Interviews & Profiles

How CUNY helped New York City get through the pandemic

Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez discusses hosting COVID-19 vaccination sites and getting back to in-person classes.

CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez.

CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez. Emily Assiran

The City University of New York is the largest urban public university system in the U.S., describing itself as “a transformative engine of social mobility that is a critical component of the lifeblood of New York City.” CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez came to the job in May 2019, already well-versed in what the university does to help its diverse body of students achieve academic success. Before becoming chancellor, Matos Rodríguez spent about five years as president of Queens College and another five years prior to that as president of Hostos Community College in the Bronx. Matos Rodríguez started with CUNY at Hunter College in 2000, where he taught Black and Puerto Rican/Latino studies and served as the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Matos Rodríguez has built a reputation for supporting accessibility and inclusion. Now, as the first Latino and person of color to serve as CUNY’s chancellor, Matos Rodríguez, who within his inner circle goes by “Felo,” has been helping CUNY’s 25 campuses through the coronavirus pandemic and is now focusing on the university’s recovery.

City & State Editor-in-Chief Ralph R. Ortega, who also worked as an adjunct professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, sat down with Matos Rodríguez for an hourlong interview to discuss growing up in Puerto Rico, his work as a Cabinet secretary on the island and the challenges of leading CUNY during the pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Would you please discuss what it has been like for you to be the first Latino chancellor of CUNY?

It’s an honor and a great sense of responsibility. For me, I see it as part of this long-term investment that CUNY has made in the Latino community here in New York. Because if you if you look back at my career, I came into the CUNY system not to be chancellor but to be a faculty member at Hunter and to direct the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, which is an investment that this university had done in promoting an archive and documentation and a space for policy issues to be discussed about the Puerto Rican and then the growing Latino community. Then years later, I go (on) to become the president of Hostos, which is another example of how CUNY has responded to the needs of the Latino community here in New York. So I see the opportunity to be chancellor in some ways as part of a journey that is anchored around investments that CUNY has made for the Latino community here in New York, and investments that CUNY has made also with other communities in the city. I hope that that investment in diversity that CUNY has been connected with continues to show itself in the leadership of the university, let it be the chancellor, the presidents and my team.

Please then talk about your upbringing in Puerto Rico and how it has influenced you. 

If you read my resume of education and accomplishments, all that is due to the fact that the CUNY of Puerto Rico – the University of Puerto Rico – opened its doors to two students of very humble means: my mom and my dad. It allowed my dad to become an engineer. My mom was going to be a teacher until I was born, so that sort of derailed the teaching plans, but we had grown up in Puerto Rico with more opportunities than my mom and dad had. It’s that story of social mobility, which is so much CUNY’s story here in New York. I benefited from that in Puerto Rico. So, when I looked at where I wanted to be as an academic – I had the opportunity to come to CUNY as a faculty member – it seemed like a no-brainer, because I saw my mom and my dad in my students. I wanted to be part of this, of creating more stories like the one I’ve had, to benefit from that social mobility that a public higher ed institution provided for my parents, which in turn, ended up giving me this great possibility. That’s one of the biggest sort of connections between my upbringing and why I’m at CUNY. The other thing that I’ll share with you is that I was very fortunate. My mom and my dad were single children. I knew three of my great grandparents. So we’re very close to them. Growing up, I was used to being in a place where stories about the past were being told and retold. And I think that has something to do with me becoming a historian later on in life.

I feel incredibly blessed that I had that connection, that gift. One of my great-grandmother’s, I actually got to know her well. What an incredible sense of perspective that you get from that side of the family. That’s why for me, the connection to the CUNY mission is so key because I see, when I go visit the campuses, when I go engage the students, I see my dad’s face, I see my mom’s face. It’s great to be able to go to bed at night knowing that you’re part of that transformation and stories.

May 1 will mark your third anniversary as chancellor. What was it like for you taking on the job as chancellor barely a year before COVID-19 struck?

So you get a new chancellor and there was a sense of expectation in the system, you know, after a long search and a long interim period. The fact that I came from within the system sort of provided some initial comfort – that the learning curve was less steep in a way. Again, I feel very fortunate that I also came into the job having been president of the two largest sectors that comprise our school – the community college and the four-year school. Traditionally, people just operate in one sector. My CUNY career allowed me to have a more complete view of the system. For me, the CUNY story of success – and this is not just the chancellor speaking, I can give you rankings and studies to be objective, if you believe that the chancellor is being hyperbolic – is that we top any public system in the country on social mobility, anchored on two things. One, we're affordable. Sixty-six percent of our students do not pay tuition. The second, 75% or so graduate debt-free from the federal government. There are challenges there, because we serve some families that come from very poor backgrounds. But again, we are probably the most affordable of any system in the country, with great faculty and staff.

Where did you see a need for improvement then?

The one area where I thought we were weaker was in connecting our students to the world of work. When you think that half of our students are the first members of their families going to college, I think we have an extra responsibility to make sure that those students from the earliest opportunities are thinking about possibilities, and then expose them to those possibilities. For the ones that already have a sense of where they want to go careerwise, it might be just about validating that path. For the ones who are trying to figure it out, it’s to provide choices so they can find that path. CUNY had not done a good job consistently on that whole career engagement part, which so many people are focusing on right now. It’s one of the things that I wanted to emphasize coming in as chancellor. There’s no greater need. If that was important in 2019, now that we’re trying to recover out of the pandemic, it’s even more important. That was a big priority for the system, and we’ve done some work on it. But it’s become even more important now. I am so delighted the governor has recognized that in her budget. She put money into CUNY for workforce projects and for paid internships and apprenticeships, which came from our requests. And the mayor is doing the same thing.

How prepared were you then, as chancellor, to handle the onset of the pandemic?

One thing that people might not know is that when I was in Puerto Rico, I was the commissioner for social services. That department is the local disaster response entity until (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the federal government steps in. It also operates the shelters, often located in the public schools. So I had a lot of training, and we had a great team in the department. You have a checklist when you have an emergency and a certain kind of adrenaline that kicks in. I think that that came handy with navigating COVID in the sense of what we needed to prioritize.

What immediate steps did you take?

First, it was making sure we had environments where everybody’s safe. What does that mean? People went remote, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic when New York was at the epicenter. We didn’t have as many tools to be able to keep people safe. We had to pivot that way. We provided resources for students, including laptops and personal hot spots if they didn’t have broadband at home. We had to be part of the way that the city and the state responded. We had to vacate our dorms in case they needed more capacity for the hospitals. We provided some of the first vaccination sites. I’m very proud that of all the people vaccinated, about three-quarters of a million were vaccinated on our CUNY campuses. We were part of the city’s emergency response.

How was it urging students to adhere to mask requirements and other mandates when they returned to school for in-person learning?

The first thing was to lead with the rationale for your actions. In our case, the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention) has been our guide. We also have been having conversations on feedback that we get from the state Department of Health and the city Department of Health. I think it’s important to communicate why you made the choices that you made, and the rationale for them, knowing that the individual levels of risk tolerance are very different and unique. It’s going to be very difficult to meet everybody on their level. But if at least you’re straightforward about the rationale and what the CDC is saying about the math, where we are in terms of the numbers in the city, the data that we have from our own testing on the campuses, that goes a long way when not you’re not going to be able to have everybody totally supportive of whatever decisions you make. I think that we are fortunate that we are in a city where most measures taken were more easily embraced than in other parts of the country. I like to think that we’re part of that educational story, working with our students, faculty and staff. The other part to it is the great lesson in humbleness. This whole experience has taught us that you need to be providing the best answers that you can with the information that you have, but also being very humble about it. I might be needing to come back to you in a couple of weeks or a couple of months with maybe a different plan because we have additional information and we change strategy. People always want certainty from the get-go. People want that roadmap. One thing that COVID has taught us is that adapting is part of the way you deal with this horrible virus.

You are now a member of New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ COVID-19 recovery task force. Can you talk about what it has been like working with the task force so far?

What the mayor is doing, which is consistent with some of the things that I saw as part of his transition team, is getting the best feedback from different sectors of the city. I was very, very glad to see how comprehensive our last call was with the individuals and the organizations that have been part of this task force. An inventory was taken about what’s happening. There was even talk about what’s needed. It’s feedback from the different sectors with suggestions and solutions for the mayor. And this is from health people, education people, people from the small-business community and people from the nonprofits that provide social services. The mayor cast a very wide net and always tied to the mayor’s developing style. But we also have to get stuff done, even as we consult and we engage people. You have to consider some of those things in decisions in the K-12 system with the masking, among other things. It’s been good for me to see how things are panning out in other sectors of the city. So I benefited from that exchange. Also the focus was, “We need to get back on recovery mode.”

Speaking of that recovery, how is CUNY putting to use some of the federal aid that it received recently?

We’re very thankful for the federal money and the leadership of the New York senatorial and congressional delegation in fighting for those funds, which we’re using to invest in building sustainable capacity in online programs. We’re using $8 million from the federal money to create the next generation of fully online programs with our School of Professional Studies, which is among the top 10 in the country in online programs, taking the lead. CUNY students can either be part of the entire program, or they can take courses in that program. The pandemic showed that there’s going to be a growing need for this more flexible modality of instruction. One of the reasons why we wanted SPS to be the leader is because it has won awards for the training of faculty to teach in this sector. Wherever there is modality, we want to make sure that the quality of the instruction and the experience is first-rate. And so that’s why I’m very, very excited about the fact that we can use federal dollars to do a jump-start of that – (it) is music to my ears.

Lastly, what’s been your most rewarding experience thus far as chancellor?

So let me begin by saying that one of the things that’s most challenging about being chancellor is not being on campus. I have been all my professional life, either a faculty member or administrator on campus. I get incredible energy and encouragement walking through campuses. You meet the students. You meet the staff. You meet the faculty. And you know, you get some complaints, but you always get an inspirational story. There is always someone to immediately tell you they are doing something very interesting, whether it be a student or faculty member, and it reminds you of the mission and why we’re here. That’s why I’ve been trying to visit a lot of the schools in a systematic way, because it’s a way for me to reconnect with that. So, the most rewarding are those personal stories when I go to a campus and I meet a student, or I meet an alum, that you know if CUNY had not been (there) for them, they probably would not have been able to go to school, or they would have an incredible burden that was financial or an investment of time. To see them succeed, to see them fulfill their educational dreams, and to see the multiplying effect that has on their families, their neighbors and communities – that is the biggest adrenaline rush.