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John B. King brings a wealth of experience as SUNY’s next leader, including a stint as education secretary during the Obama administration.

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Former U.S. education secretary John B. King Jr. will be the next chancellor of the State University of New York system, SUNY officials announced Monday.

King led the U.S. Department of Education from January 2016 to January 2017 after previously serving as acting deputy secretary under Arne Duncan. Prior to joining the Department of Education during the Obama administration, King was the New York State education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

Following his stint at the Department of Education, King served as president and CEO of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization focused on equitable academic achievement.

Last year King ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat in Maryland’s gubernatorial election, losing in the primary.

Now he’ll step into the top spot in New York’s 64-campus public education system, replacing interim chancellor Deborah Stanley, who has led SUNY following the resignation of Jim Malatras in late 2021. Malatras stepped down amid allegations of a toxic management style and controversy over his close ties to disgraced former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, for whom he previously worked.

King is set to begin his role at SUNY next month.

The Announcement

“I am humbled and honored to accept the position of chancellor and to advance Governor Kathy Hochul’s vision to make SUNY the best statewide system of public higher education in our nation,” King said in a statement Monday. “Public education quite literally saved my life when I lost both of my parents at a young age, and I have dedicated my professional career ever since to ensuring that every student has access to the academic opportunities that they need and deserve. I look forward to working with all members of our campus communities, lawmakers, and stakeholders to bring SUNY to new heights and maximize its potential.”

In announcing the hire, SUNY leaders praised King for his lengthy résumé in education.

“As we work to continue to transform SUNY to meet the needs of the next generation of students and New York’s economy, we need a leader who understands how to balance striving for both excellence and equity,” Merryl H. Tisch, chair of the SUNY Board of Trustees, said in a statement. “John King has a proven record of doing both.”

SUNY students also championed the hire.

“A lifelong educator and former U.S. Secretary of Education, Dr. King has proven over his long career that he prioritizes some of the core issues that matter most to us as students. As student debt has grown over the past few decades into a national crisis, he has shown time and again that he prioritizes college affordability as a platform for future success, closing opportunity gaps for students of color and low-income students, and excellence in education,” SUNY Student Assembly president Alexandria Chun said in an emailed statement following the announcement.

Frederick E. Kowal, president of United University Professions, the union that represents SUNY faculty, congratulated King in a statement that praised his past work on underrepresented students while emphasizing the need for more funding for the system.

“UUP shares Dr. King’s commitment to equity and excellence for all students and making a college education affordable and accessible. These are attributes we believe SUNY’s new chancellor must have to be effective,” Kowal said in an emailed statement. “We are hopeful that Dr. King, a Brooklyn native, will be a strong advocate for SUNY, especially when it comes to securing more state funding for our public higher education system and our public teaching hospitals. A fully funded SUNY system will support the working conditions that UUP-represented employees deserve and guarantee that our students and patients will receive the rigorous education, high-quality academic services, and excellent health care that they are entitled to.”

Kowal said UUP would be a “strong ally” in helping King reach those goals.

As education commissioner, King clashed with parents on Common Core curriculum standards and other issues, which his critics made clear they haven’t forgotten.

“SUNY Faculty and students should be forewarned!” Lisa Rudley, the executive director of NY State Allies for Public Education, said in a statement. “John King consistently ignored the legitimate concerns of parents and teachers regarding the policies he pursued as NY State Education Commissioner, by rewriting the standards, imposing an arduous high stakes testing regime, and basing teacher evaluation on student test scores, none of which had any research behind it and all of which undermined the quality of education in our public schools. This led to a no-confidence vote of the state teachers union, and if the state’s parents had been able to carry out such a vote, you can be sure they would have done so as well.”

King’s Résumé

Before joining the Department of Education, King spent most of his career in K-12 education. He initially taught history before becoming New York State education commissioner, overseeing a vast number of K-12 schools and higher education institutions.

As secretary of education, King criticized inequality in higher education, calling out wealthy institutions for not graduating greater numbers of low-income students. King also clashed with for-profit colleges, a frequent target of the Obama administration, which sought to rein in common abuses within the sector that left many students with heavy debt and credentials of questionable value. That battle has continued under Joe Biden’s administration.

In his gubernatorial run in Maryland, King called for universal preschool access for 3- and 4-year-olds and a starting salary of $60,000 for teachers. King’s agenda also included a “blueprint for higher education” that sought to have 70 percent of state residents earn a degree or credential by 2030. King fared poorly in the Democratic primary, earning a sixth-place finish.

The Reactions

Outside the SUNY system, higher education observers hailed the hire.

“John King is one of America’s premier educators and a tireless force for expanding student access and success. He is the perfect choice to lead @SUNY, one of this country’s most effective engines of economic and social mobility,” Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, a major higher education lobbying group, said in a statement on Twitter.

New York’s Democratic governor, Kathy Hochul, also praised the hire, tweeting, “Congratulations @JohnBKing on being appointed @SUNY Chancellor! With his New York roots & his work as Secretary of Education under President Obama, I know he’ll be an outstanding leader as we work together to make SUNY the best public higher education system in the nation.”

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