Capital Region

Lawmakers denounce SUNY chancellor appointment


CAPITAL — State lawmakers representing the Capital Region this week roundly criticized the appointment of Jim Malatras as the new State University of New York chancellor, citing his close ties to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a circumvented search process. They accused the governor of undermining good governance.

The SUNY Board of Trustees on Friday bypassed a traditional nationwide search to name Malatras, a longtime close aide to Cuomo who had been serving as president of SUNY Empire State College for just over a year, as the new leader of the state’s 64-campus public university system.

Lawmakers in both parties condemned the process and outcome, accusing Cuomo of consolidating control over the state’s higher education system with the help of the SUNY Board of Trustees. While Cuomo appointed a majority of the board members, the board and not the governor appointed Malatras. Cuomo’s office has not addressed concerns about the appointment.

“You look at the circumstances and this is bad, this is bad, this is not the way things are supposed to operate within the SUNY system,” Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said on Monday.

Lawmakers argued a position as critical as SUNY chancellor should involve a national search and questioned whether Malatras could serve with the independence needed in the position.

“It shows the degree to which Governor Cuomo has established far-reaching controls over every aspect of life in the state, and I don’t think it’s healthy for democracy,” Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said Tuesday. “When you are looking for the head of a major university system, you go around the country and look for people that have been successful in public university systems at a high level for quite some time. The chief qualification that Malatras has is his relationship with the governor.”

SUNY professors and students also condemned the lack of an open search or engagement with student, faculty and staff at SUNY schools. On Friday, the SUNY Faculty Senate, SUNY Faculty Council of Community College and SUNY Student Assembly passed a joint resolution of no confidence in the political appointees serving on the Board of Trustees.

Trustees — all but one backed Malatras’ appointment — argued the pandemic and enormous challenges facing higher education called for swift action in naming a leader. They also highlighted Malatras’ years of experience in state government, including positions in SUNY administration, and said he was the most qualified person for the job. Malatras, who earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate from the University at Albany, became the first SUNY graduate to lead the statewide system.

“We need to act with purpose,” Merryl Tisch, chairperson of the Board of Trustees, said Friday as she outlined Malatras’ resume and the rationale of foregoing a typical search process.

An analysis of the board’s recent meetings by the New York Coalition for Open Government, a government transparency advocacy organization, found that the Board of Trustees did not once discuss in public its plans to fill the chancellor vacancy from the time former Chancellor Kristina Johnson announced her resignation on June 8 to last week, when Malatras was appointed.

“I would say it’s a very disturbing process that wasn’t done in any transparent way,” said Paul Wolf, an attorney and president of the Coalition for Open Government. “It’s just hard to believe that for that high-quality of a position you wouldn’t seek resumes in any way.”

Wolf, who reviewed the board’s meetings this year, found that the Board of Trustees often did not properly detail the reason for convening into closed session and suggested the appointment could be challenged legally on those grounds. He said the board should have discussed publicly whether to conduct a lengthy search or to move forward with a faster appointment, giving the public a better sense of policy trade-offs under consideration.

“Pandemic or not, it’s not a good way to conduct the public’s business,” Wolf said. “It hurts the public’s overall view of government and just feeds the perception that the fix is always in.”

Without committing to any specific proposal, lawmakers indicated the recent chancellor appointment may need to be examined more closely or should precipitate changes in how SUNY officials operate more generally.

Santabarbara said lawmakers should look at whether the search could be reopened or if it’s possible to establish more independence on the Board of Trustees. Steck said he had never really thought much about trustees’ appointment process but that maybe now would be the time to do so.

“There are major concerns about political influence here,” Santabarbara said. “This appointment shouldn’t have happened, because there is no reason SUNY couldn’t have operated under an interim chancellor  while they are seeking a new chancellor … It needs a national search and there is no reason they couldn’t do it.”

State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, argued Cuomo “can’t help himself” from imposing his will on every part of state government. Tedisco also highlighted a litany of issues facing the SUNY system, from negotiating staff contracts to lobbying for state funding, that require leadership independent from the governor’s office. He suggested lawmakers could impose a new search timeline on the Board of Trustees.

“We don’t need nepotism or perceived nepotism in the process of choosing a SUNY leaders and this really reeks of that,” Tedisco said of the selection process. “It casts a shadow.”

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