EDITORIAL: This was no way to select a SUNY chancellor


So apparently, the only person in the entire United States of America qualified to be chancellor of the State University of New York — with its 64 campuses, 424,000 students and 2.1 million adult learners — is the president of a small state college and, coincidentally, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Not someone who’s headed up a university system in another state.

Not someone with decades of experience managing another massive, complex educational institution.

Not someone else within the state educational system who’s been working his or her way up the ranks.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe SUNY Empire State College President Jim Malatras — who once served as director of state operations for the governor, managing the day-to-day operations of the state — is indeed the best person for the job.

But we’ll never know, will we?

That’s because the SUNY Board of Trustees didn’t bother to go through an extensive interview process and tap a pool of potentially hundreds of qualified applicants from around the country.

Instead — using the COVID crisis and the need to get someone in the position quickly as excuses — the board largely appointed by Cuomo decided to take the unusual step of forgoing a national search to fill this major educational position and simply appointed Malatras to the position on Friday.

Already, the process — or lack thereof — is getting pushback from the SUNY college community.

Almost immediately after the appointment was announced, faculty representatives for SUNY’s universities and community colleges announced a vote of “no confidence” in 15 Cuomo-appointed members of the SUNY Board of Trustees, excepting one trustee who supported the broader search. 

A representative of the SUNY student body joined the faculty in the no-confidence vote.

So even before he gets a chance to cash the first check of his new $450,000 annual salary, Malatras is behind the eight-ball with a significant constituency under his purview.

If you don’t have faculty backing in any educational institution, it’s difficult to get a lot done.

And given how much of a special role faculty will play in the way the SUNY colleges educate students in the wake of the COVID crisis, that’s a pretty important group to have upset with you on your very first day.

How effective will Malatras be in his new post if the faculty and student body think his selection was fixed because of his close connection to the governor?

Trustees defended their selection by saying Malatras is eminently qualified for the role, given his experience in higher education and state government. And they say they potentially saved the financially strapped state tens of thousands of dollars by not conducting a national search.

The excuses are cop-outs.

They could have saved money and time, and still worked within the confines of the COVID restrictions, by first sorting out the resumes, then having potential candidates interview remotely on a platform such as Zoom, before bringing in the top two or three leading candidates for in-person interviews with trustees and representatives from faculty, the student body, SUNY administrators, lawmakers and others. 

If you’re hiring a lower-level staffer, fine, skip a major search. But you can’t do it for a job like this. Not for a job that will play such a significant role in the lives and fortunes of so many stakeholders.

Those who are affected by SUNY, those who must buy into the chancellor’s policies and actions — particularly students and faculty — have to be able to trust the process that led to the appointment. They have to know the person selected to lead their institution wasn’t just another patronage appointment.

They have to know that a diverse slate of qualified candidates — including women and persons of color — was identified, interviewed and vetted, and that the person who finally got the job was the one who rose to the top.

If in the end that turned out to be Malatras, great. If it turned out to be someone else, also great.

Either way, the university system and all who are affected by it would have benefited greatly from trustees having put in the best effort to find the best candidate, not just the convenient candidate. Instead, trustees short-circuited a proven and effective selection process, and chose a reasonably plausible candidate whose appointment reeks of cronyism.

As New Yorkers, we have a right to be disappointed.

But we shouldn’t be surprised.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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