Merryl Tisch brings myriad ties to NYS education post

By A. James Memmott

April 8, 2009 at 6:50am

The group that oversees education in New York state has added to its considerable clout, electing Merryl H. Tisch as its first female chancellor.

Tisch, 53, a former first-grade teacher and a member of a fabulously wealthy family, brings experience and connections to the unpaid post on the state Board of Regents.

She’s the wife of James S. Tisch, the CEO of the Lowes Corp., and a friend of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel L. Klein.

Merryl H. Tisch
Merryl H. Tisch

Beyond that, she has served on the boards of a wide variety of powerful not-for-profit groups, including the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which she chairs, and the UJA Federation of New York.

“She has a passion for education and political street smarts that people have always underestimated because of her demure demeanor,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, told The New York Times.

“Merryl knows a lot of people, and she uses her access judiciously, but she uses it.”

Tisch did not grow up in affluence, but when she was 20, she married James Tisch, the son of Laurence A. Tisch, a self-made billionaire.

The elder Tisch, who died in 2003, and his brother, Robert, who died in 2005, started in real estate and hotels and then purchased Lowes Theaters. They added Lorillard Tobacco Co., Bulova Watch Co., CNA Financial (insurance) and an offshore drilling company.

The Tisch family also had a controlling interest in CBS from 1986 to 1995, and Robert was a co-owner of the New York Giants, as is his son, Steve Tisch, the film producer.

Laurence and Robert Tisch and their children may be best known for giving away money.

Evidence of their generosity is everywhere in New York City. There’s the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, the Tisch Hospital at NYU Medical Center, the Tisch Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

James and Merryl Tisch alone recently pledged $40 million to Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Merryl Tisch has been a member of the Board of Regents since 1996, and she served as vice chancellor before her election on April 1 as chancellor.

She will fill out the remaining year of Robert M. Bennett’s three-year term. Bennett, the former vice president and CEO of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, remains on the board.

According to the Associated Press, Merryl Tisch has contributed about $85,000 to political candidates in New York state.

Most of the money has gone to Democrats, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Gov. David Paterson, when he was a state senator, and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

One of her first tasks as chancellor will be to lead the search for a new state education commissioner to replace Richard Mills, who leaves in June.

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