Jim Malatras walked away with the retirement deal of a lifetime.
After fewer than two years as SUNY chancellor, the 43-year-old ex-Andrew Cuomo aide left the top job for a yearlong “study-leave” under SUNY (for which he’ll earn $450,000), a tenured faculty position at Empire State College with an annual starting salary of $186,660 and eligibility for the state retirement system, according to The Albany Times Union.
He doesn’t deserve any of it.
From covering up COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes to berating colleagues on multiple occasions, Malatras has proven repeatedly that he is unfit to serve in government and SUNY — whether as a chancellor or a professor. It’s time to cut him loose once and for all.
Malatras resigned as chancellor following the release of unflattering 2019 text messages regarding Lindsey Boylan, a former advisor to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had tweeted about the toxic workplace Cuomo’s administration had fostered. Boylan would later be the first of 11 women to accuse Cuomo of sexual harrassment, according to Politico.
In 2019, the year before becoming SUNY chancellor, Malatras told colleagues that Boylan should “go f—k herself,” said that one of his tweets about her was meant to “drive her nuts” and suggested that he and his colleagues “release some of her cray emails,” according to The Gothamist.
Those comments led to his resignation. But they don’t show Malatras at his worst.
Malatras’ text messages were simply a high-profile incident in a long history of unprofessional behavior dating back to his time as president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a SUNY-affiliated think tank.
“You have a f—king bad attitude on everything, lady,” Malatras told one of his employees in 2017 in audio obtained by the Times Union. “You’re goddamn impossible all the time… You drive people crazy.”
Malatras’, shall we say, abrasive management style drove out more than half of his employees at the Rockefeller Institute and at least one top official during his time as president of Empire State College, where he’ll now return as a professor, according to the Times Union. One former Rockefeller Institute employee quoted in the Times Union piece said that Malatras “brought people into his office, he used the F-word, he slammed doors.”
But Malatras can be subtle too. After rejoining the Cuomo administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, Malatras helped “substantially” rewrite a New York State Health Department report in an effort to cover up the number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19, as first reported in The New York Times. The edited version of the report claimed that 6,432 residents had died; the real death toll was 9,844, according to another Times piece. A legislative investigation found that Malatras and other aides did so to “boost Cuomo’s reputation,” according to NPR. Malatras doesn’t even have any public health experience.
But that wasn’t the only instance where Malatras served as Cuomo’s unofficial editor. He spent days editing and fact-checking Cuomo’s self-aggrandizing memoir, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, just weeks before being appointed SUNY chancellor, according to Inside Higher Ed. Investigators questioned Malatras about whether he reviewed the biography during work hours; Malatras says he only edited it on weekends and days off and denied that helping edit his boss’ vanity project earned him his promotion to SUNY chancellor.
The bottom line is, when Jim Malatras had power, he misused it. By continuing to keep him on the publicly funded payroll, we are saying that abuse of power is highly lucrative and punishable only by a few days of public shaming in New York State.
And what does this tell the thousands of untenured faculty and underpaid graduate students in the SUNY system? That playing sycophant for a slimy governor, not teaching and not researching, is the easiest path to tenureship?
Not only that, but Malatras only had about five years of experience in higher education — and no extensive experience teaching — before being given a tenured professorship. It generally takes six years for an academic to get tenure after being hired to a tenure-track position, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Maybe struggling academics should try Malatras’ path to tenure.
I’m sure SUNY will continue to let Malatras collect six-figure annual salaries funded by taxpayer dollars over the next few decades. But at the bare minimum, they need to institutionalize a nationwide search in their chancellor selection process. SUNY is conducting a national search to select the next chancellor, according to WAMC, but this change must be set in stone moving forward. The SUNY Board of Trustees hired Malatras without conducting a wider search, according to the Times Union. The board passed up the opportunity to find a more qualified candidate — and believe me, that’s not a high bar to clear — likely at the behest of then-Gov. Cuomo. After all, Cuomo appointed 15 of the 18 board members at the time.
SUNY can’t afford to hire another ill-suited chancellor. A national search won’t bring a saint into the chancellorship, but it will likely result in a competent leader who has the good sense to replace Malatras a second time.
Grant Ashley is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Grant Ashley is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum. He is a political science and (mediocre) Spanish double major. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on Twitter @Grantrashley.