SUNY hires former US education secretary John King as chancellor

Nation’s largest higher education system gets its first black and Puerto Rican chancellor, in the hope of translating size into prominence and equity, while also stemming demographic declines

December 6, 2022
Source: State University of New York
Merryl Tisch, chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees; John King, the incoming chancellor of SUNY; and Cesar Perales, vice chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees

The State University of New York system has chosen John King, a former US secretary of education, as its new chancellor, saying it hopes he can help transform the nation’s largest collection of colleges and universities into one of its best.

Dr King, a former state education commissioner in New York and candidate this past year for governor of Maryland, will take over next month as head of the 64-campus, 1.3 million-student system.

He will be SUNY’s first black and first Puerto Rican chancellor, and he has described his childhood experience in New York City – an orphan by age 12 who survived by the embrace of public-school teachers – as central to his career commitment to aid disadvantaged students.

“Public education quite literally saved my life when I lost both of my parents at a young age,” Dr King said in SUNY’s announcement of his appointment, “and I have dedicated my professional career ever since to ensuring that every student has access to the academic opportunities that they need and deserve.”

Yet his previous experience in New York also suggested struggles with political acumen, as he pushed a programme of standardised testing in the state’s schools that angered his Democratic party allies among teacher unions.

The 600,000-member New York State United Teachers – the state-wide union representing instructors at all levels including post-secondary – called in 2014 for Dr King’s removal as state education commissioner over his heavy emphasis on testing and data collection.

The union’s current president, Andy Pallotta, issued a statement on SUNY’s hiring of Dr King that didn’t welcome his return to the state, but promised to work with him on “making sure every New Yorker has access to an affordable and exceptional public education”.

Some parent groups, though, were directly critical of the choice. They include NY State Allies for Public Education, a community organisation that recalled Dr King’s pursuit in New York of “an arduous high-stakes testing regime, and basing teacher evaluation on student test scores”.

SUNY, meanwhile, posted commendations on the choice from several national higher education leaders, including Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education; Eloy Oakley, president of the College Futures Foundation and former chancellor of the California Community Colleges; Thomas Bailey, president of Teachers College at Columbia University; and Lawrence Bacow, the president of Harvard University, where Dr King serves on the Board of Overseers.

New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, called Dr King “an ideal leader for the SUNY system”, given his professional background and New York roots. “I look forward to working with him on our ambitious goal of transforming SUNY into the top state-wide system of public higher education in the country,” the governor said in a statement.

Despite its size, SUNY has long faced a reputational struggle. It has only two campuses in the Association of American Universities, the grouping of top US research institutions, as compared with seven from the University of California system, and both of those rank low on output measures relative to other AAU members. SUNY’s problems have been understood to involve chronic leadership turnover and an atmosphere of limited systemwide cooperation.

Dr King served as US education secretary for the final year of the Obama administration. He finished sixth this past summer in a 10-person race for the Democratic nomination to be Maryland’s governor.

In his initial statements upon being named to head SUNY, Dr King cited the governor’s goal of national prominence, putting particular emphasis on making SUNY accessible and affordable to students, and an economic driver for the state. SUNY has been aggressively engaged in recent years in trying to counter enrolment losses associated with declining numbers of high school graduates in the northeastern US, in part by advertising in neighbouring states to match local public university tuition rates.

The SUNY leadership post has been filled for the past year on an interim basis, since Jim Malatras resigned as part of a sexual harassment scandal that brought down Ms Hochul’s predecessor as New York governor, Andrew Cuomo. Dr Malatras led SUNY for a little over a year, quitting a few months after Mr Cuomo did, after text messages showed that Dr Malatras disparaged one of the women who had accused the governor of sexual harassment.

The SUNY board of trustees unanimously approved Dr King’s appointment after a year-long search. He will replace Deborah Stanley, a former president of SUNY’s Oswego campus, who has been serving since last December as the system’s interim chancellor.

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