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Former state education commissioner becomes SUNY Chancellor

A man wearing a red and blue strip tie and glasses smiles.
John King, a former state education commissioner, has been appointed SUNY Chancellor.

New York’s former state education commissioner Dr. John King is now New York's State University Chancellor, after the SUNY Board of Trustees voted King in on Monday morning.

The choice comes after a nationwide search. King, who was raised in Brooklyn, left New York State’s education department to work as U.S. Education Secretary in the administration of then- President Barack Obama. He also ran, unsuccessfully, in the Maryland primary for governor earlier this year. Since 2017, he’s taught undergraduates at the University of Maryland.

King, whose parents died by the time he was 12, told the SUNY Board that public schools saved his life. And he says he wants to continue to provide a sense of safety, as well as high quality educational opportunities, to SUNY’s students.

“I know that at SUNY we can demonstrate that equity, and excellence, go hand in hand,” King said.

King is a graduate of Harvard, Yale and Columbia Universities, and has also run a charter school in Boston for underprivileged children. He is the second African-American to lead SUNY.

Governor Kathy Hochul, who appoints the majority of the state university’s board of trustees, says King has “incredible experience” in education, knows New York, and can turn SUNY around.

“We are looking for a transformative figure, someone that will come her and reestablish the preeminence that I always thought SUNY should have” said Hochul. “And we slipped. We have slipped (for) a long time.”

King replaces Jim Malatras, a close associate of former Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo resigned over a sexual harassment scandal in August of 2021. Malatras left SUNY last December, after the state attorney general, Tish James, found that Malatras, when he worked in the governor’s office, tried to discredit a colleague. That colleague later accused Cuomo of sexual harassment and fostering a toxic workplace.

Malatras at the time said the controversy had become a “distraction”.

State Assembly Higher Education Chair Deborah Glick, praised King for his depth of experience in education and says she hopes he brings stability to SUNY. Glick says she also hopes King will help fight for increased funding, after what she says was years of fiscal neglect under Cuomo.

“I think his priority will be ensuring that the support that has come to our public university systems under this governor, Governor Hochul, continues,” Glick said. “And provides the ability to rebuild from what had been, frankly, systematic underfunding through the Cuomo years.”

Hochul added money to SUNY in her first budget last spring.

The union representing SUNY’s professors and other faculty, United University Professions, also praised the choice, saying they look forward to working with King to “to strengthen the SUNY system”.

King, while he was state education commissioner, was the lightning rod for the implementation of the controversial testing- focused policies devised under former President George W. Bush, known as Common Core. The policies spurred protests among parents, and led to a widespread student boycott of the mandatory tests.

King was also caught in the middle of a feud between former Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state’s teachers’ unions, after Cuomo wanted to tie teacher evaluations to the test scores.

Assemblywoman Glick says no one should hold those incidents against King, though.

“(It was) Not necessarily something that the commissioner had a choice about,” Glick said.

In New York, the education commissioner does not work directly for the governor.

King’s challenges as SUNY Chancellor also include rebuilding enrollment lost during the pandemic, and making up for related learning deficits caused by school shut downs.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.