Robert L. King, whom the Council on Postsecondary Education tapped Tuesday as its next president, will arrive in Kentucky as the state's universities grapple with budget cuts while still trying to achieve lofty legislative mandates.
Former colleagues and even a political opponent say King — who once served as chancellor of the State University of New York system — has the temperament, ability and political fingertips to help guide the universities through difficult times.
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"It seems like a good fit because he'll have an objectivity that maybe a professional educator wouldn't have," said New York Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, the Democratic majority leader from Albany who was often on the opposite side of debates from King, a former Republican lawmaker. "The ability to fashion an agenda and develop coalitions — all that calls upon his strengths."
It's King's political background as a Republican assemblyman from Rochester, then as a budget director for former GOP Gov. George Pataki, that sets King apart from past council presidents, who mostly brought with them academic credentials.
King's political and budget skills could be a major asset to the universities, said former Gov. Paul Patton, one of the members of the council who helped pick King.
The council helps set higher education policy, including maximum tuition rates, coordinates university curricula and serves as a liaison between the schools and state government.
As CPE president, King will have to help the universities navigate treacherous waters in Frankfort, where the legislature and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear have yet to get in synch.
The council voted unanimously Tuesday morning to select King, who will replace Richard Crofts, the interim president. He will be the council's first permanent leader since Tom Layzell retired in September 2007.
King, 62, will earn $360,000 and a $40,000-per-year housing allowance, as well as use of a state car and assistance in moving from Arizona, where he lives with his wife of 31 years. The CPE president is required by law to be paid more than any public university president, whose highest base salary is $352,000.
He hasn't yet picked a start date but must be in Kentucky by April 1, 2009.
King told reporters he will strive to uphold the principles outlined in the 1997 higher education reform bill, which Patton championed. That legislation refocused the role of the council and laid out goals for the universities to attain by 2020.
He said he read a 2007 report from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce that concluded the council had strayed from its original charge and needs to be a stronger force.
King said his tenure as chancellor in New York has prepared him to be a forceful advocate.
University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. and four other university presidents met with King early Tuesday morning. They pressed King on "his inclination for teamwork" considering his position at SUNY was more of an executive role and less of coordinator, said Western Kentucky University President Gary Ransdell.
Ransdell said he was impressed with King's background, political instincts and that "he comes in objective."
Those skills will be especially important as the universities fight for state funding. Last week, each had to submit proposals to Beshear outlining how to cut 4 percent.
Beshear also praised King's appointment.
"At this critical juncture in the reforms of higher education, having someone with his experience, intellect and national standing will be invaluable as we seek to make college more affordable and accessible to more young Kentuckians," the governor said in a statement.
King was charged with shepherding the $10 billion-a-year SUNY system through the recession earlier this decade after the dot-com bust.
"Revenues were down, and he steered us by working with the governor and the legislature through those tough times and at the same time developed the focus on nanotechnology development," said Edward F. Cox, a New York lawyer who serves on SUNY's board of trustees.
Since February 2006, King has been president and CEO of Arizona Community Foundation, a charitable group focused on social welfare issues.
King helped the organization spearhead efforts to improve K-12 education and housing affordability, said Neal Kurn, a former chairman of the group who was a member of the search committee that hired King there.
"I'm very sorry to lose him," Kurn said.
King graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1971.
He served in the legislature from 1987 to 1991 and in Pataki's administration from 1995 to 1999. He took the reins of the SUNY system in December 1999 and served until June 2005.
He took some criticism when he left SUNY for requesting a paid sabbatical before ending his tenure as chancellor. King eventually rescinded his request and became interim president of SUNY Potsdam.