SUNY Board of Trustees selects next chancellor

Kristina Johnson (center), an engineer, was selected as the SUNY chancellor on Monday April 24 after Chancellor Nancy Zimpher (right) announced her decision to step down. SUNY Board of Trustees Chairperson Carl McCall (left) led the search committee that chose Johnson. (Courtesy of SUNY)

The SUNY Board of Trustees announced the appointment of Kristina Johnson as the upcoming SUNY Chancellor in September 2016. The SUNY Chancellor governs the 64 SUNY institutions across the state. 

The process to hire Johnson began with current Chancellor Nancy Zimpher’s announcement in May 2016 that she would be leaving at the end of the 2016-2017 academic year, according to a SUNY press release. Zimpher will step down in June and Johnson will become chancellor on Sept. 5. The Board of Trustees will select a temporary chancellor for the interim.

Once Zimpher announced her intentions to leave, the SUNY Board of Trustees created a 22-person search committee, according to a phone interview with committee member and President of the SUNY Student Assembly Marc Cohen. The committee contracted the Isaacson, Miller search firm, looked over applications, conducted interviews for finalists and then chose Johnson. 

Cohen said he believes that Johnson’s different work experiences speak to her qualifications. 

Johnson has worked in various areas. She served as dean of Duke University’s School of Engineering for 10 years before taking the provost position at Johns Hopkins University, according to the press release. She then joined the Obama administration as undersecretary of Energy, which she left to start Cube Hydro Partners LLC, which builds facilities for hydroelectric power. 

“We’re in a pivotal time now,” Cohen said. “The SUNY system was brought up quite a bit over the past few years by the work and efforts of Chancellor Zimpher. We needed someone who could continue and build upon that track record of progress and success. Her experience in multiple different areas exemplifies her outstanding ability to lead not only large institutions, but to lead people.”

Dean of Academic Planning and Advising and professor of English Celia Easton said that she believes that Johnson might want to take the SUNY system toward more hands-on learning. 

“Engineers are not only smart people, they’re interested in the intersection between learning and work or what we call ‘applied learning,’” she said.     “My suspicion is that we should view this as a positive. Our students graduate with real skills to analyze data or think critically and they walk into jobs with those skills. I think we represent applied learning well and the new chancellor will be interested in that.”

Cohen predicts that Johnson will want to focus on STEM initiatives and to take feedback from students into account during her time as chancellor. 

“I think Johnson recognizes the importance of STEM and of women in STEM,” he said. “I think she will really work to diversify SUNY’s portfolio. Johnson genuinely cares about shared governance and understands the power of the student voice, which appealed to me the most.”

Easton said that she thinks that Johnson will aim to reach out to other disciplines outside of science and engineering. 

“I don’t think that she will push Geneseo toward STEM,” she said. “One of the things you learn when you reach a certain level of administration is how important it is to be inclusive. I am making the predictive assumption that the new chancellor will reach out in the direction of the humanities and she might be really excited that there is an interdisciplinary approach to things.” 

Professor of theater Randy Kaplan spoke of the ways in which Geneseo itself has failed to adequately fund some disciplines. 

“Geneseo performs horribly regarding the arts,” she said. “I’ve been here for a long time and I’ve seen the money and support dwindle. There are some administrators, like the chancellor, who are new so they don’t know what happened to the institution over the years.”

“I don’t think that the new chancellor is going to dictate things to campuses,” she said. “She’s not going to look down and tell Geneseo to start an engineering program because we have a strong physics program. I think that she’ll try to maintain the distinctiveness that SUNY colleges have for themselves."