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UUP President touts good working relationship with SUNY Chancellor amid resignation calls

United University Professions President Fred Kowal
United University Professions President Fred Kowal

The State University of New York Board of Trustees is standing by Chancellor Jim Malatras following the publication of text messages from 2019 when the longtime aide to former Governor Andrew Cuomo used profanity to smear a woman who would go on to accuse Cuomo of sexual harassment.

As part of a probe that led to Cuomo’s resignation, State Attorney General Tish James released materials that show Malatras sent a series of charged messages as Cuomo’s inner circle worked to counter claims of a toxic workplace leveled by Lindsey Boylan.

Malatras issued an apology Friday amid calls to resign from student government groups, lawmakers and others.

This week, WAMC spoke with state Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah Glick, a Democrat who wants Malatras to go.

The SUNY Chancellor, who has served in the role since August 2020, is receiving support from the SUNY Board of Trustees, the Public Employees Federation and United University Professions. However, the Member Action Coalition, which contains UUP members, has called on Malatras to leave the position or be removed.

WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with UUP President Fred Kowal about the decision to issue a letter of support.

Kowal: Well last Friday, we literally received a reach out from the Board of Trustees at SUNY, late in the day that they were intending to release a statement of support for the chancellor. And they were reaching out to UUP to see if anything, there was anything that we would offer in terms of characterizing our working relationship with the chancellor. And we were also aware that Public Employees Federation, PEF, had submitted a letter as well, the other major union operating in SUNY. And so what we did was, you know, we offered our perspective, which started with an acknowledgement of the apology that the chancellor had made public also on Friday, as something that was absolutely necessary, imperative, it needed to be done, an apology to Ms. Boylan and to the SUNY community. Beyond that, we did acknowledge that our working relationship since the chancellor came on last August of 2020, has been very productive in the area of health and safety, whether it involves the mandatory testing of employees and students, the mandatory mask wearing, we have found a very good partner in Chancellor Malatras on those issues of health and safety that during the pandemic were absolutely the priority for us as a union. And then we also said that, you know, here's the situation where we are going into the most crucial budget year in the last 15 years. And it is imperative that we have the support of the Trustees, of the Chancellor, of the entire leadership of SUNY, as we are committed to getting the best budget we have because campuses are hurting from 11 years of austerity budgeting, and we need to move forward to get good funding to those campuses. So that is what we did. And we issued this statement because we saw the board was going to make their statement and we wanted to have some input. And so we made clear, the apology needed to be done. It was done. There needed to be an acknowledgement, I was willing to acknowledge, as were my fellow officers and statewide officials of UUP that the working relationship has been good, certainly on the issue of COVID. And moving forward, we need a strong SUNY to advocate alongside of UUP and all those who want to improve public higher education.

Levulis: You mentioned this kind of came together on a Friday evening, if I'm understanding it correctly. You conferred with your other officers at UUP? How do you know your position reflects what your membership wants in regards to this?

Kowal: Well in addition to that, we were able to reach out to the elected members of our executive board and approximately 17 members of that board and we reached as many as we could in that very short time span. I believe, first and foremost that collectively, the 37,000 members of UUP, believe very strongly that yes, it is absolutely necessary for our campuses to be safe in terms of the COVID situation, and then also to get a better budget. I will say that there is absolutely no doubt about the fact that our membership continues to be very angry, irate about the treatment we received from Andrew Cuomo when he was governor. And that lingers, as it's no surprise that it would. And that has led to people being angry at the Chancellor even going back to the point when he was appointed Chancellor. I just want to point out, though, that UUP was the only voice back when Chancellor [Kristina] Johnson resigned, the only voice that called for a full nationwide search for Chancellor. No one else called for that. We did. Jim Malatras was appointed. Our response to that was all well and good. We need to work together because SUNY and our members and our students need it. And that is how we proceeded. But make no mistake about it. The reality is there are a lot of New Yorkers who are very angry about the 11 years of Andrew Cuomo’s tenure and certainly UUP members are included in that.

Levulis: Now I want to go to the kind of the crux of the matter here. The messages in question are from 2019 and it's been pointed out that that's a couple of years ago now. This was when Chancellor Malatras was a higher education leader though moving from SUNY Rockefeller Institute to SUNY Empire. Is that language though, and that approach that he displayed in the messages appropriate for a higher education administrator?

Kowal: You know, and I think that the chancellor’s apology speaks to that, in terms of he stated that it was not appropriate language. I agree wholeheartedly. I think it's imperative at the same time for us to realize that the circumstances around that were such that, you know, these were not directed directly at Ms. Boylan. But at the same time, it did indicate a way of operating within certainly the governor's office, perhaps. But yes, as you point out in the position that he was operating, where that kind of attitude and language, yes is inappropriate at that time. And it is a situation obviously, where our position as you know, when the first allegations concerning the governor's behavior this past spring emerged, we were the first and we remain the only union calling for a complete and full investigation of the governor, and the allegations of sexual harassment. And we were also the first union to call for his resignation. We are absolutely adamant and clear on this. Any allegations of sexual harassment, any allegations of steps taken to create a hostile work environment, we take very seriously. We also as a union stand by the principle of due process, which means that everyone must have the opportunity to defend themselves against all accusations in a fair and open way. That is always a fine line for us to walk both with our members and those with whom we deal with.

Levulis: President Kowal, you mentioned the budget process and the need to you know, maintain this relationship, this leadership in regards to SUNY heading into that. Now, a growing number of state lawmakers though are calling on Chancellor Malatras to resign. The state legislature they control SUNY funding to a degree. Do you see that complicating the process, hurting SUNY in the budget deliberations?

Kowal: I certainly think that that could create a hurdle for us to overcome and getting the best possible budget. I encourage you know the legislators to work with us and with SUNY going forward so that we can get the budget we need. I am confident that the governor and the legislators will think about the students we serve and the future of our state and how crucial a good budget is, regardless who the chancellor is, regardless who the president of UUP is, the fact remains our students need a budget. They need funding to support excellent programs like the TAP program, the Excelsior program, which we have called for in terms of reform and expansion of those programs to benefit our students. And hopefully, that's where we can keep our focus going into the next session.

Levulis: We've been mostly talking about the response from decision makers. You mentioned the students there, SUNY student leadership have called on Chancellor Malatras to step down. Does that viewpoint concern you?

Kowal: Well, certainly, you know, there is the reality that the students and some other faculty groups have expressed their concern about his statements and the desire for him to resign. I think certainly everybody is entitled to their perspective on this. I will just say that regardless of the positions that anyone has taken, we will continue to work with the student assembly, with NYPIRG, with all of the groups who are part of our coalition to bring a better budget to SUNY. It is a case where again, the overriding interest is to get the best budget possible. And that's our primary and overriding concern.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org