John King Jr. in a file photo. He served as...

John King Jr. in a file photo. He served as U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama administration and starts his new job as SUNY chancellor Jan. 17.

Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

John King Jr. takes over the chancellorship of the State University of New York this month with the ambitious mission of reversing a decade of declining enrollment and, until last year, a decade of stagnant state funding.

The mission is to make SUNY, as Gov. Kathy Hochul said in her State of the State speech last year, the "best statewide system of public higher education in our nation."

The challenge will be how to pay for it.

The vision hangs on the state budget process, which will soon preoccupy King, who at age 48 succeeds interim chancellor Deborah Stanley as the state's 15th chancellor. The budget deadline is April 1.

JOHN KING JR.

  • King, 48, starts his new job as SUNY chancellor Monday. He was most recently president of the nonprofit Education Trust. A former New York State education commissioner, he also served as U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama administration. He made an unsuccessful primary run last year in the Maryland governor's race. 
  • A native of Brooklyn and the New York City public school system, he obtained a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, a law degree from Yale Law School and master's and Ph.D. degrees in educational administration from Columbia University's Teachers College.
  • He has taught high school social studies in Puerto Rico and Boston, co-founded a public charter school in Boston, and was managing director of Uncommon Schools, a national network of urban public charter schools. 

King, a former New York State education commissioner who also served as U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama administration, starts his new job Monday.  He said the SUNY system will seek money for rising operating costs and for the capital investments in buildings and research laboratories that raising the profile of the system requires.

"Stony Brook University plays a critical role in that vision," King said in an interview as he packed for his move from Maryland to New York. "The success of Stony Brook will help drive the success of the system overall ... Stony Brook ought to be mentioned in the same breath as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill."

Stony Brook and the University of Buffalo were named as the flagships of the 64-campus system last year, and funds for capital investments and faculty will flow to them and to the other two university centers in Albany and Binghamton.

Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis said King's "tremendous experience will provide great insight as Stony Brook continues to reach its full potential as a flagship institution, advancing its transformational goals of moving into the top 25-ranked public research universities nationally and doubling research output."

Plans to visit campuses

King acknowledged that the university centers may absorb more funding than the other four- and two-year campuses but argued that all campuses would benefit if the system improved its standing. 

"I hope people will see the success of the university centers is significant to the success of the system as a whole," he said.

Each campus' assets would be leveraged, he said. He intends to visit the campuses over the next few months. 

Stony Brook and the University of Buffalo were named as...

Stony Brook and the University of Buffalo were named as the flagships of the 64-campus SUNY system last year. Above, Stony Brook graduation ceremonies at Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium in May 2019. Credit: Yellow House Images/Andrew Theodorakis

There are five SUNY schools on Long Island: Farmingdale State College, Stony Brook, Old Westbury, and Nassau and Suffolk community colleges.

Farmingdale President John Nader said he's optimistic King "will help further raise the profile of the SUNY system by leveraging our campuses to advance New York as a leader in the energy, technology and health fields." He lauded King's “passion for education, unparalleled experience, and a deep understanding of the issues facing SUNY." 

As he visits campuses, King said, he'll talk to local business leaders to further another top agenda item: fostering students' job opportunities and SUNY's role as a driver of the state's economy and new industries, from climate change and sustainable energy. 

"The key is to have a deep partnership where employers are working with faculty to conceptualize programs, what they need in workplace skills," he said, while creating internships, hiring opportunities and feedback "on what they're seeing in the SUNY students they hire."

As Nassau Community College continues its search for a new president, King said, "the key is to have someone who has a clear vision how NCC fits into the regional economic development strategy and how students can complete their degree ... NCC is a place where there are a lot of students who could benefit" from an approach focused on career preparation while also providing an education in the humanities.

"The vision of higher ed is to prepare students for both jobs and civic participation," he said.

Eye on bolstering enrollment

Hochul's plan for SUNY called for an enrollment of 500,000, up from the approximately 375,000 currently in the system. SUNY's marketing push and measures to ease the application process — including a two-week fee waiver period in the fall — led to a surge in applications, including from out-of-state applicants. And while it is too early to determine the potential enrollment bump, King said he was "cautiously optimistic."

From 2011 to 2021, enrollment fell 21%, from 468,006 to 370,114. King conceded that boosting the flagship universities' profile and out-of-state enrollment would make them more competitive and selective, but stressed what he called "a cascading admissions system" in which students not admitted to schools of their choice are steered to other campuses in the system.

Students walk the campus of Farmingdale State College, in East...

Students walk the campus of Farmingdale State College, in East Farmingdale in November. From 2011 to 2021, SUNY enrollment statewide fell 21%. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

His SUNY appointment is not his first go-round in state education governance. King's years as state education commissioner, from 2011 through 2014, were marked by the contentious reaction to the Common Core policy adopted by New York. Its standardized testing, and teacher evaluations based in part on rising test scores, remain controversial.

A parent-led statewide testing boycott stemming from the Common Core standards developed into the largest movement of its type in the nation, with hundreds of thousands of students in grades three through eight, including on Long Island, opting out of state standardized exams.

While King's appointment was warmly received by state and elected officials, including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), who was on the search committee that chose him, critics from his tenure as state education commissioner were "concerned" about it.

King's return to New York is a "disappointing" return to the past, said Jeanette Deutermann of Bellmore, founder of Long Island Opt Out.

"We spent years trying to fix the failed reform policies that he had put in, and so we're now concerned with what he will do with the SUNY system," she said after his appointment last month.

King said that as U.S. education secretary from 2016 to 2017 in President Barack Obama's administration, and acting deputy secretary since early 2015, he helped develop a successor policy to No Child Left Behind that he said he believes softened the "problematic elements" and left the teacher evaluation issue in the "rearview mirror. ... We removed the federal role in teacher evaluations."

King at the White House in 2016, when he was...

King at the White House in 2016, when he was part of the Obama administration.

Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images/NurPhoto

A theme throughout his career is an effort to address systemic inequalities, and that remains part of his new agenda, he said.

"Today our student population statewide doesn't reflect the diversity of our state, [and] faculty doesn't fully reflect the diversity of our state," said King, who is the second Black chancellor, the second Puerto Rican and the first who is both Black and Puerto Rican.

He pointed to programs developed in the CUNY system and found successful elsewhere, such as one called ASAP, that provides wraparound financial and educational support for students who might otherwise drop out.

"Georgia State [University] has largely closed the racial and economic gap in the completion rate," he said, with a focus on "proactive advising" and supports.

There also are lingering effects of the COVID pandemic, which closed and limited in-person education for millions of students for lengthy periods and left what many experts see as a mental health crisis among adolescents and young adults.

Many also were left with academic deficits.

"There was a toll and we see it for our students and we see it across our campuses," King said, adding, "We hope SUNY can be part of the solution."

With Robert Brodsky

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