Albany Agenda

SUNY chancellor John King talks budget wins and campus protests

The head of the state’s public university system discussed the police response to pro-Palestinian protest encampments and the fate of SUNY Downstate.

SUNY chancellor John King (center) appears on a panel at SUNY Old Westbury on Long Island on Nov. 13, 2023.

SUNY chancellor John King (center) appears on a panel at SUNY Old Westbury on Long Island on Nov. 13, 2023. Howard Schnapp/Newsday RM via Getty Images

Colleges and universities have been at the center of the national news cycle as students at numerous schools have set up pro-Palestine protest encampments. The protests started at Columbia University but have since popped up at several State University of New York schools, including the Fashion Institute of Technology, Stony Brook University, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Purchase and Binghamton University. Last week, police arrested about 130 protesters at New Paltz and about 70 students and faculty at Purchase after school officials called in law enforcement to disperse the encampment. A day before that, police on Long Island arrested over two dozen protesters at Stony Brook.

College administrators have faced scrutiny from both the left and the right for their handling of the protests, with some denouncing the use of law enforcement to arrest student protesters and others charging that schools aren’t doing enough to protect pro-Israel Jewish students who feel unsafe on campus. At the same time, Republicans in Congress have launched an investigation into the federal funding of schools where the protests have occurred, with those dollars potentially on the line. And the House passed legislation that would expand the definition of antisemitism to include certain criticisms of Israel and allow the federal Education Department to cut funding to schools that don’t crack down on anti-Israel protests.

SUNY Chancellor John King last month reiterated the public university system’s support for Israel and its opposition to boycotting Israeli universities and divesting school funds from Israel – key demands of most college protests – but had until recently largely remained quiet on the protests. King spoke with City & State on Monday about the unrest at the state’s public universities and the ways that schools have decided to respond. He also discussed recent budget wins for the system, including record funding, a path forward for SUNY Downstate Medical Center and increased tuition assistance for students. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We’ve been seeing a lot of unrest at college campuses, including SUNY campuses, over the war in Gaza. What is your reaction to seeing encampments pop up at SUNY colleges and what are your thoughts on the schools that chose to bring in law enforcement, like New Paltz?

At SUNY, we have a responsibility, first and foremost, to make sure that our students, our faculty and staff and our communities are safe. And we have a responsibility to protect free expression and the robust exchange of ideas that is foundational to the mission of higher education. Students certainly have a First Amendment right to express their policy views, even if those policy views may be ones that I disagree with or find objectionable. However, that First Amendment right is not limitless. Students cannot engage in harassment and discrimination. Students do not have the right to commit acts of vandalism or violence. Students do not have the right to impede the normal functioning of their campus and the ability of their classmates to get their education. So our campuses are going to continue to very thoughtfully implement appropriate time, place and manner restrictions. To the extent that students adhere to those content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions, they certainly have every right to continue to voice their policy views. When students are violating state law or campus policies, then campuses have to intervene with appropriate campus discipline, and, if necessary to preserve safety, may engage with law enforcement.

Columbia just announced that they’re not going to have a campus-wide graduation ceremony. I know the governor has been in contact with colleges around the state about graduation ceremonies. Is there any plan for any changes to graduation ceremonies at any of the SUNYs?

We are doing a lot of planning around the logistics of graduation. We've had SUNY-facilitated tabletop exercises for the leadership teams at all of our campuses to think through how to manage graduation logistics safely, even while there are opportunities for folks to engage in appropriate protests. So I think, you know, we are on track to have safe and joyful graduation ceremonies. But they may look somewhat different and there will be steps taken to ensure that the events proceed safely.

There were a handful of lawmakers who sent a letter to you on Friday expressing discontent with the police being called at SUNY campuses. Do you have any response to those lawmakers?

I have read the letter and certainly appreciate the concern that we all share for both campus safety and the opportunity for free expression. The letter was specifically (focused) on Binghamton. As I'm sure you know, at Binghamton, they were able to successfully resolve the protests. Fortunately, the protests did disperse peacefully before (a deadline given of Friday at) 5pm, and the student leaders of the protest had the opportunity to meet with campus leadership and talk about their concerns. And those meetings are ongoing. So that was a very positive resolution at Binghamton. And (I) actually had the opportunity to speak with one of the authors of the letter in real time and to share that positive resolution at Binghamton. 

At New Paltz, we certainly are going to review the steps that were taken in advance of the role of law enforcement in dispersing the protests. The activities of law enforcement are outside of our purview, but we will certainly review campus policies, practices and decisions to make sure that we learn lessons to inform future steps.

I wanted to ask about the significance of the funding commitments in the budget made for SUNY.

The two-year investment from last budget year and this one represents the largest increase in direct state tax support for SUNY in five decades. So it's an incredible statement of the governor’s and Legislature’s commitment to public education, to public higher education and to SUNY. So we're very appreciative. Last year’s $163 million allowed us to provide every campus with double digit percentage increases in funding, as well as allowed us to dedicate $10 million to expanding mental health services, $10 million to expanding services for students with disabilities, $10 million to expanding internships. 

This year, with $114 million, the bulk of the resources will go to covering the salary increases in our new collective bargaining agreement with (United University Professions, the union representing SUNY workers), which was a very fair agreement, provides for well deserved raises for faculty. But we needed the state's help to pay for it and Gov. Hochul and our legislative champions made sure that they stepped up to provide significant resources to help us cover the cost of the contract.

In addition to the funding numbers, one of the other major issues for SUNY in this budget was the future of SUNY Downstate Medical Center. How do you feel about where that ultimately ended up?

We are in a dramatically better place than we were at the start of the year. At the start of this year, we were looking at a $100 million deficit that would have caused us to run out of cash to continue to operate by July. Through many discussions with the Legislature, with stakeholders, we ended up with the Legislature and governor including the enacted budget exactly the dollars that the governor had proposed: $100 million to cover the deficit which allows the hospital to continue operating and $300 million in capital. As we had the conversations with stakeholders throughout the several months, certainly a lot of frustration (was expressed) with decades of disinvestment in Central Brooklyn. But I think absolute consensus on the need to protect the Health Sciences University, and absolute consensus on the need to expand and improve health care services in the community. So the advisory board now will make recommendations on the use of the $300 million. So I think we're at a good place.

I know there are various appointments that still need to be made to the advisory board, but do you have any sense of when the work might get started?

I assume that this summer, we will get launched. The governor will need to make appointments to the advisory board. We certainly have materials that were already assembling to help to inform the work of the advisory board. But it's a timeline where we need to get to full recommendations by April 1. So we'll want to get started this summer.

You were also recently with the governor to announce more funding for the Tuition Assistance Program and higher awards. How do you see that impacting the students attending or hoping to attend a SUNY school?

We're thrilled with the increased reach of TAP in the enacted budget. So at SUNY, the changes to the TAP program are going to mean 44,500 students who will see their financial aid increase as a result from the state, so we're very appreciative. We also hope that there were students who might have been sitting on the sidelines, families who are nervous, worried about whether or not they can afford college, who now – knowing that these TAP dollars are available – will choose college.

There were some rumors back in February that you were being considered to become the new Harvard president. Is there anything new there? Any conversations with people at Harvard about making the jump to Massachusetts?

I love my job at SUNY, and I love what we get to do at SUNY. We really are such an engine of opportunity for New York State and that's so well aligned with what I've spent my whole career in education focused on.