Hercules brought together two rivers to flush out the dung that had accumulated in King Augeas’ stables for years. But is our new governor, Kathy Hochul, truly committed to removing the compacted mess King Andrew Cuomo left behind? Call this challenge a Hochul-ean task.
James Malatras offers a test case, centering on his installation as chancellor of SUNY — which came with a $435,000 salary and gave him sway over a well-regarded system of 64 colleges and universities. An estimated annual $11 billion budget and a workforce of 46,000 support this enterprise.
Malatras, a top aide-de-camp to Cuomo, has had a 15-year association with the ex-gov. Ever loyal, he followed marching orders efficiently, out of public view, making things run smoothly for his boss and furthering the aims of rapacious lobbyists and mercenaries gorging themselves in our capital.
Along the way, the gov gave him a few prestigious assignments, but don’t expect his name ever to appear among the ranks of far more inspiring educators who have succeeded in leading institutions of higher learning.
The chancellor’s selection last year became a certainty when Cuomo told the SUNY board of trustees to give him the top job. With the wave of his hand, any attempt to conduct a national search for the best candidate was abandoned, and testimonials to Malatras’ virtues issued from the trustees to justify their forced choice — even as SUNY faculty voted “no confidence” in the political appointees over their handling of the selection process.
Remember, 15 out of 16 members owe their seats, and whatever influence or importance attaches to them, to Cuomo. And undying fealty, not independent thinking, was required for that honor. Now, despite Cuomo’s resignation in disgrace, the board continues to back Malatras.
Some suspect Hochul doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers as she seeks allies, fundraisers and endorsers for her race next year for the position she won by default. This includes the feathers of the appointed trustees.
Meanwhile, wherever she travels, the new boss portrays herself as single-mindedly devoted to collaborative governance, transparency and ethical conduct by officials and staff and protecting women from abuse. But does Hochul’s ambition and self-interest run deeper than her professed desire to “change the culture”?
She pointedly pledged to purge her dominion of the shady types who thrived under Cuomo’s odious regime, especially those cited in Attorney General Tish James’ investigation of alleged sexual harassment. She’s done some of that in her first 45 days.
Malatras, who wasn’t mentioned in the report, so far hasn’t been included in the to-be-purged group but should be — even if it means Hochul must demand Cuomo’s carryover trustees un-appoint him.
There are several reasons for this: Most important, Malatras abetted the coverup of COVID-19 nursing-home deaths on Cuomo’s watch. His spin is that he never changed the stats but merely helped edit the undercount.
Then he supposedly “volunteered” his own time to advance Cuomo’s self-glorifying $5 million book on leadership during the COVID crisis.
Finally, in March, a few days after the AG’s report was released, he wrote a letter to SUNY’s college presidents expressing outrage at the “repugnant” acts detailed in it: “I have worked with the Governor at certain points for many years. It was always a difficult and demanding environment to work in,” he claimed.
He assured them that he “had no knowledge of the actions corroborated in the Attorney General’s report, conduct that far exceeded anything I could even fathom during my time in the Governor’s Office.”
The chancellor doth protest too much: After all, for a guy so close to Cuomo for so long and who’s been so intimately aware of his management style and habits, his sudden “Shock, shock!” fails the nose test.
Yes, you can perhaps argue about Malatras’ effectiveness at SUNY, but unless the new occupant of the governor’s mansion shovels out all the excrement in Albany’s stables, such contempt and defiance will continue to reign.
Fred Smith served as an administrative analyst for NYC public schools.