SUNY looks inward, taps ex-policy wonk as chancellor

Steady climb: Jim Malatras has gone from University at Albany postgrad to state policymaker to SUNY chancellor in 12 short years.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

After a relatively brief search for a successor to former Chancellor Kristina Johnson, SUNY has found its new head honcho – inside SUNY.

Jim Malatras is more a veteran of Albany’s corridors of power than the State University of New York system – his résumé includes director of state operations and deputy secretary for policy management under Gov. Andrew Cuomo – though he is the first SUNY graduate to take the reins.

About a dozen years go, he also served briefly as vice chancellor and chief operating officer under former SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher (he was also Zimpher’s chief of staff); most recently he has been president of SUNY Empire State College, a position he accepted (just 15 months ago) after two-plus years at the helm of the Rockefeller Institute of Government.

It’s been a meteoric (and only partially education-focused) rise for the 2008 PhD (political science, University at Albany), but these are qualifications aplenty for SUNY’s new leader, according to a joint statement from SUNY Chairwoman Merryl Tisch and Vice Chairman Cesar Perales.

Among the new chancellor’s attributes, according to Tisch and Perales, are “proven experience, deep connection with our campuses as a SUNY graduate and a strong relationship with Gov. Cuomo and the legislature.”

Out with the old: Tisch (left) and Perales (right) are pleased with their choice to succeed Johnson (center).

“Dr. Malatras is ready and well-positioned to tackle a wide range of issues impacting our campuses now, while implementing a vision of affordability [and] accessibility for all,” they added. “We are fortunate to have been able to select him … and have no doubt he will deliver results.”

Right off the bat, the chancellor-elect – who officially assumes his new duties Aug. 31 – is delivering cost savings and a direct boost for SUNY equal-opportunity programs. Malatras “has asked the Board of Trustees for a 25 percent pay cut,” according to SUNY, reducing his annual salary to $450,000 (plus a $60,000 housing allowance) and redirecting the $170,000 savings to the State University’s Educational Opportunity Program, which supports underrepresented students, and SUNY’s PRODiG program, which aims to increase system-wide faculty diversity.

Malatras’ quick rise also cancels what would have been “a costly and lengthy search process,” according to SUNY, which noted the “clear direction” of the Board of Trustees to “appoint a leader who could hit the ground running” following Johnson’s surprise resignation in June.

While avoiding a longer, likely global search, the trustees did take it down to the wire: Johnson, who agreed to remain on until a successor was named, is scheduled to assume her new duties as president of The Ohio State University next week.

When she does, her old office will already be occupied by Malatras, who called it “an incredible honor to lead the largest comprehensive system of public higher education” in the nation, including 64 distinct campuses handing out more than 96,000 annual degrees and generating some $26.8 billion in statewide annual economic impact.

“I am a proud product of the SUNY system, having earned my undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees from SUNY institutions,” the new chancellor said. “I believe in the power of public education to unlock the doors of opportunity and will work tirelessly to make it accessible to all who seek it.

“Job One is our students, who drive and inspire everything we do,” Malatras added. “I look forward to working with the brightest and most dedicated educators in the country to meet the challenges of this moment, and beyond.”