The new president of the SUNY Student Assembly (SA) is one of SUNY Cortland’s own.
Former Student Government Association (SGA) President Michael Braun ’17 was elected in a unanimous vote of student leaders on Saturday, April 7. That means Braun soon will be the top student government representative for a network that boasts 64 campuses and more than 600,000 students, making it the largest comprehensive public university system in the U.S.
The former political science major officially assumes office on Friday, June 1.
“It’s an amazing feeling to know that the students across this system trust in me to serve as their next president,” said Braun, who currently is pursuing a Master of Public Administration (MPA) at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany. “We’re the next generation of leaders in New York state. For my fellow students to listen to me and believe in my vision, that’s a great feeling. It’s something that motivates me every day.”
Braun has served as the chief financial officer of the SUNY SA for the past year, helping the organization earn its largest-ever budget increase and creating new funding sources through corporate sponsorships.
As president, Braun will be the lone student representative and a voting member of the 18-person SUNY Board of Trustees. He will be a crucial student voice on topics such as college accessibility and affordability, food insecurity among students and the quality of public education in New York state.
“My job, at its core, is to make sure students are taken into consideration when talking about policy and vision for the system,” Braun said. “And, in a larger sense, my job is to make sure SUNY stays representative of the foundation it was built upon: accessible and affordable educational opportunity for all students.”
He understands the value of public education because his own college experience — especially four formative years at SUNY Cortland — helps define it.
A Long Island native from Elmont, N.Y., Braun ranked ninth in his graduating class at Elmont Memorial High School. He excelled in athletics and packed his high school years with other meaningful extracurricular activities, including a stint as class president. Still, balancing academic quality with cost was an important consideration during college decision-making process.
“I knew the finances that my family had and I knew that I was going to pay for my own education,” he said. “A state university was the only realistic option.”
Braun came to SUNY Cortland, in part, for a chance to play for the College’s nationally respected baseball team. A shoulder injury, however, cut his baseball dream short. In hindsight, it could’ve been the most pivotal experience of his undergraduate career.
“I had to start over,” Braun said. “I had to ask myself, ‘Who do I want to be at Cortland?’”
The simple answer is a leader.
It started with Greek life, and Braun eventually ascended to the presidency of the College’s Interfraternity Council. Academic outlets included the College’s Model European Union as well as Moot Court, where he helped secure SUNY Cortland’s best-ever finish at a regional competition. He also excelled in his classes, eventually earning the Political Science Department’s Outstanding Achievement in Public Administration and Public Policy Award as a senior.
Professors noticed Braun’s potential too. Faculty members in the Economics Department helped develop his passion for labor policy by introducing him to colleagues across the country, who then connected him to a Washington, D.C., internship opportunity with North America’s Building Trade Unions. Braun worked there for two summers as a research intern and later became a legislative intern in Albany, N.Y., for United University Professions.
“I enjoy advocating for things that truly matter to America’s working class,” Braun said. “I’ve seen the benefits firsthand of unions, affordable healthcare and quality public education.”
Of course, Braun’s dive into student government also proved crucial to his growth. He served in the role of parliamentarian as a junior and recalled a speech delivered at Academic Convocation by Patrick Viscome ’17, the SGA president at the time. It inspired Braun to reach higher.
As SGA president during the 2016-17 school year, he helped lead several student-focused initiatives. Those efforts included increasing student representation on administrative and faculty-led committees, fostering new ways to promote diversity, equity and inclusion and rethinking SGA’s framework to better represent SUNY Cortland students.
He credited several mentors with helping to develop his leadership skills as SGA president, including College President Erik Bitterbaum, Vice President for Student Affairs Greg Sharer and Associate Director of Campus Activities Mary Kate Boland ’06, who served as the organization’s advisor.
“At Cortland, I learned how to build relationships, be a good teammate and focus on priorities,” said Braun, who earned a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence in 2017.
He specifically singled out the respect that Bitterbaum has earned across campus and the larger SUNY system.
“The value of building relationships and gaining credibility is invaluable, and no one does it better than President Bitterbaum,” Braun said. “He’s looked at throughout the state as someone who people enjoy being around. It’s because, no matter the club or the organization or the cause, he’s always there supporting other people. He enjoys his role as president and it’s evident.
“You have to enjoy what you do. He’s proof of that.”
Bitterbaum returned the praise.
“I can confidently say that the SUNY system will be in excellent hands with Mike at the helm of the Student Assembly,” Bitterbaum said. “He brings energy, insight and passion to all that he does, especially when it involves the needs of other students. We’ve been fortunate to educate so many wonderful leaders at SUNY Cortland and Mike stands out among the best. I’m very proud to call him one of our own.”
In many ways, the SUNY SA presidency will present many of the same opportunities and challenges that Braun already has faced, only on a larger scale. He’s prepared for more frequent travel and delivering more speeches. But he said a career running for political office isn’t one of his short-term goals.
“I have a passion for people — the middle class, the working class — and things like the economy and education,” Braun said. “I want to focus on my passion and the policy first before thinking about public office.”
He does, however, hope that his example inspires other SUNY Cortland students.
“Even if they’re not interested in student government or public policy, I want my experience in this election to be a motivational message for other Cortland students,” Braun said. “I want them to know that the opportunities are endless. You just have to find the open doors and walk through them.”