Cuomo advisor: Malatras should lead SUNY

29 June 2020
Rachel Silberstein for Times Union (
Cuomo advisor: Malatras should lead SUNY
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Rachel Silberstein covers education for the Times Union. Previously she reported on state politics.


ALBANY – Larry Schwartz, a longtime confidant of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, is promoting SUNY Empire State College President Jim Malatras as the next chancellor of the State University of New York — and even urged the SUNY Board of Trustees to forgo a nationwide search.

Schwartz, a former secretary to the governor, is currently serving alongside Malatras on the governor's COVID-19 advisory team. In an interview with the Times Union, Schwartz said he had expressed his view to SUNY board Chairperson Merryl Tisch.

"I think it will be short-sighted and a waste of time to do a nationwide search when there are many issues that need to be resolved now to move SUNY forward," he said.

SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson confirmed Wednesday that she would be stepping down from the position in September to return to her native Ohio to become president of Ohio State University.

SUNY's Senior Vice Chancellor Robert Megna, a former state budget director to Cuomo, is expected to become interim chancellor when Johnson leaves on Sept. 1.

While acknowledging Johnson's academic credentials, Schwartz said SUNY's next chancellor should not be from another state. Malatras, he said, is entrenched in New York politics and can work well with the governor, unions, the Legislature and the higher education community.


"I can't think of a better, stronger candidate than Jim Malatras," Schwartz said. "He's a brilliant public policy guy, he understands the state of New York, he understands state government, local government — and you need to be a jack-of-all-trades to be a successful chancellor and leader."

The governor has asserted more control over the SUNY's 64 campuses during the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended higher education. Sources said there also has been tension between the governor — who keeps a tight rein on state agencies and departments — and Johnson during her three years overseeing the sprawling university system.

Schwartz, 64, and Malatras both have deep ties to the governor, having worked together for years.  They also are part of a tight-knit group of former Cuomo aides that returned to his inner circle as volunteers to help coordinate New York's response to the health crisis and to devise a reopening plan as the state's fiscal outlook and economy have been devastated.

"I've watched a lot of chancellors come and go," Schwartz said. "I don't think SUNY has come close to reaching its full potential."

Malatras had previously served as president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, which produced policy analyses and recommendations on timely topics to lawmakers. Between his earlier stints in the Cuomo administration — first as deputy secretary for policy management, then as state operations director — he served a year as chief of staff to former SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.


Schwartz insisted he was speaking not on behalf of the administration but merely as "a SUNY alum who has watched the quality of SUNY colleges decline. Academic credentials don’t necessarily qualify someone to run a university system like SUNY.”

His interview with the Times Union was, however, arranged with the assistance of a current Cuomo administration official.

When asked if the governor wants Malatras for the role, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said, "Jim's the smartest, most able guy I know, but we're fighting a pandemic and civil unrest as we seek to reopen the state (all efforts that he's also involved in). This will be a decision for the SUNY board to make down the road."

A spokeswoman for SUNY did not immediately return a request for comment.

Johnson's decision to leave in the midst of a crisis that has caused upheaval in the SUNY system came as a surprise to some in higher education circles. United University Professions, the labor union that represents most SUNY faculty, expressed "dismay" at the timing of her decision.

“Right now, the university is wrestling with how to safely reopen campuses in the fall after being forced to shut down for months due to the coronavirus pandemic," UUP President Frederick E. Kowal said in a statement. "SUNY also faces a financial situation that has gone from precarious to critical because of the pandemic."


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