ALBANY, N.Y. — John King, the former New York education commissioner and U.S. education secretary, was named State University of New York chancellor Monday, taking over the largest public university system in the nation.
King was unanimously selected to head the 64-campus system by the SUNY Board of Trustees, concluding a yearlong, nationwide search that ended with them landing on a familiar person to New York education leaders. He headed the state Department of Education during a tumultuous time from 2011 through 2015.
He said he looks forward to addressing SUNY’s decade-long decline in enrollment, particularly at its community colleges. He also wants to increase interest in community development and investing in the state’s workforce pipeline.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to advance access, affordability and completion and to make SUNY the strongest possible driver of economic development and economic mobility for the state,” King said in an interview with POLITICO. “I’m very excited, and having served at every level of the education system, from classroom teacher to principal, to leading schools and school systems…to bring all of those experiences to bear in this work.”
King, a Brooklyn native and the state’s first Black and Puerto Rican chancellor, will start in January and succeed interim SUNY Chancellor Deborah Stanley, who has been filling the leadership post since Jim Malatras resigned a year ago.
SUNY board chairperson Merryl Tisch described a “robust” national search to replace Malatras. Many of the trustees who spoke on Monday morning mentioned King’s background in the state’s education system as a key to his success in landing the role. He is currently the president of The Education Trust, a national non profit.
“It’s a great honor to have Dr. King consider this role at this time, with all of the challenges, but all of the opportunities as well,” Tisch said in an interview. “I think he brings great distinction and great honor to SUNY and to the state of New York.”
King will join a diverse group of leaders at the helm of the state’s education system, and he vowed to collaborate closely with state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa, the first Latina to fill her role, to help the 1.3 million students who take SUNY classes.
He said improving equity and diversity is a key issue, especially in developing a diverse workforce for the state’s public schooling system.
“It makes me happy to see the progress that the state and the country have made, but I would also say there’s work to do,” King said. “We have real opportunity gaps that we have to close as a country…I want to make sure that SUNY is the national leader in diversity, equity and inclusion.”
King left as education commissioner amid a firestorm over Common Core curriculum standards that the state tried to implement on districts due to new federal standards. The state’s largest teachers union, New York State United Teachers, approved a vote of no confidence in him in 2014 and called on the state Board of Regents to fire him.
His time as education commissioner left some parents and advocates still in opposition of his SUNY appointment. Lisa Rudley, executive director of NY State Allies for Public Education, said students and staff should be “forewarned.”
“John King consistently ignored the legitimate concerns of parents and teachers regarding the policies he pursued as NY state education commissioner by rewriting standards, imposing an arduous high stakes testing regime and basing teach evaluation on student test scores, none of which had any research behind it and all of which undermined the quality of education in our public schools,” Rudley said in a statement.
But NYSUT and other education leaders took a more conciliatory tone Monday on King’s return.
“We will work with Chancellor King to ensure that our campuses and the educators serving on them receive the critical funding and support they deserve as we continue to push toward a common goal: Making sure every New Yorker has access to an affordable and exceptional public education,” NYSUT president Andy Pallotta said in a statement.
King’s salary will be $750,000 a year.
Senate Higher Education committee chair Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Queens) said King’s rocky tenure as education commissioner shouldn’t be viewed as a determent in his new position.
“I think we have to recognize that SUNY is really a great university system with the potential for even greater accomplishments,” she said. “It’s the avenue of opportunity for so many people.”
While Stanley said she is excited to work with King in the next few weeks of transition, she is looking forward to retirement.
“It was such a wonderful experience to be able to come to an organization that is being challenged — with the funding in place — to step up and take a role in moving forward not only SUNY forward, and doing the best for our students, but also moving the state forward in economic development ways,” Stanley, who served for 25 years as the SUNY Oswego president, said in an interview.
SUNY is an economic driver across much of upstate New York, but it has suffered from enrollment declines due in part to population drops in the region. Under Stanley, the administration bolstered its efforts to improve enrollment with robust campaigns and initiatives that have lead to promising increases in applications for the fall.
The Board of Trustees is set to meet next week to propose its budget for the fiscal year that starts April 1.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, who along with the state Legislature controls SUNY’s budget, said she was pleased with King’s selection, saying King benefits from being a New York with deep knowledge of its education system. He started his career teaching social studies in Puerto Rico and Boston.
“We are looking for a transformational figure, someone that will come here and reestablish the preeminence that I always thought SUNY should have,” Hochul said.