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Dive Brief:

  • John King Jr., a former U.S. education secretary under President Barack Obama, was named Monday the next chancellor of the State University of New York, the country’s largest comprehensive public higher education system.
  • King, who also was New York state’s first African-American and Puerto Rican education commissioner, will take over at the 370,000-student system in January. 
  • He replaces Jim Malatras, who announced his resignation last year. Malatras stepped down following revelations that he belittled a woman who accused former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment. Deborah Stanley, former president of SUNY Oswego, has been running the system on an interim basis.

Dive Insight:

Helming the SUNY system has proven a difficult task. The system’s 64 campuses have often-competing interests, from the research-minded Stony Brook University and University at Buffalo to its community colleges. Aligning those interests can be challenging for a chancellor.

Specifically, SUNY has long been criticized for relying too much on a one-size-fits all model. A New York Daily News editorial from a decade ago described the system as being mired in “a culture of uniformity and mediocrity.”

Since late 2005, only one chancellor has stayed longer than five years in the position — Nancy Zimpher, who led the system from June 2009 to August 2017. The system’s other chancellor since 2017, Kristina Johnson, left in 2020 to take over the Ohio State University presidency. She is already planning to step down from that flagship amid reports of staff concerns.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was elected to her first full term last month after taking over when Cuomo resigned, early this year attempted to more clearly delineate the SUNY institutions’ missions, including by designating Stony Brook and the University at Buffalo as flagship campuses. Hochul intended for the moves to raise system enrollment, which has been shrinking, and for the newly deemed flagship universities to bring in more research funding.

The system is also weighing a newly proposed integration of Broome Community College with four-year Binghamton University, a research institution.

King, who became U.S. education secretary in 2016, said in a statement he was honored to advance Hochul’s “vision to make SUNY the best statewide system of public higher education in our nation.”

“Public education quite literally saved my life when I lost both of my parents at a young age, 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,” King said. “I look forward to working with all members of our campus communities, lawmakers, and stakeholders to bring SUNY to new heights and maximize its potential.”

King was only education secretary for about a year. As secretary, he prioritized colleges enrolling more historically underrepresented students, and he continued the Obama administration’s mantle of pushing for degree completion. King also was known for cracking down on several high-profile for-profit colleges.

From 2011 to 2015, he was New York’s education commissioner. King oversaw the notoriously rocky rollout of the state’s Common Core State Standards, which earned him ire from students, parents and teachers unions alike.

Most recently, King has been president of The Education Trust, an equity-focused nonprofit. He also ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Maryland governor last year, during which he centered his campaign on education issues. But King failed to differentiate himself in a crowded field of Democrats. 

King will reportedly earn $750,000 a year as the system’s 15th chancellor. SUNY’s trustee board unanimously approved his appointment.

“As we work to continue to transform SUNY to meet the needs of the next generation of students and New York’s economy, we need a leader who understands how to balance striving for both excellence and equity,” Board Chair Merryl Tisch said in a statement. “John King has a proven record of doing both.”