SUNY Union Divided Over Chancellor

A faction within the faculty union is calling for Jim Malatras to resign, days after the union president released a strong statement of support for the chancellor.

December 7, 2021
 
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The SUNY Board of Trustees and faculty union president have voiced their support for Jim Malatras, chancellor of SUNY.

State University of New York faculty members are divided over whether Jim Malatras, chancellor of the system, should stay or go.

The Member Action Coalition—a faction of SUNY’s statewide faculty union, United University Professions—published a statement Monday calling on Malatras to resign or for the system’s Board of Trustees to fire him. The coalition is the latest group to call for Malatras’s ouster after the New York attorney general released text messages that showed Malatras mocking a former Andrew Cuomo administration aide while he was president of Empire State College.

The coalition made a clear break with UUP president Frederick Kowal, who—like the SUNY Board of Trusteesput out a statement in support of Malatras last week.

“We look forward to continuing our work with Chancellor Malatras in building a strong and vibrant SUNY,” Kowal wrote Friday. “The relationship we have forged with the Chancellor will enable us to work closely to garner necessary operating funding for our campuses and the SUNY hospitals.”

Union members were not told that Kowal would release a statement of support for Malatras, according to a member of the Member Action Coalition who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. They found out about it when SUNY leadership published it alongside the board’s statement.

Coalition members had not planned to release a formal letter of their own, but they decided to do so because Kowal’s statement did not reflect their views.

“The Board of Trustees statement dismissing the evidence of the Chancellor’s participation in the toxic, bullying atmosphere of Governor Cuomo’s administration betrays those women who have stepped forward to speak truth to power, and also continues to lay bare the Board’s troubling lack of independence from the Governor’s office,” the coalition statement read. “Such political indebtedness subverts the role that they should play in promoting and defending public higher education, as well as the fundamental principle of shared governance across the system.”

The coalition represents more than 150 faculty members in the SUNY system and includes between 60 and 70 active members. UUP represents more than 37,000 system employees.

A few dozen union members reached out to Kowal directly to express their dissatisfaction with the UUP statement, Kowal said. The Board of Trustees asked him and other union leaders to "provide a statement that would characterize our working relationship with the chancellor" on short notice Friday afternoon, according to Kowal. Taking a position that represents all union members is difficult. 

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"We welcome our members expressing their criticism of our positions when we take them. It is not easy in this day and age to try to reflect and represent the diverse union of 37,000 members," Kowal said. 

The Member Action Coalition has criticized the Board of Trustees before. The group put out a statement of no confidence in the board after it opted not to conduct a national search and appointed Malatras chancellor in August 2020.

Other state legislators and community members called for Malatras’s removal Monday. Deborah Glick, a Democratic state assembly member, said in a letter Monday that it would be “most appropriate” for him to step down.

“It is important that the country’s largest university system search for a true academic leader who can set SUNY on a course to continue to attract a diverse and talented student body to its superb and varied colleges,” Glick wrote.

Glick’s counterpart in the New York State Senate, Democrat Toby Ann Stavisky, declined to weigh in on the issue.

The SUNY Student Assembly and Faculty Council of Community Colleges have also called for Malatras to resign.

(This story has been updated to add comments from Kowal.)

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