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New SUNY chancellor brings diverse background to job

The SUNY Board of Trustees unanimously approved Kristina Johnson (center, dressed in white) as the system's next chancellor. Johnson brings experience in government, academia and the private sector to the job.

The SUNY Board of Trustees appointed Kristina Johnson as the system's 13th chancellor Monday.

Johnson is a graduate of Stanford University with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. The 59-year-old has held administrative positions at Duke and Johns Hopkins universities, but Johnson has been out of academia for the past eight years. She served as an under secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy in the Obama administration, and most recently as CEO of a hydroelectric company

SUNY Board of Trustees Chair Carl McCall says that background in education, government and the private sector was key to her selection.

"When you look for someone to take on this big position, you look in certain places," McCall said. "Certainly, you look in the academy, some of our major colleges and universities, because that's where people who come to this kind of job get preparation. But you also might look at government, especially big government agencies like federal agencies. You want someone who has run something big. And thirdly, you might say let's do something nontraditional. Let's look at business and industry. And guess what, we found someone who has been a leader in all of those sectors."

Johnson's appointment is being praised by the United University Professions (UUP), the union that represents SUNY faculty and staff. The organization's president Frederick E. Kowal said Johnson's experience growing the engineering department at Duke University bodes well for SUNY as New York prepares to launch the recently passed Excelsior Scholarship, an unprecedented and somewhat controversial program to provide free tuition for some middle-income families at state colleges.

“SUNY needs more full-time faculty, a need that will become more apparent with an expected influx of students under the Excelsior Scholarship program," Kowal said in a statement. "Dr. Johnson’s prior willingness to hire additional faculty will serve SUNY and its students well."

However, Keshia Clukey, an education reporter with PoliticoNY, says there is some apprehension about her lack of executive experience in the academic field. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher was president of the University of Cincinnati before she was hired. 

"I think there’s some concern in her ability to govern such a large and diverse system," Clukey said. "Coming into New York state as an outsider, it’s kind of hard to get an idea for how diverse the schools are. It's a wide array in a number of different locations across the state and I think that will definitely be a challenge for her."

Johnson is a native of the Midwest, but her mother was born and raised in New York City.

"So in a certain sense, I feel that I am coming home," Johnson said. "She was raised during the Depression and I was raised on her stories. And, I couldn't be happier to be here to help hear the stories and further the stories of the students that will come through with us."

Johnson, who will make $560,000 annually, starts in September. Zimpher will retire in the summer after eight years on the job.  

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.