The new CUNY chancellor’s first month on the job

Félix Matos Rodríguez talks about his goals and making history as CUNY’s first Latino chancellor.

Félix Matos Rodríguez

Félix Matos Rodríguez Courtesy CUNY

Félix Matos Rodríguez made history in May when he assumed the CUNY chancellor post, becoming both the first Latino and the first minority educator to do so – a surprising fact, given that more than three-quarters of the student population is not white. Matos Rodríguez, who previously served as president of two CUNY institutions, Queens College and Hostos Community College, is taking on a colossal task in managing the sprawling university system that boasted an enrollment of nearly 275,000 students last fall in its 25 colleges and schools. He’s no stranger to government work either, taking a break from CUNY in 2005 to advise the governor of Puerto Rico, and later serving as secretary of the Department of Family Services there.

Matos Rodríguez will seek to continue the university’s reputation of affordability and student diversity, but the job comes with its challenges. This commencement season, for example, was marked by demonstrations from members of the Professional Staff Congress, the union that represents CUNY’s 30,000 professors and academic staff, which has been pushing for more competitive salaries in contract negotiations. Matos Rodríguez declined to comment when City & State followed up about the contract negotiations after the interview, but CUNY spokesman Frank Sobrino wrote in an email, “We have been negotiating in good faith and that process is ongoing.”

Matos Rodríguez spoke to City & State about his first month on the job, his long-term goals for the university and the one piece of advice from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that he plans to take to heart. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

You became chancellor on May 1. What has your first month looked like?

One of the biggest joys of the past month has been attending graduations. We’re still in graduation mode. I was able to attend the graduation at John Jay (College of Criminal Justice), I went to Queens (College), where I presided as president. I was doing the two jobs the entire month, so it was very emotional for me to be saying farewell to the college. And then I also did the one for Hostos Community College, where I was president from ’09 to ’14, so it was also a very emotional homecoming of sorts.

What makes the graduations so enjoyable for you?

The graduation is the most exciting time of the year for higher ed. It’s where you see a transformation of the students that have been with us, either in the community colleges or in the four-year colleges or in the graduate programs. You also see the value proposition of the City University of New York as this agent of social mobility and academic excellence.

Finding a replacement for the former chancellor, James Milliken, was a long process and it was said that that was because the search committee wanted to find a perfect fit. Why do you think you were chosen?

I think that’s a question better asked to my fellow board members. I like to think that, A, there was a track record of 20 years in the system as a faculty member, as a leader of a research institution, as president of both a community college and a four-year college, which is a quite unique background. I think also the fact that I spent some time working in government, in the government of Puerto Rico, it gave me a sense of how government operates, and government is a key partner in the work that we do at CUNY. So I think those elements made me an attractive candidate. I also think that someone who knows the city and actually has worked in three of the five boroughs is a plus.

Speaking of government as a key partner, the governor gets to appoint 10 members of CUNY’s board of trustees. Has Cuomo made any of his education goals clear to you, and would that input be important to you?

The board is comprised roughly (of) about two-third appointees by the governor and one-third appointees from the mayor. So I have had the chance in the process to talk to both the governor and the mayor. They’re both deeply committed with the City University of New York. I think the governor has been a key partner with the Excelsior scholarship in expanding the affordability of the City University of New York. The governor is also someone who believes in results and wants to see resources going directly to the students. I remember him telling me to try to be the least bureaucratic as possible moving forward, so you can still save things for the students.

Do you plan to have regular conversations with the governor?

We have engagement with the executive, with elected officials at various levels. They tend to increase during budget season, for example. So there’s a seasonal element to that. The good thing is that the lines of communication are open, the support is there and that’s what’s important for me.

What goals for CUNY are you prioritizing right now?

One of the areas that I’m interested in is doing better work for career engagement for students. Two key concerns that many students have coming into higher ed is: Are we going to be able to afford it and once we graduate, what are we going to be able to do? And I think the City University of New York has an outstanding track record on the accessibility front, with (80%) of our (graduates) graduating debt-free. I don’t think there’s anybody in the country that can come near us. But I think we can do better on career engagement. I have been meeting with leaders in the business community, I’ve been meeting with several foundations, just to see what the needs are and to see what kinds of programs do we have that are already doing well and we want to scale them up, and whether there are different areas where there are needs that (we) clearly need to be able to go in and fill in that void.

What challenges come to mind when you think about CUNY’s future?

I think that we are in a point of transformation for higher education, which is both exciting but also complicated. Technology is creating all kinds of new opportunities that we need to sort of seize and make them work on behalf of the students that we serve, and the communities that we serve. There’s also a lot more, because of technology and other forces, a lot more entities doing similar work.

Other academic institutions, you mean?

Well, you know, training programs, different kinds of either degrees or certificates or experiences, right? So we need to continue showing our value every day, and adapting (to) those forces out there to better serve our students. I think part of my job is, A, to have the best university that we can in 2019, but also begin to plant the seeds of what the City University is going to be like by 2030, 2035, right? And that’s going to entail conversations, that’s going to entail engaging stakeholders.

You’re setting a new standard for the future as CUNY’s first Latino chancellor. What does that mean to you?

It’s a source of incredible pride. It’s a source of institutional pride. I think I’ve made the point that the openness that the City University had to the experiences of people of color and immigrants in the city is what allowed someone like me to have a career, beginning as a faculty member, and being able to end as chancellor. So I think it’s a testament to the promise and the investment that the City University has done. I want to be thankful of that legacy that opened the door for me. And then the rest of my job is to make sure that, similar to the door that has been opened to me, that that door is open to many more in the city in terms of opportunity independent of their race, ethnicity, color and class. But it’s a great honor, it’s a big responsibility and as I always said, the important thing is not that I’m the first, but that there are many more coming down the line in years to come.