Calls Mount for SUNY Chancellor’s Removal

Jim Malatras has repeatedly faced criticism for his work with the Cuomo administration. Old text messages that show him mocking a former Cuomo aide have prompted demands for his ouster.

December 3, 2021
 
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Jim Malatras became chancellor of the SUNY system in August 2020.

Students and employees at the State University of New York, as well as some state politicians and residents, are calling on Jim Malatras, chancellor of the state system, to resign after the New York attorney general released old text messages that showed Malatras mocking an aide to former New York governor Andrew Cuomo.

The text messages were released as part of an ongoing investigation by Attorney General Letitia James into alleged sexual misconduct by Cuomo. They show Malatras and other ex–Cuomo staffers ridiculing a former aide for calling out a toxic work environment.

A number of students at SUNY campuses across the state have joined the appeals for Malatras’s ouster. The College Democrats, a student-run political group, published a statement Tuesday that called Malatras’s behavior “toxic, unprofessional, and inexcusable.”

“We find the chancellor unfit to lead our great SUNY system, which must uphold itself as an inclusive space for all students and faculty,” the students wrote. “College Democrats of New York call on SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras to resign from his position, and strongly encourage governor [Kathy] Hochul and the SUNY Board of Trustees to remove Malatras and to conduct a thorough, nationwide search for a chancellor should he fail to cooperate.”

The editorial board of The Albany Times Union, which first reported on the texts, asked Malatras to step down—or the system board to fire him—in a letter Thursday.

“Yes, these were private communications. The test of a person’s character, though, is not how he behaves when he knows people are watching, but how he behaves when he thinks they aren’t,” the editorial board wrote. “Mr. Malatras failed that test. He should resign, or be fired.”

State politicians have also joined the fray. Republican U.S. representative Elise Stefanik wrote in a public letter to Hochul that Malatras’s “disgraceful and inexcusable record as a senior aide to former Governor Andrew Cuomo makes him unfit to lead America’s largest comprehensive university system.” Ron Kim, a Democratic state assembly member, also tweeted in support of Malatras’s removal Wednesday.

“National embarrassment,” Kim wrote. “Malatras should have been fired on day one of the new administration.”

‘Cray Emails’

Lindsey Boylan—a former Cuomo aide who later became the first of several women to accuse the governor of sexual misconduct—first spoke publicly about a toxic workplace environment in the governor’s office in May 2019.

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“I was the only mother of young children on senior staff in my last job in politics,” she wrote. “They didn’t ‘get it’ even with all the ‘right’ policies. It was a toxic and demoralizing experience. Now I run my own company full of, especially moms.”

Malatras and other current and former Cuomo staffers mocked Boylan’s tweets in a group text. At the time, Malatras was transitioning from his position as president of SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute to president of Empire State College.

“I thought we outlawed bath salts?” Rich Azzopardi, who worked for Cuomo at the time, wrote to the group. Malatras liked the message and wrote back, “Let’s release some of her cray emails!”

Malatras also responded indirectly to Boylan’s complaints on Twitter.

“I saw someone Twitterbombing about family life on the 2nd Floor to get some attention for unrelated political purposes,” he tweeted at the time. “That’s their prerogative. Is working in the chamber tough? You bet. Long hours? Yes. It should be. But my son was often a welcomed part of it so I could serve.”

In response, Boylan posted another series of tweets that called Malatras tone-deaf, according to the Times Union.

Malatras then texted the group, “Malatras to Boylan: Go f— yourself.”

On Tuesday, Darrell Camp, a reporter with New York Now, asked Malatras if he really told Boylan to “go f— herself.”

“I’ve had strong disagreements with colleagues that I’ve worked with in the past and this exchange from two and a half years ago was one of those times,” Malatras said. “Truth is, I’m not proud of the language that I used to convey my disagreement about my colleague, but I’m proud of my collaborative work in government—I’ve been in government a long time. I’m proud of my work at SUNY and we’ve got a lot of work to do that’s keeping my focus.”

Malatras did not apologize for what he said in the texts, instead saying, “I stand by the things I say. You can always say things a little better.” He should have handled the disagreement in “a more collaborative matter,” he said.

On Tuesday, a SUNY spokesperson told the Times Union that Malatras was not involved in the Cuomo administration’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct. Representatives for SUNY did not respond to multiple requests for comment Thursday.

Boylan spoke publicly about the newly released text messages Thursday.

“Apparently @jimmalatras intended to ‘drive me nuts,’ by gaslighting me about my lived experience as a mom in that toxic place,” Boylan tweeted. “But I never would have seen his tweets if other of our female colleagues hadn’t been disturbed and affected by what he was doing and alerted me.”

This is not the first time Malatras has landed in hot water because of his ties to the Cuomo administration. The day he was appointed to the chancellorship, the SUNY Faculty Senate voted no confidence in the system’s board. Critics of his selection complained that he had little experience in higher education, that the board did not conduct a national search and that Malatras would give the governor’s office undue influence over the system.

Months later, Malatras fiercely defended a report by the New York State Department of Health that excused the Cuomo administration after many nursing home residents died of COVID-19. He was also questioned by investigators about how many working hours he spent editing Cuomo’s personal memoir.

The SUNY Board of Trustees, which will ultimately decide whether Malatras stays or goes, cannot ignore the issue, said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a former president of George Washington University and author of Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It.

“It’s not about [Malatras], it’s about the job,” Trachtenberg said. “If your students are against you and your faculty are against you and your board of trustees are skeptical—whether that’s fair or just—the individual does not come first. The institution comes first.”

Even if the board decides Malatras shouldn’t lose his job over the text messages, it will be difficult for the chancellor to lead if he’s lost the trust of employees and students, Trachtenberg said.

“The question is—has it diminished his capacity to serve in a leadership position at a university?” Trachtenberg said. “It’s not a question of punishing him—it’s a question of serving the institution.”

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