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UUP's Kowal "Shocked, Disappointed" By SUNY Chancellor's Departure

Dr. Fred Kowal

After three years, SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson is leaving the 64-campus system to take the top job at The Ohio State University system. Johnson will begin September 1. For reaction, WAMC News spoke with Dr. Fred Kowal of United University Professions.

Dr. Fred Kowal
Credit UUP

Well, we were we were shocked by the announcement. Because, as you know, we are facing multiple challenges the likes of which SUNY has never faced or for that matter, the state of New York or our country, with the pandemic, with a very severe financial crisis, and also now a situation where nationally you know, people are, are rightly filling the streets demanding much more just an equitable society, for communities of color.

And in this set of circumstances, we are shocked and we are disappointed that Chancellor is leaving at this time. She certainly brought gravitas in terms to the role of Chancellor in terms of her great experience in research and as an entrepreneur and as a member of the Obama administration. But at this time, it's really unfortunate that she will be departing, when so many important decisions have to be made about what's going to happen in the fall semester. What are students going to be facing, what our faculty going to be facing, and the communities in which we work. So it's disappointing and at the same time, we will redouble our efforts to make sure that SUNY is strong and that our students get the high quality education they expect and that they have received over the years.

Her predecessor Nancy Zimpher was in the job for about a decade. Chancellor Johnson only came on in 2017. How would you rate her performance as SUNY Chancellor?

You know, honestly, I think she was not in the position long enough for me to get a real fair assessment. I think you know, her for emphasis on making SUNY stronger in the areas of research have certainly been welcome. That's important. But one of the regrets I have is that she did not have enough time, I don't think, to establish herself as a real force politically to advocate for the State University. And I think that's a central role for any Chancellor, given an era of scarce resources and competition for those resources. The chancellor of the state of New York has to be a strong political advocate in a very political state. And that's where I think the Chancellor did not establish herself and that's unfortunate.

I just went to disclose for people listening to this that I belong to the union that you run, because I teach part-time at the University at Albany. And that may inform my next question. You guys have just put together a list of questions and outlines for what a fall semester might look like. Because of course, we're still in a pandemic right now. And campuses are trying to figure out if they'll open or how they'll open this fall. So what is the union seeking? What kind of information are you looking for right now about the fall semester?

Well, you know, first and foremost, we would like to know when a decision will be made. And I think ultimately, that is the governor's decision. It's clear that that he is the ultimate decider on all sorts of reopening and that includes institutions of higher education. But, in terms of priorities, the first priority must be the health and safety of our members, our students. In our communities, we have established basic, we believe foundation points that must be reached.

When plans are made for reopening, there must be aggressive testing to establish the baseline situation at every campus when students are returning and faculty and staff are there and we have a real concentration of the people in these communities. Beyond that, there needs to be, you know, adjustments in buildings to ensure physical distancing. There must be protections to ensure that proper hygiene is maintained. There must be a means by which those who are vulnerable or family members or vulnerable can continue to telecommute. The telecommuting option is not always the best in terms of education. But in this climate, the priority is to get through the pandemic, minimize the losses to our society and emerge hopefully at a point where we can be a functioning and more just, humane society. One of the things that I think people don't realize, though, when we talk about reopening in the fall semester, is that there are going to need to be commitment of state resources. This is going to be expensive in terms of testing, in terms of monitoring, and ensuring that people are safe and the state's going to need to come up with the resources to do it. As is SUNY.

Do you yourself believe all that is accomplishable between now and mid-August, when several campuses start having, you know, in a typical year, several thousand students return and living in close quarters to say nothing of the classroom setup.

Yeah, I think that it is, as I said at the start, this is the most challenging time and the most severe challenge that SUNY has ever faced. And is it attainable? To quote back to a favorite movie of mine, failure is not an option. We cannot have a circumstance where we have a hotspot develop on a campus and we start getting large numbers of people getting sick. What my preferred situation would be is we need to get it right. And if we can't get it right, then we reduce the number of students who are on campus, we ensure the safety of those who are there. And then we work, hopefully with all the research that's ongoing, to get a vaccine, and then we can establish a more normal situation. But I think that this is a huge challenge. And it will take a commitment of a great deal of work and resources.

I don't know if you have any names in mind, but what should the next Chancellor who would replace Chancellor Johnson look like? Who should it be? What kind of background are you looking for?

I think there's a couple of things that I would like to see in the next Chancellor first. I would, I would like very much if the next Chancellor of the State University of New York came from a community of color. I think it's overdue. And I think that would be very important. I would like to see the next Chancellor come to us from having led as a chief administrator a major research institution, preferably a public institution, or a system, and also someone who has some experience in advocating for that university or that system. And I think those would be the three biggest requirements that I would like to see. And if a fourth it would be that they have experience working with organized labor in a very strong union state. Those are the characteristics that I would like to see in the next chancellor.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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