Teacher’s pet: Can Cuomo’s right-hand man save SUNY?

A few things made the 43-year-old Jim Malatras an unlikely choice to lead the State University of New York. There is his youth, for one, and the fact that he is the first SUNY graduate to ever become its leader – and then there is the way that he got the job.

Past SUNY chancellors were typically hired through national searches for candidates with a diverse range of experiences as academic leaders, military officers and government officials. SUNY’s board of trustees, however, only considered Malatras as a potential replacement to former Chancellor Kristina Johnson, who is now the president of Ohio State University. 

What mattered most in the hiring of Malatras appears to be his ties to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appointed 13 out of the 15 trustees. The appointment alarmed faculty and students for a few reasons. Giving a $450,000 executive job to a white man without considering other candidates was unethical, they said. Plus, the opaque hiring process set a precedent for excluding faculty and students in future decisions. The SUNY Student Assembly, the University Faculty Senate and the Faculty Council of Community Colleges all voted “no confidence” in the Aug. 24 decision to hire Malatras. 

Yet, the impending reopening of the 64-campus university system made some skeptics willing to give Malatras a chance. “We felt that the arrival of a chancellor who would take charge immediately was an appropriate step,” United University Professions President Frederick Kowal, whose union represents SUNY faculty and staff, said in an interview. “The concern that many of us had is that the appointment of Dr. Malatras would mean that the governor would have total control over SUNY, but, having said that, he has a very unique background.”

Malatras had spent the past year as the president of Empire State College, a SUNY school with a focus on virtual learning across 33 physical sites. Years ago, he spent a year as chief of staff to former SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. But the Catskills native – who received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in political science from the University at Albany – isn’t known as an academic administrator. He made his name by rising through the ranks as a longtime policy adviser and state operations director for Cuomo. Though Malatras left the governor’s office nearly three years ago, his recurring appearances at the governor’s daily coronavirus briefings have demonstrated in recent months just how close the two men still remain.

Now, Malatras, a longtime Albany insider, has to usher the sprawling university system through a deadly pandemic and fiscal uncertainty, while addressing concerns that he is just an extension of the governor. 

The appointment alarmed faculty and students. Giving a $450,000 executive job to a white man without considering other candidates was unethical, they said.

SUNY is a vast academic ecosystem that in a normal year would serve more than 700,000 students at community colleges, four-year colleges and graduate universities. Like many public university systems, SUNY cultivates a reputation as a driver of the state economy as well as an academic ladder into the middle class for working-class New Yorkers at just a fraction of the cost of private schools. 

But the pandemic has already cost the university $400 million in revenue as of last June, SUNY Chief Operating Officer Robert Megna told state lawmakers in July. That revenue shortfall could grow to $1 billion by the end of the year. About 30% of its approximately $12 billion annual revenue comes from the state, but the coronavirus pandemic could mean a 25% cut in that support. Federal intervention would be needed in order to overcome the crisis, according to Megna, a former head of the state Division of the Budget under Cuomo. “The State – in fact no state – has these kinds of resources,” he added in his July statement to the Legislature.

Billions in new federal aid appeared increasingly out of reach by the time that Malatras officially began his position on Aug. 31, meaning that – from a fiscal standpoint – reopening campuses has become more important than ever. Student tuition is the third biggest source of revenue for SUNY, after the state aid and university hospital revenues – and SUNY refunded millions of it when campuses shut down earlier in the year. Reviving tuition as a funding stream depends to a significant extent on resuming in-person education, especially in academic disciplines that require hands-on learning in settings like sciences labs.

“The concern that many of us had is that the appointment of Dr. Malatras would mean that the governor would have total control over SUNY, but, having said that, he has a very unique background.” – United University Professions President Frederick Kowal

SUNY campuses planned for a hybrid model this fall that limits in-person classes while allowing campus life to continue with some restrictions. Private universities like Columbia University and New York University have also adopted this approach, as have public universities in Ohio and Minnesota. The 23-campus California State University is the only major state university system that is going fully remote this fall. The University of North Carolina, which shut down in-person classes at its Chapel Hill campus in August just a few days after reopening, is a cautionary tale of what can happen to schools that do not implement adequate public health controls as they reopen. 

Like other areas of the country, SUNY has struggled to control the spread of the coronavirus ever since students began returning to campuses in mid-August. As of Sept. 9, an estimated 1,110 students had already contracted the coronavirus in the past two weeks, according to SUNY data. At least one university employee has died and in-person classes at SUNY Oneonta have already been canceled for the year. The same could happen at other SUNY campuses at Albany, Buffalo, Oswego and Fredonia, which continue to see surges in reported cases.

In some ways, Malatras’ approach one week into the job resembles the state response he helped form earlier in the year. This includes the new online database he announced with the governor that tracks university coronavirus infections. Then there are Malatras’ media appearances, in which he has echoed the governor, saying that unless students stop partying, “the beast that is COVID-19” cannot be beaten. Beyond the similarities of their leadership styles is a general emphasis on boosting the testing, tracing and isolating of cases through pandemic-fighting high-tech gadgetry and partnerships among SUNY institutions, private industry and public agencies. Malatras’ new initiative to conduct at least 105,000 tests each week across the system is one example. Another is a newly-acquired machine that will allow health officials at SUNY Upstate Medical University to screen wastewater from people at one of its residential facilities for the virus, an approach that helped the private Syracuse University identify a dorm-based viral cluster in early September. 

Malatras, like Cuomo, presents the pandemic as a referendum on the ability of public officials to get things done. “We want to make sure that the plans that people put on paper are being executed,” Malatras said in an interview one week into his new job. “You can’t have this get out of control everywhere, or you will lose the confidence of students and you will lose the confidence of the parents.” And, like for the governor – whose approval ratings have skyrocketed in the past six months – a public health emergency offers Malatras a way to build support among faculty, students and staff based on his experience in state government.

“There’s no learning curve,” Kowal said of Malatras’ transition into leading the university. Unlike former Chancellor Kristina Johnson, who Kowal described as unfamiliar in the ways of New York state government, the union leader was beginning to see how her successor would be better able to fight for policy priorities like restoring state funding cuts to university hospitals and securing more state aid overall. “I remain optimistic that we’re going to be able to develop the means by which we can fix or meet all of the challenges facing SUNY.” 

“He is a product of SUNY, and hopefully the old school ties will make him an advocate in a way that past chancellors have not been because they were not part of the governor’s inner circle.” – Assembly Member Deborah Glick

Containing the coronavirus is one thing, but addressing the university’s fiscal problems by restoring the flow of tuition still leaves SUNY hundreds of millions of dollars short in its current fiscal year. 

The university began implementing a hiring freeze (Malatras being one notable exception) back in May, halted construction projects and otherwise tried to trim costs as the state faces a $14.5 billion revenue shortfall. Individual campuses are increasingly feeling the budget crunch. “It could become significantly worse,” Maurie McInnis, president of Stony Brook University, said of the university’s $110 million funding shortfall in a mid-August letter to faculty and staff first reported by Newsday. One unnamed university employee blamed the governor in a letter to a local media outlet in the Hudson Valley. “I fear SUNY New Paltz will not survive as the pillar of our community, as we all have come to know it,” the person wrote. “Cuomo needs to act now.”

With political pressure on the governor building, advocates of more state support for public universities hope that Malatras can secure money from Cuomo more than competing agencies can. “He is a product of SUNY, and hopefully the old school ties will make him an advocate in a way that past chancellors have not been because they were not part of the governor’s inner circle,” said Assembly Member Deborah Glick, chair of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education. She added that the upcoming state budget process, details of which typically emerge after Thanksgiving each year, will offer the first real test of how Malatras’ close relationship with the governor affects the bottom line at SUNY.

The three-term governor also has significant parts of his legacy already invested in the state university system. His upstate development plan has leaned on SUNY’s science research programs, including big investments of state money into the Buffalo area. One analysis by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that the state Economic Development Corporation failed to adequately oversee spending in the so-called “Buffalo Billion” project. “I will not have him embarrassed with this,” Malatras wrote in a 2015 email about the lack of progress on one project that the governor had announced earlier that year, alongside then-Vice President Joe Biden, The New York Times later reported. Alain Kaloyeros, the president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute at the time and the governor’s upstate economic czar, would later go to federal prison in a related big-rigging scandal.

Malatras has also been heavily involved in developing the Excelsior Scholarship program, another key pillar of Cuomo’s legacy. The three-year-old program offers free tuition to public university students who study full time, meet income requirements and agree to remain in the state for a limited time post-graduation. The only problem is that lower-income students tend to have a harder time meeting those requirements. “There’s a lot of trapdoors,” Glick said of the program. A more established form of student aid like the Tuition Assistance Program that focuses on the most needy students, she argues, is a better use of limited funding.

While the pandemic brings challenges, it also offers Cuomo and Malatras a chance for a reset on higher education policy. “We are working closely with some of our best academic institutions to develop strategies that will help make a cleaner, greener Empire State for all,” the governor said at a September announcement of a new SUNY-based program to promote recycling. The big question, though, is how more than five years in the Cuomo administration will affect Malatras’ thinking moving forward. “It’s hard to tell where a staff person’s role begins and ends on any particular issue – particularly in an administration where the governor has a tight circle of aides who are involved in everything,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, who first met Malatras when they were both staffers for former Assembly Member Richard Brodsky. 

One possibility is that Malatras will follow the example of Benjamin Lawsky, who like Malatras and Horner also worked for Cuomo during his time as state attorney general. The newly elected governor appointed Lawsky as the first superintendent of financial services in 2011. His tenure included building a new regulatory system for the multibillion-dollar insurance and financial sectors while also developing new state policies to emerging tech like Bitcoin – all of this with minimal political interference from Cuomo, said Horner. “I don’t think he was at odds with the administration,” he added. “But I think he was able to advance things that he was interested in, seemingly independent of the governor’s office.”

If that happens with Malatras, then it could go a long way towards fulfilling hopes that putting a longtime Cuomo ally in charge of SUNY was a good idea. Success in containing the spread of the coronavirus within the SUNY system would help restore confidence that the university can improve its bottom line while reopening, without fueling wider coronavirus outbreaks across the state. “I think it is going to be a turning point,” state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, chair of the Senate Committee on Higher Education, said of reopening SUNY campuses. “If there is a resurgence (of coronavirus cases), then all bets are off.”

That all depends on whether Malatras succeeds in the coming months at curbing the spread of the coronavirus on campus and how he uses his gubernatorial pull to get more money for the university. Longevity in his current position is the long-term upside to winning the hearts and minds of the faculty, staff and students in the process, he said in an interview. “There’s so much potential possibility,” he said of reshaping his alma mater. “I could see myself being in this job, if they would have me, for a long, long time.”

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