By Colleen Harrington

Bowing to public and legislative scrutiny, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher announced she and her top deputy would no longer pay themselves housing allowances totaling $150,000 per year, at a hearing before the State Senate Committee on Higher Education. Zimpher refused to withdraw raises recently awarded to three senior SUNY officials totaling $30,000 each, but announced she would rescind an offer for two of the officials to receive housing allowances, which would have amounted to $99,000 per year.

“As the Rolling Stones say, you can’t always get what you want,” Zimpher said at the hearing. “The decision comes from my belief that a big part of leadership is compromise.”

Zimpher had been called on the carpet by the Committee on Higher Education to answer questions after The Albany Times Union reported she had awarded $30,000 raises each to three top executives who were already making more than $200,000 each per year, in spite of deep funding cuts from the state that prompted Zimpher to furlough 221 SUNY central employees.

The Times Union also reported on multi-million dollar renovations currently underway at SUNY headquarters for “lavish” office suites for Zimpher and her team, citing unnamed SUNY insiders. The paper also publicized the Chancellor’s July decision to lay off a ten-member security team at SUNY’s Albany headquarters, despite an independent report indicating that the building would be unsafe and vulnerable without security guards.

Alarmed by the media reports, particularly in light of SUNY’s desperate pleas for greater autonomy, Higher Education Chairwoman Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Queens) and Sen. Kevin S. Parker (D-Brooklyn) called Zimpher to testify on September 24, along with Carl Hayden of the SUNY Board of Trustees and Monica Rimai, Zimpher’s top deputy and Chief Operating Officer for SUNY. Rimai came to SUNY in 2009 along with Zimpher from the University of Cincinnati, and Hayden had chaired the search for the new chancellor, which resulted in Zimpher’s appointment. Zimpher earns a salary of $490,000 per year and Rimai earns $325,000 per year; Hayden’s position on the board is unpaid.

Chancellor Zimpher with President Stanley

To quell concerns, Zimpher and Rimai announced at the hearing they would give up their yearly housing allowances of $90,000 and $60,000, respectively, and those savings would be used to fund the $90,000 in raises awarded this month to three top SUNY officials. The pay raises, recommended by Zimpher and approved on September 15 by the SUNY Board of Trustees, were awarded to John J. O’Connor, Johanna Duncan-Poitier and David Lavallee. The three officials, along with Rimai, make up Zimpher’s Executive Committee.

Duncan-Poitier began at SUNY less than one year ago in October 2009. She was formerly a senior deputy commissioner for the New York State Education Department. Zimpher appointed her to the post of Chancellor’s Deputy for the Education Pipeline, tasked with overseeing “cradle to college” initiatives by streamlining public education from kindergarten through college. In addition, she was recently appointed to be the Vice Chancellor for Community Colleges, and Zimpher testified that additional responsibilities deserved a $30,000 raise. Duncan-Poitier now makes $250,000 per year and has access to a university car.

O’Connor serves as the secretary of SUNY and the president of the SUNY Research Foundation. He was recently given the additional title of Senior Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation. Zimpher testified that O’Connor would be tasked with overseeing SUNY partnerships with private corporations, warranting a $30,000 raise, bringing his new salary to $275,000. O’Connor had been offered a $39,000 housing allowance, which Zimpher rescinded at the hearing.

Lavallee was hired in 2009 as SUNY’s interim provost and was formerly the provost of SUNY New Paltz. Zimpher testified that SUNY could not afford to continue searching for a permanent provost, so Lavallee’s appointment has been extended for two more years. Zimpher said that he holds the additional titles of Senior Associate Provost and fills “several other positions” in the provost’s office. In addition, Zimpher said at the hearing that Lavallee was recently given even more responsibilities.

“I added to his agenda oversight of the SUNY Global Center and the Vice Chancellor for Global International Affairs, and I felt that I was asking this person to do more than one job,” Zimpher said. She felt that his numerous responsibilities warranted a $30,000 raise, bringing Lavallee’s new salary to $315,000. Records indicate that Lavallee had been receiving a $60,000 annual housing allowance since 2009, which Zimpher said would be revoked.

But SUNY already pays a Vice Chancellor for Global Affairs $180,000 a year, plus a $54,000 annual housing allowance. Records indicate that Mitch Leventhal was appointed to the post in September 2009 and came from the University of Cincinnati, along with Zimpher and her top deputy Rimai.

SUNY Admin Tower

SUNY officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the overlap in positions.

At the hearing, SUNY Board of Trustees Chairman Carl Hayden testified that the salary increases were discussed over two meetings of the SUNY Board of Trustees: the first occurred last May in an undocumented executive session; the second came this September, when the salary increases were approved.

The hearing also included discussion of a $3 million renovation project underway at SUNY headquarters, which unnamed SUNY sources have characterized as a lavish office makeover in Times Union reports.

“Although it pains me to dignify such sleaze by remarking on it, there is no Taj Mahal under construction at SUNY Plaza,” testified Hayden. He said the renovations are part of plan to bring obsolete infrastructure up to date, and that Zimpher is moving to the fourth floor of SUNY headquarters so “she and her senior leadership team can be together.”

A large portion of the hearing also focused on SUNY central’s July decision to lay off its ten-member security force. Sen. Stavisky produced an independent report of a security analysis performed in June by Linstar Security Systems, which said that getting rid of the security force would render the building unsafe and vulnerable. Rimai testified she was unaware of the report and Stavisky promised to provide her a copy.

“Since Chancellor Zimpher’s arrival, a pervasive culture of apathy and outright hostility towards security existed,” Robert Rogers, formerly the chief security officer at SUNY, testified at the hearing. He said he and his team were trained emergency responders and now, in their absence, the staff they used to protect could be vulnerable in the event of a situation requiring first aid, or even to invasions by protesters.

The committee demanded that SUNY officials provide several documents to back up their testimony, to be reviewed in coming weeks.

News of SUNY central’s spending decisions drew harsh criticism from legislators around the state, including here on Long Island.

“If you want to know why people are so upset with their government and why they have lost faith in so many of their institutions, you don’t have to look much further than this recent episode here at SUNY,” Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) wrote in a statement that was read aloud at the hearing in his absence. “At a time when middle class families are doing more with less and other SUNY employees are being told to stay home and give back a portion of their pay each month, these raises have sent a terrible message.”

“These pay raises are unconscionable,” Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said in a statement. “SUNY, including Stony Brook, has again proven that they have become a top-heavy bureaucracy that is more concerned about preserving their own jobs than public higher education.”

Stony Brook spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow declined to comment on the hearing or on SUNY’s spending decisions.