Chancellor’s resignation, amid pandemic, stuns SUNY

See ya: In a move that appears to have caught the SUNY Board of Trustees off-guard, SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson -- after just three years on the job and at the height of a budget-crunching global pandemic -- has resigned and accepted a new job.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

State University of New York Chancellor Kristina Johnson has announced her resignation, stepping down to become the new president of The Ohio State University.

Johnson, who became the 13th SUNY chancellor in April 2017 and played a key role in SUNY’s comprehensive response to 2017’s hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico, was unanimously approved as president Wednesday by the OSU Board of Trustees.

She becomes the university’s 16th president, succeeding Ohio State President Michael Drake, who is retiring.

Johnson’s resignation appears to have caught the SUNY system by surprise: In a press release Wednesday, the SUNY Board of Trustees said the chancellor, who’s scheduled to assume her new duties Sept. 1, will continue in her current role “until an interim leadership structure is appointed.”

For sure, others in SUNY’s orbit were stunned – and in some cases stung – by the announcement. Frederick Kowal, president of Albany-based higher-education employee union United University Professions, pulled no punches Wednesday, noting that he was “dismayed and disappointed” by Johnson’s decision, “given its inopportune timing.”

Frederick Kowal: High hopes, unmet.

“[SUNY] is wrestling with how to safely reopen campuses in the fall … [and] faces a financial situation that has gone from precarious to critical because of the pandemic,” Kowal said in a statement.

“SUNY desperately needs steady leadership as campuses plan for the fall, he added. “However, we have heard little from SUNY and almost nothing from the chancellor on this issue.”

Ultimately, Johnson’s abrupt departure caps off an uninspiring turn as chancellor, according to Kowal.

“We had high hopes for Chancellor Johnson when we welcomed her to SUNY in 2017,” the UUP president added. “While we are dismayed at the timing of her departure, we wish her well in her next endeavor.”

Others were more forgiving about Johnson’s resignation, at least publicly, and certainly more praiseful. Merryl Tisch, chairwoman of the SUNY Board of Trustees, trumpeted the chancellor’s strengths on Wednesday and credited her with “propelling our university system to new national heights and recognition.”

“Dr. Johnson has led SUNY with a deep commitment to providing access and opportunity, while ensuring a premier high-quality education for all our students,” Tisch added. “We join all New Yorkers in thanking Dr. Johnson for her service and her tireless commitment to issues of equity and excellence, and we wish her the very best on her new opportunity.”

Austin Ostro: SUNY bigger than Johnson.

Among the accomplishments of the chancellor’s three-year tenure, according to the Board of Trustees, are a 22 percent increase in community college graduation rates and the PRODiG initiative (for “promoting recruitment, opportunity, diversity, inclusion and growth”), which aims to hire 1,000 minority and women STEM faculty members by 2030.

Others were even more flattering in their assessment of Johnson’s brief term. Austin Ostro, president of the SUNY Student Assembly and a SUNY trustee, called the outgoing chancellor “a champion for students across the system’s 64 campuses” and applauded her “inclusive, student-centric and results-oriented approach to leadership.”

Ostro also invoked the COVID-19 pandemic, acknowledging that “this transition of leadership is occurring at a difficult time for the SUNY system” and “students need solid system-level leadership at this critical moment.”

But “SUNY is more than one person,” the Student Assembly president added.

“The strong SUNY leadership team, joined by campus and student leaders from across the system, will work to ensure that we navigate this difficult moment well,” Ostro said. “The Student Assembly looks forward to participating in the process of identifying our next chancellor.

“While we are sad to see her leave,” he added, “SUNY students wish Dr. Johnson all the best in her new role at Ohio State.”