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It is an honor to be the fifth president of SUNY Empire State College. Although the recent circumstances facing the state, nation, and countries around the world compelled us to cancel our planned ceremony and celebration of SUNY Empire, I thought it was important to share a few words with the community about my vision for the college and what the future holds.  

To start, I wish you all good health during these uncertain times.  

I’ve just completed my eighth month as president of SUNY Empire State College, and there is much to report. 

First, thank you to the SUNY Empire State College community for welcoming me into your arms. SUNY Empire has great faculty mentors, professional and support staff, foundation board members, international partners, and senate members. In particular, I want to thank my staff for the amazing job they do each and every day. They are tireless advocates for SUNY Empire, and they never stop working to expand opportunities for our students.

I also want to thank our students. Their success is our collective success. We currently have 87,000 success stories all across this world, and the numbers are growing. Their tenacity, drive, and energy are unparalleled, and I’m humbled by how they Make it Happen.

The Inaugural Message of 
Jim Malatras, Fifth President of SUNY Empire State College

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Where We Are and Where We’re Going 

While there is plenty to celebrate at SUNY Empire State College, it is important to take a step back and reflect on where we are — not only in higher education, but as a society.

These are tumultuous times, when division is the currency of political power — made manifest by the policy of building a literal wall to divide us. Empathy has been overcome by anger, perpetuated by Twitter bots and talking heads; the truth has been replaced by repetition of disinformation; unity has been discarded for tribalism.

A global health crisis has only compounded this already difficult situation. 

The challenge is, how do we progress beyond the turbulence to find our better angels? As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The struggle for rights is, at bottom, a struggle for opportunities.” Opportunities are realized through education. Education breaks down barriers and opens minds.

That is why being an educator is more than a job; it’s a vocation. But, as educators, we have a responsibility to speak up and speak out — and roll up our sleeves and do something, because in the words of Paul Simon, “silence like a cancer grows.” And the cancer is spreading.

How we respond during these trying times can have a profound impact on the direction of this nation. Too often we cling to the practices of the past instead of embracing the possibilities of tomorrow. We must forge a new path.

We need to adapt to the times — times when everything a person needs is just a click away on their smartphone.  

We’re also responding to an emerging global health crisis that has forced colleges and universities to quickly adapt from place-based to distance-based education. We still don’t know what, if any, long-term impact this will have on the institution of higher education.

It’s not unusual for higher education to evolve. As University of Kentucky professor John Thelin states, “…our colleges and universities are constantly changing, both by accident and design.” We’ve done it before — from the creation of government-funded land-grant institutions to mass public higher education post WWII — and we must do it again.

But change is hard. Culture and institutions often adapt only when forced to do so. For education to remain relevant amid rapid changes in technology, the workforce, and global culture, change cannot come by accident.  It must be by design.

The good thing is that we have the model: SUNY Empire State College. Former SUNY Chancellor Ernest Boyer and our first president, Jim Hall, had the audacity to challenge norms, to push the envelope, and to deliver quality education in a new way. They rejected the dogma of “the way it has always been” for the idealism of “the way it ought to be.”

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SUNY Empire: A Model for Today and Tomorrow 

The good thing is that we have the model: SUNY Empire State College. Former SUNY Chancellor Ernest Boyer and our first president, Jim Hall, had the audacity to challenge norms, to push the envelope, and to deliver quality education in a new way. They rejected the dogma of “the way it has always been” for the idealism of “the way it ought to be.”

But what is SUNY Empire? For those who don't know, it is simple, but profound: We provide personalized, flexible education through various formats — online, in person, or a mix of both. In the future, we’ll likely provide it in some new way that I can't even imagine yet. We began our effort primarily focused on adult learners, but our reach goes from 18-90 years of age. Our model is ageless.

From our beginning, we were considered different — called “nontraditional.” In fact, we often self-identify as such. But that term does a disservice to who we are and the high-quality education we provide students all across the world. Nontraditional suggests secondary, as if our students couldn’t make it at “legitimate” or “mainstream” schools.

To that, I say poppycock!  

Our students do their homework, and they come to SUNY Empire because we offer an education that works for them — on their terms. They don’t accept the limitations of classrooms or fixed schedules. That makes them change agents even if they don’t know it.

In other words, our students are students. Period.

Since we’re academics, we must define everything with a fancy term, so a better way to describe SUNY Empire is “post-traditional.”  I wish I could take credit for this, but SUNY Mohawk’s president, Randy VanWagoner, put it in my mind.  

So, what does it mean to be a post-traditional institution? The best way to describe the post-traditional higher education model at SUNY Empire is to say it is like jazz. Jazz is an artform that is near and dear to my heart — something passed on from my grandfather, to my father, to me. My son and daughter — Max Ellington after Duke Ellington, and Ella Yael after Ella Fitzgerald — are keepers of that tradition in name and in soul.

SUNY Empire: Repeated, but Never Replicated

A jazz tune often has a basic pattern that guides the musicians, but within that structure is a spontaneity in the moment, based on the interaction between the musicians on the stage. Innovation in real time. The same song is never played the same way. The moment and the musician matter. In jazz, musicians often repeat the same song, but never replicate it.

That’s the beauty of jazz.

That’s also the beauty of SUNY Empire. A student can have a structured program, like an MBA, but have a uniquely personalized experience based upon their interaction with their faculty mentor or by building their coursework around their life. In essence, like jazz, each student experience is repeated, but not replicated.

In jazz, up-and-coming players often have others to mentor them as they start their creative journey. This important relationship between jazz musicians embodies the core of SUNY Empire — the requirement that each student has a mentor to guide them through their studies.

Unlike the factory-line sameness of one-size-fits-all, big-box colleges permeating our communities, SUNY Empire’s critical relationship between faculty mentor and student has helped repeat success for decades, but each relationship can never be replicated.  

And like jazz, SUNY Empire continues to evolve, change, and grow. The early sound of Dixieland Jazz has been transformed into modern forms like the post-bop sound of SUNY Empire alum, Kenny Barron. Today’s jazz may have different instrumentation and musical formats, but is still driven by the commonality of purpose.

We see the same continuity in our beloved faculty mentor Alan Mandell, who has been with the college nearly from its start. While he may have gotten a little grayer over the years, his commitment to our mission has remained unshakeable. Likewise, SUNY Empire’s appearance has changed over time — from classrooms in the basements of public libraries to state-of-the-art facilities across the state. Our first distance-learning program meant literally mailing assignments between faculty and students. Now we have one of the most sophisticated online programs in the nation, and our immersive cloud virtual classrooms allow faculty to reach students from Arizona to Athens, as if they were in the same room.

Through all these changes to the way we deliver education, our core model and mission have remained the same.

Collaboration Wins the Competition

I’d like to offer one more point about jazz. Jazz not only swings; it speaks as the conscience of our nation — not simply the artform — but the essence, ideal, and core. Like the fabric of America, jazz isn’t a one-dimensional type of music. As Stony Brook professor Krin Gabbard says, jazz binds a number of different strands together under a coherent tradition — from swing to cool, to fusion, to bop, or neophonic; with black, white, Hispanic and many other musicians playing together with a common purpose.  

Jazz not only pulls these musical strands together into a common chord; it celebrates various styles and musical diversity.

That is the American ideal — still the noble experiment that out of many different cultures, races, and religions can be one self-governing nation. And although we struggle to realize that ideal, our continued pursuit of it is what truly makes us great.  

Yet in order to fulfill our nation’s promise, we need an educated citizenry; a citizenry served by institutions of higher education that embody the diversity of America.

SUNY and other New York colleges are like jazz musicians — we’re different sizes, shapes, and interests, and we must work collaboratively to provide the most diverse educational opportunity for all. Our true competition comes from outside institutions with the gloss and glam of slick advertising and their promises of plenty, which often turn out to be fool’s gold for students.

So, we find ourselves discussing the shackles of student loan debt and substandard education instead of the doors public higher education can unlock. This has led to a crisis in confidence in higher education, with a nation evenly split on whether a college degree is even worth it anymore.  

Ironically, we’re facing this test during a time when jobs require more education, not less. It is a time when we need lifelong learning programs as industries change so the workforce can meet new demands.

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Education is no longer a single finish line to cross, but an ongoing journey.

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SUNY Adirondack Partnership Signing

It’s our job to meet the challenge of the modern workforce, but in new and innovative forms. SUNY Empire can lead the way, because this is the essence and mission of the college.

The only constant is change, not in mission, but how we continue to realize the promise of SUNY Empire. 

By working together, rather than competing, we are forging new pathways for student success, whether it's our recent partnerships with SUNY Adirondack to co-locate their students on SUNY Empire’s Saratoga campus, or with Nassau County Community College to provide a seamless transition to advanced nursing degrees, or co-locating our new Long Island campus in Selden near Suffolk County Community College to provide their students continuous options to complete a bachelor’s degree or more without leaving their community, and with Hudson Valley and Fulton Montgomery Community Colleges to provide needed addiction studies degrees.

We’re adapting to the needs of the workforce by partnering with various outside groups to meet workforce demand — from joining forces with Camelot Counseling on Staten Island to expand our addiction studies program to address the opioid crisis; to partnering with the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce to provide needed upskilling to employees in their 1,300 businesses; to our partnership with the Long Island Building Trades Council to provide workforce development opportunities to more than 60,000 of our brothers and sisters in labor; or to our recent partnership with Iroquois Healthcare Association, which represents 300,000 healthcare professionals and 54 hospitals across upstate New York to train the state’s healthcare workforce.

We’re also directly reaching into communities all across the state to touch those who want educational opportunity. Our groundbreaking new partnerships with other colleges, the private sector, labor, and community organizations in Buffalo and Syracuse that provide place-based job training to communities left behind is a perfect example of this approach.

SUNY Empire State College’s Forward-Thinking Research 

At SUNY Empire we are not only educators, but forward-thinking researchers.

Under Dr. Nan Travers, SUNY Empire is leading the nation in developing a model for awarding college credits for life experience and training with valuable financial support from the Lumina Foundation.  

We are forming new partnerships to explore ways of approaching problems we’ve long struggled with — like how to erase inequality through the new Shirley A. Chisholm Center for Equity Studies in Brooklyn — to new problems facing society, like the future of our workforce in the age of artificial intelligence and automation, which the Rockefeller Institute’s Future of Labor Research Center is currently examining.

Not only can SUNY Empire train the workforce of today and tomorrow, we will provide cutting-edge academic research to help solve society’s most vexing problems.

Progress is not made by walling ourselves off, rejecting the pursuit of truth and knowledge, or tearing others down; it's made by pulling each other up, giving voice to the voiceless, and exploring new ideas.

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Our Commitment to Community 

As an institution of public higher education, we have a responsibility to our communities as well. And the SUNY Empire family has collectively reaffirmed its commitment to our neighbors across New York state and beyond.

We’ve created opportunities for our students to give back to other communities. Ashley Vanderhall, Aaryah Jessop, Dennis McGraw, Diane Owens, Lisa Schnitzer, and Carline Penal are students who, working with professor Jim McMahon, volunteered to help rebuild Puerto Rico after it was hit by multiple hurricanes — taking vacation time from their jobs and spending time away from their families to give back. I applaud them for their deep commitment to helping those in need.

We are doing our part to combat climate change by installing electric vehicle charging stations and using renewable energy resources, such as our geothermal heating and cooling system at our new student center in Saratoga Springs.  

We opened our doors to help count every New Yorker for the census and made our Rochester campus one of the state’s first early voting polling places to help people participate in our country’s most fundamental duty — voting.

Given the growing hatred and intolerance infecting this country, we are not just talking about diversity and inclusion, we're taking meaningful action. We’ve launched the college’s first-ever Empire Opportunity Program, led by Dana Brown, and an action-oriented Presidential Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion.  

We’re creating an inclusive community with our nation-leading Center for Understanding Autism, in conjunction with alum Patrick Paul, to provide the right educational space at SUNY Empire for those with autism to succeed in college and beyond.

In the face of the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19 and its effects on our economy and society, the SUNY Empire community sprang into action by creating an emergency financial fund to help our students transition to distance learning or to help meet other academic needs during a difficult time.

On a day-to-day basis, all across the college, you see faculty and staff giving back, such as Dr. Rhianna Rogers and Charissa Naul, who are committed to community by addressing student food insecurity and donating needed supplies to the less privileged members of our community. 

Our commitment to serve our students and the broader common good is the SUNY Empire way.

SUNY Empire Will Lead the Way 

We’ve undergone a lot of strategic change in my few short months as president of SUNY Empire. One of the most visible is our new logo — a torch reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty’s, emblazoned with a stylized E for SUNY Empire. The torch represents SUNY Empire’s core of providing educational opportunity for all — that we open our doors so we can all collectively share in our nation’s prosperity.

A rising tide lifts all boats. It’s our responsibility in public higher education to give every person the chance to have a seat on one of these boats.

Progress is not made by walling ourselves off, rejecting the pursuit of truth and knowledge, or tearing others down; it's made by pulling each other up, giving voice to the voiceless, and exploring new ideas.

We must reject the growing homily of hate and replace it with the homily of hope. And we must do so loudly and forcefully.

SUNY Empire was named after New York state’s nickname, the Empire State — which is fitting in many ways, because of our unique span of 30-plus campuses across the state, expansive online programs, and international reach, but maybe most because New York itself is a beacon of new opportunities and beginnings.

A photo of Jim Malatras as a teenager.

As a point of personal privilege, I wouldn’t be here without support from many people, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, for his unyielding support throughout my career. In particular, I want to thank a remarkable woman — my mother-in-law, Eileen Haworth Weil. She was an advocate for social justice, a faculty member of SUNY Sullivan, and my role model. May her memory be a blessing. And I couldn’t do this job without the love and support of my wife Jenny, and my children, Max and Ella. They are my everything.

But SUNY lifted me up and gave me the opportunity to exceed my dreams. It was my public higher education that resulted in my career in public service, reaching from the upper echelons of state government to the upper echelons of higher education.

I am a proud SUNY success story. And I’ve heard countless others here at SUNY Empire.

You see our success in Natural Langdon, a world traveler and filmmaker from New Jersey, who gave higher education another chance. SUNY Empire, and in particular the Black Male Initiative, was the launching pad for his highly successful career in the arts.  

You see it in Jessica Peck, from Schenectady, New York, a proud member of the U.S. Air National Guard, who graduated with a degree in business, management and economics from SUNY Empire years after discovering that attending college right out of high school wasn’t for her.

You see success in Jawana Richardson, from Hempstead on Long Island who — after being away from college for 30 years and after the painful loss of her son and husband — persevered. She earned her associate and bachelor’s degrees and won a prestigious SUNY Chancellor Award at SUNY Empire.

You see it in Adonis George from Queens, New York — a veteran, electrician for IBEW Local 3, and barrier breaker for the LGBTQ community — who has overcome adversity by thriving in our labor studies program.

You see it in 75-year-old Judy Lewis, from Rochester, New York, who said it’s not too late to finish her college degree.

You see success in Alexis Gooding, from Brooklyn, New York — a first-generation college student who, after witnessing family members go through the justice system, aspires to help the wrongfully convicted.

You see it in every student at SUNY Empire who believes in themselves and works hard to achieve their dreams. We celebrate you!

When SUNY Empire started, we were the radical outsiders, the “others,” the “alternative.” But more and more, our model is becoming the norm in this post-traditional age, validating the wisdom and vision of our founders — Chancellor Boyer and Jim Hall, and carried on by faculty and staff including Alan Mandell, Cindy Bates, Frank VanderValk, Peggy Tally, Meg Benke, David Fullard, Audi Matias, Paul Miller, Eileeen Angelini, Anastasia Pratt, and many others. 

It is our obligation to carry on the tradition of those who built this important institution of learning.

It is our obligation to be a force for social good by exploring and celebrating different ideas and cultures.

It is our obligation to do everything in our power to give a person a shot at bettering their life through education, whether they are fresh out of high school, a single parent struggling to get by, a veteran home from serving our nation, or a laid-off factory worker.

This is our obligation. It is a noble endeavor.

But let us recalibrate our perspective. Let us not waste this moment with trivial issues that will end up just as a speck of dust in history. Let us instead reaffirm our commitment to mission. That will be our lasting contribution.

As Chancellor Boyer claimed many decades ago, “In the end, the success of learning will be based upon the empowerment of each student. And Empire College will have helped lead the way.”

I’m happy to be on this journey with you. Together, we will continue to lead the way.

Thank you.

New York state was the world’s gateway to this country for generations of people seeking a better life. SUNY Empire does have an international reach, but our mission is quintessentially New York — bold, forward-thinking, open to all, and all done with a little swagger.

I know the value of a public higher education. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. And if you judged a book by its cover, or its high school graduation photo — I had long hair and a rose between my teeth (yes, that was my high school graduation photo) — you wouldn’t have given me much of a chance.