Knuepfer, associate professor of geology and environmental studies at SUNY Binghamton University and former SUNY Faculty Senate president, is uneasy about the board’s anticipated choice. A thorough, transparent search is critical for any leadership decision, he said.

“To be quite frank, I think one of the most important things that needs to be done anytime we’re looking for senior leadership -- either on a campus or for a system -- is to engage people,” he said. “Even if it has to be a closed search, you’re still engaging key members and key constituencies in evaluating the person who would be appointed to the position.”

Knuepfer compared the decision to a recent failed search to replace the University of Wisconsin system president. That search was opaque from the start, and when the search committee advanced only one finalist -- the then-president of the University of Alaska system, Jim Johnsen -- faculty and students slammed the process and called for a new search. Johnsen withdrew his candidacy soon after, leaving the system without a finalist and back at square one.

The SUNY Faculty Council of Community Colleges and the SUNY Faculty Senate -- representing all of the system's community colleges, medical centers, four-year colleges and technical colleges -- published a joint statement criticizing the board’s abandonment of a national search and encouraging a more transparent selection process.

“Secrecy has increasingly become the modus operandi of search committees, particularly for senior leadership. This is anathema to our philosophy of inclusive shared governance for SUNY as an institution,” the statement reads. “Conversely, when a final group of candidates has been identified by the search committee, it is important that candidates be vetted beyond the search committee so that a broader cross-section of parties can offer their own insights of the finalists. More eyes may see something about candidates that may not have been clear to the search committee, which is why inclusivity of the process is vital.”

Critics are also wary of Malatras’s close ties to the governor. Prior to becoming president at Empire State, he worked as director of state operations for Cuomo. Before that he was deputy secretary for policy management for the governor. Malatras also served as deputy director of policy on Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign. While his tenure at Empire State has so far been brief, Malatras has an education policy background. He was deeply involved in crafting the Excelsior program and is well versed in public student aid programs in New York and across the country.

“In this case, [our concern] is not so much about Jim himself -- his experience level in higher ed notwithstanding -- it’s about choosing someone who frankly owes much of their career to a particular politician,” Knuepfer said.

Nancy Zimpher, former SUNY chancellor, believes people would still have concerns about a chancellor’s ties to the governor’s office if the board had conducted a national search. All chancellors struggle to balance a productive relationship with the state government and the independence of the public college system, she said.

“This will, in a way, test Jim’s ability to separate when necessary and collaborate when important,” she said. “I feel like I was under the same pressure. People would say, ‘Did the governor tell you to do that?’”

The board isn’t without ties to the Cuomo administration, either. New York's governor holds appointment power for the system board, and all 15 current members have been appointed by Cuomo.

Students and faculty have some representation on the board. Two faculty members, the SUNY Faculty Council of Community Colleges president and the SUNY Faculty Senate president, serve as trustees, and one student sits on the board. The student trustee has voting power, the faculty trustees do not. All three were included on the search committee for Johnson, according to the faculty’s joint statement. (This article has been updated to state that the student trustee has voting power on the SUNY board.)

Traditional national searches are never an easy task to pull off, but they’ve become especially complicated amid the pandemic. While a search may be ideal, many sitting presidents are uneasy about leaving their institution in the middle of a crisis, and going without solid leadership through the fall could hinder SUNY’s response to the pandemic.

Zimpher is confident the board is making a good decision.

“I know this board, and I know that they are making a thoughtful decision and that they’ve weighed the pros and cons,” she said.

SUNY declined to comment. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Zimpher emphasized that Malatras’s appointment is still speculation.

“Any appointment of a president and chancellor is never done until it’s done,” she said.

Knuepfer said that if the board does decide to appoint Malatras, the faculty is prepared to pass a vote of no confidence in the board.

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