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New SUNY Chancellor John King was New York's state education commissioner 

The SUNY system administration building is pictured in this 2011 file photo by Matt H. Wade.
Matt H. Wade
Wikimedia - CC BY-SA 3.0
The tower at SUNY Plaza in downtown Albany, which once housed a luxury apartment for SUNY chancellors.

New York’s former state education commissioner, John King, is now the chancellor of the State University of New York system after the SUNY Board of Trustees voted him 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 the U.S. education secretary in then-President Barack Obama’s administration. He also ran, unsuccessfully, in the Maryland primary for governor earlier this year.

Since 2017, he’s taught undergraduates at the University of Maryland.

SUNY Chancellor, Dr. John King
King's Wikipedia page
SUNY Chancellor John King.

King, whose parents died by the time he was 12, told the SUNY board that public schools saved his life. And he said 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.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, who appoints the majority of the SUNY board of trustees, said King has “incredible experience” in education, knows New York, and can turn the system around.

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

King replaces Jim Malatras, a close associate of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo resigned over a sexual harassment scandal in August 2021.

Malatras left SUNY last December after 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.”

Assemblymember Deborah Glick, the chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education, praised King for his depth of experience in education and said she hopes he brings stability to SUNY. Glick said she also hopes King will help fight for increased funding after what she said were 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.

United University Professions, the union representing SUNY’s professors and other faculty, 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 Cuomo and the state’s teachers union after Cuomo wanted to tie teacher evaluations to the test scores.

Glick said 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 that he will face as chancellor include rebuilding enrollment lost during the pandemic, and making up for related learning deficits caused by school shutdowns.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.