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SUNY chancellor steps down after several calls for his resignation

State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras.
Pat Bradley
State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras.

State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras said Thursday that he is resigning, effective Jan. 14.

It comes as Malatras was facing mounting pressure to exit after state Attorney General Tish James found he tried to discredit a colleague in former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. She later accused Cuomo of sexual harassment and fostering a toxic workplace in a scandal that led to Cuomo’s resignation last August.

Malatras, in his letter, said “recent events surrounding me over the past week have become a distraction.” Malatras touted his accomplishments while at SUNY, but did not apologize for any of his controversial behaviors that have received attention in recent days.

Malatras’ actions toward Cuomo accuser Lindsey Boylan, which included calling her an expletive in an email message and suggesting that her private emails be released to publicly humiliate her, led to calls for him to step down.

An audio recording released this week to the Albany Times Union intensified the pressure for the chancellor to exit. It was made in 2017 by a former employee of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, which Malatras was leading at the time. In it, Malatras could be heard cursing at and berating the woman.

The SUNY Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting Thursday. Board Chair Merryl Tisch praised Malatras’ leadership, saying he brought a “broad range” of talent, ambition and dedication to the job.

“We are grateful for the work,” Tisch said. “And we wish him every success in his life, as he has made a difficult and complicated decision.”

Tisch did not mention the incidents that led to the chancellor's exit.

The board is dominated by Cuomo appointees. Tisch, along with 14 of the 18 members, were chosen by the former governor. They decided to not undertake a nationwide search for a new chancellor when the job became open in 2020, and instead agreed to appoint Malatras, a close Cuomo ally, to the job.

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, the union representing SUNY’s professors and other faculty, said he's greatly relieved that Malatras made the decision to go.

“I welcome the end of this drama,” Kowal said.

The union had not called on the chancellor to step down. Kowal said that’s because they were concerned about a break in continuity in SUNY’s leadership just as budget negotiations were to begin, and they wanted to make sure the funding for the campuses was not affected.

But he said he had become increasingly uneasy over the accounts of Malatras' bad behavior toward others. He said many of his members were angry, as well.

"As the last few days transpired, what I saw as a continuous drumbeat of stories coming out, and they were becoming more and more disturbing," Kowal said.

Kowal said he hopes that the SUNY Board will appoint an interim chancellor who can hit the ground running. But the union is urging SUNY to conduct a nationwide search this time to attract a high-quality candidate for the chancellor's job. He said the union asked for that when Malatras was appointed last year, but their request was ignored.

He said he warned lawmakers at the time that the decision could have consequences.

“If you don’t do a search, you could end up with someone who a couple years down the road may have issues that develop that a search could suss out,” Kowal said. “But without a search, you can miss things.”

Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah Glick, who earlier this week called on Malatras to resign, agreed that the SUNY Board needs to conduct a comprehensive search for his replacement.

“Hopefully, it's a lesson to them that their job is to be an independent board focused on the mission of the university,” Glick said. “And that that’s where their loyalty lies, not to an appointing authority.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul has already purged state government of former Cuomo aides who were implicated in the sexual harassment scandal, but she had said she did not have the power to remove Malatras, who was hired by the SUNY Board of Trustees.

Hochul said she had an “important” phone conversation with Tisch on Wednesday evening, before Malatras announced that he was leaving. But she would not disclose the details.

“I’m more inclined to work behind the scenes and focus on results,” Hochul said.

Hochul has promised an overhaul of the SUNY system, which she says she will detail in her State of the State message in January.

Copyright 2021 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

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.