Former Yale President Benno Schmidt Jr. ’63 LAW ’66, who resigned unexpectedly in 1992 under a cloud of criticism, will become the new chairman of the City University of New York.

New York Gov. George Pataki ’67 announced Tuesday that Schmidt, who had a controversial and beleagured tenure as Yale president form 1986 to 1992, will take over at CUNY after four years as vice chairman of the school’s Board of Directors. As chairman, he will help lead a university charged with enhancing both academic offerings and financial support amid the foundering economy.

In his announcement, Pataki called Schmidt “a great intellect, an outstanding educator, and a great leader for our City University.”

Schmidt’s appointment comes two months after CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein announced a new plan for CUNY’s academic and financial improvement.

“Our challenge now is to maintain momentum — and it’s a very big challenge,” Goldstein said. “The city and state of New York are facing the most serious financial crisis in recent memory.”

While facing severe financial constraints during his Yale presidency, Schmidt instituted a hiring freeze and threatened to cut entire departments. Outrage over these and other decisions led to his unexpected resignation.

A former Yale employee said the economy and Schmidt himself were both to blame for his shortcomings at Yale.

“Benno Schmidt was dealt a bad hand and he made the worst of it,” the source said.

Despite Schmidt’s unpopularity at Yale, the former employee said Schmidt is likely to succeed in his new role at CUNY, where one of his chief objectives will be to raise money for the university.

“He’s a man of considerable wealth himself and [he has] considerable connections to wealth,” the former employee said. “He is a fearless fund-raiser.”

Yale emeritus history professor Gaddis Smith said Schmidt faced many difficulties as president of Yale, including the need to prepare for large-scale renovations.

“Not only was the University in deep financial trouble, but it was also physically falling apart,” Smith said. “All of the physical reconstruction of the University which has taken place under Rick Levin was anticipated [by Schmidt].”

Since 1992, Schmidt has headed Edison, a for-profit school management company.

In 1999, Schmidt chaired the Mayor’s Advisory Task Force on CUNY, which released a report calling the university “an institution adrift.” According to a press release, the task force’s report was “a blueprint for reform” that instigated a revitalization of CUNY, the nation’s largest urban public university.

Schmidt said he is “deeply honored” to accept the appointment.

“The revitalization at CUNY during the past four years is truly one of the most remarkable success stories in all of higher education,” Schmidt said. “I am humbled to be a part of this historic turnaround. I am especially pleased to join with the governor, Chancellor Goldstein, the Board of Trustees, and all members of the University community in maintaining our momentum as we meet the challenges ahead.”