Jim Malatras, president of SUNY Empire State College and a close aid to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on Friday was appointed to lead the state’s system of 64 public universities and colleges.
Foregoing a traditional search, the SUNY Board of Trustees elevated Malatras to take charge during a confluence of national crises that have shaken higher education to its core. Hundreds of thousands of SUNY students are set to start this school year remotely or on campuses regulated by countless new health and safety precautions.
Board members acknowledged bypassing a traditional search of candidates across the country and argued SUNY could wait no longer to name a new leader and that Malatras’ years of experience in state government and academic institutions uniquely prepared him for the role. The resolution naming Malatras to the role – the first SUNY alum to hold it – explicitly highlighted the “unprecedented” nature of the challenges facing the higher education system:
“These monumental challenges necessitate swift action by the Board of Trustees to appoint a new chancellor.”
“We need to act with purpose,” said Merryl Tisch, chair of the SUNY Board of Trustees, as she listed Malatras long resume of positions in state government. “We need a chancellor who knows New York in terms of governance, budget and regionalism, which is at the core of all that happens in this state.”
But the appointment did not come without controversy: board member Cary Staller cast the lone dissenting vote against the appointment, arguing the lack of a search bypassed important input from students, faculty and others in the broader SUNY community.
“A typical search process is inclusive and draws on the collective wisdom of leaders from a broad perspective,” Staller said.
Non-voting members who represent the faculty members of SUNY’s universities and community college, as well as the student assembly, also criticized the process and indicated they opposed the appointment without a fuller search. After the meeting, the SUNY Faculty Senate, SUNY Faculty Council of Community Colleges and SUNY Student Assembly passed a joint resolution of no confidence in the political appointees serving on the Board of Trustees, arguing the board superceded transparent and shared governance, set a bad precedent for campuses looking for leaders and neglected goals of growing diversity among SUNY leaders.
“The current budget and health crises do not necessiatate the abandonment of shared governance,” according to the no-confidence resolution. “(The organizations) express no confidence in the politically appointed members of the SUNY Board of Trustees who voted in favor of the appointment of the 14th chancellor without conducting a search that meets standards of shared governance and effective leadership of our University System.”
In a statement released after Malatras’ appointment, the union representing faculty across the SUNY system welcomed Malatras to the role and struck a conciliatory note.
“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 (United University Professions) – to lead SUNY through the current challenges of a safe reopening and assure that SUNY can continue to provide high quality, accessible public education,” Frederick Kowal, president of the union, said in a statement.
Malatras – who earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in political science from the University at Albany – took over as president at the Saratoga-based SUNY Empire State College just over a year ago, following a stint as president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government research center. But Malatras has also spent much of the last six months sitting beside Cuomo at daily coronavirus press briefings as a key adviser throughout the pandemic.
Malatras has also served a director of state operations under Cuomo, vice chancellor for policy and chief of staff in SUNY central administration and executive director for state policy and legislative affairs when Cuomo served as state attorney general.
In accepting the new position, Malatras highlighted the important role SUNY has played in his life and higher education’s ability to improve so many lives. He promised to work across the SUNY system to strengthen it financially and operationally, while expanding access to higher education, promoting diversity and inclusion and improving on the system’s research efforts. Malatras will make a $450,000 salary in the role and plans to teach a course at SUNY Empire State College, where he will retain a professorship.
“SUNY is the rising tide that can lift all boats of opportunity, so let’s work together to give everyone a chance at a seat on one of those boats,” he said Friday. “SUNY has lifted me up, giving a kid from a working class family a shot to work at the high level of public service.”