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The State University of New York Board of Trustees voted Friday to appoint Jim Malatras -- president of SUNY Empire State College and longtime adviser to Governor Andrew Cuomo -- as the next SUNY chancellor. He will officially take up the position Aug. 31.
The board made the appointment in lieu of a national search to replace outgoing chancellor Kristina Johnson, angering faculty and students who wanted more insight and influence in the selection process. Supporters of Malatras’s appointment praise his relationship with Cuomo and experience in education policy.
Critics are worried about Malatras’s inexperience leading higher education institutions and about expanding Cuomo’s influence on the public college system. The governor’s office appoints SUNY board members, and currently all 15 governor-appointed board members have been picked by Cuomo.
In response to concerns about his relationship with Cuomo, Malatras said he is "beholden to the students of the State University of New York system."
SUNY board chairman Merryl Tisch and vice chairman Cesar Perales applauded the board’s decision in a statement.
“Higher education is facing a critical moment in our history amplified by a pandemic that has nearly paralyzed our nation, and now, more than ever, we need a visionary leader and one with deep financial and operational expertise to face our challenges head on, and that is exactly what we have with Dr. Malatras,” Tisch and Perales wrote. “With his proven experience, deep connection with our campuses as a SUNY graduate, and a strong relationship with Governor Cuomo and the Legislature, Dr. Malatras is ready and well positioned to tackle a wide range of issues impacting our campuses now, while implementing a vision of affordability, accessibility for all, and expanding SUNY’s prominence as a world-renowned institution.”
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing diversity in all areas of the SUNY system and righting the system's finances are his first priorities, Malatras said.
Malatras asked the board for a 25 percent pay cut. His salary will be $450,000 with a $60,000 housing allowance. Johnson, his predecessor who is leaving to lead Ohio State University, received a $560,000 salary, a $96,000 housing allowance and a transportation allowance.
The $170,000 difference should be redirected each year to the SUNY Educational Opportunity Program for underrepresented students and the PRODiG program to increase faculty diversity across SUNY campuses, Malatras requested.
As promised the day before the appointment, the SUNY University Faculty Senate and Faculty Council of Community Colleges voted no confidence in the board members who voted in favor of Malatras’s appointment. This excludes trustee Cary Staller -- who was first appointed to the board before Cuomo was governor but was reappointed by him in 2015 -- who voted against Malatras's appointment, and Jahad Hoyte, student trustee, who abstained.
The last time the Faculty Senate passed a vote of no confidence in the board was 1999, when the board passed a new general education policy that “ignored a researched study by shared governance bodies,” the Senate said in its statement.
“Yes, it’s an extraordinary moment,” Gwen Kay, Faculty Senate president, said in a press release. “But yes, we're worried about precedent being set. We are making a statement that this has been [contrary] to all good rules of shared governance, or good governance, in academic institutions.”
Kay said the student assembly also supports the Faculty Senate’s vote of no confidence.
Asked how he'll respond to faculty and student complaints about the selection process, Malatras said he would "roll up his sleeves and get to work."
"I can't control the process that I was part of as the applicant," he said. "But like I did when I first became the president of Empire State College, I engage the broader community, the faculty, students, the professional staff and others, because in higher education and especially academia, shared governance really is the model."
Frederick Kowal -- president of United University Professors, the union representing many SUNY faculty and staff members -- put out a statement in support of the board’s decision Friday.
“UUP welcomes Dr. Malatras as he steps up to lead the nation’s largest public higher education system, and we look forward to working with him to make SUNY a leader in dealing with the many crises facing our state and nation,” Kowal wrote. “Though we are disappointed that the SUNY Board of Trustees chose not to undertake a nationwide search for a new chancellor, we trust that Dr. Malatras appreciates the need for a collaborative relationship with UUP -- to lead SUNY through the current challenge of a safe reopening and assure that SUNY can continue to provide high quality, accessible public education.”