Interviews & Profiles

Matos Rodríguez: ‘Our objective is to have campuses free of hate’

The City University of New York chancellor discussed what comes next after a spring of protests and how he’s working to boost enrollment.

City University of New York Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez

City University of New York Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

As chancellor of the City University of New York, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez wasn’t spared the challenges of student protests on college campuses over the Israel-Hamas war. This week, CUNY and the University of Michigan were found to have mishandled complaints of discrimination on campus by the U.S. Department of Education. The department had opened several investigations into antisemitism and Islamophobia at schools across the country and said it has more to follow up on in the weeks to come.

Matos Rodríguez and other higher education leaders carefully navigated their responses to the protests and said they walked away with lessons learned that will help shape the upcoming fall semester. CUNY already has some tall priorities, including how it will keep the momentum going on an enrollment campaign that has targeted tens of thousands of high schoolers over the past year.

City & State caught up with Matos Rodríguez to discuss what comes next after the protests, the challenges standing in the way of CUNY’s enrollment efforts and his outlook for the future after celebrating the fifth anniversary of his historic appointment as the first Latino and eighth chancellor of the CUNY system. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently in how CUNY responded to the student protests this spring?

We want to look forward and less backward. It’s important to remember that we had a number of protests or events that were associated with people’s viewpoints on the Middle East, and we didn’t have major incidents in almost all of them. So I think that we did a good job in balancing the freedom of expression that members of our community have (while) maintaining a safe campus environment. In some of the cases where maybe some lines were crossed, I think the presidents took the necessary steps to mention that or address it.

What did you and the other system leaders learn from this situation?

We have two, three classes of students that, because of the COVID-19 disruption, really have, I think … little experience in what are the best ways for them to express concerns that they might have. Let it be political, let it be about social things, right? And that sort of, that socializing, you know, gets done at the end of high school, at the beginning of college, and we have a sizable number of students that missed that in the context of COVID. And not being directly in the campuses and that is connected to how that group of students is finding a way to voice their view on things. I think that that is one thing which is fairly specific. I think that’s something that we’re reflecting on as campus leaders.

And how will things be different this fall?

We all go through things and we learn. And I think that individuals who are participating in voicing their opinions have a better sense of freedom of expression and the boundaries that exist within the context of a public university and hopefully I also think that there is a desire for a lot more bridge building. (Right after) Oct. 7, there was a lot of rawness in the emotions on campus, and some of the bridge building was challenging. I think that you will be seeing clearly at CUNY, and across higher ed, attempts to do a lot more bridge building between community members, and hopefully that will lead to better engagement and a better campus climate.

Will policies change?

We’re in the business of continuous improvement. So the things that we have picked up that need to be modified within our policies, we will take a look at that. I actually think that in many cases, one of the things that is improving is letting people know what the policies are, what the consequences are, to be clear about those things. I think that that’s even more important than changes in the policies.

Switching gears, any update on state Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s discrimination and antisemitism probe that you can share? 

I think that that’s a better question for the governor’s office. On our end, it’s ongoing work. The work of improving the campus climate and across CUNY continues. Some of the campuses, for example, have been working on a deeper dive with Hillels on campus climate, and we’re going to be getting some of their feedback in the next couple of weeks. So we look forward to looking at that and see what things we might need to do. So on our end, the engagement continues, the training, the working with the students. And whenever additional reports and suggestions come our way, we certainly would take a look at them. Our objective is to have campuses free of hate, and environments where students feel that they are thriving. And we keep doing everything that we need to do to go in that direction.

How is CUNY Reconnect (the program to help students return to college) going? And with last year’s successes, where do things go from here?

I just came from a commencement where (City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams) was the keynote speaker at the graduation for Kingsborough (Community College) celebrating CUNY Reconnect, which is very much part of an initiative that she began, and we’ve had 33,000 students come back as a result of that, working (for) two years. I mean, that is a phenomenal result, and far higher numbers than we thought we’re going to have. We’ve used it to go back to this theme of being an institution of continuous improvement and learning and (since) we have brought students back, we have been (learning) about some of the barriers and the benefits that they face to improve our campuses. … Because it’s not just the joy of bringing students back, but it’s also how can we prevent students from leaving school without completing a degree. So, I think it’s been an incredible success, both in terms of the number of people, which is the key part of the initiative, and in what we have learned so much institutionally about what we can do better on our campuses, serving our students (and the) demand for programs that the students are telling us that they’re interested in when they come back. That should continue to help us serve all students – particularly the ones that are currently enrolled – better.

Speaking of successes, you’ve seen growth in CUNY enrollment. How is reaching out to high schoolers across the city going, and why does that matter?

I’m very, very proud of the efforts our enrollment management team, centrally in the campuses, has done in connecting with high school students. The tragedy that we’re all sort of hoping to mitigate is the (Free Application for Federal Student Aid application) simplification rollout that affects the most of the students that we serve. So we did all hands on deck, making sure that the students that either have not filled out the FAFSA, or have it incomplete, complete it so they don’t leave money on the table. We have great partnerships with the New York Public Library, with many organizations. The Petrie Foundation gave us $1 million to hire students to be out there talking to other students about filling out FAFSA. I think that our early intervention has helped us mitigate some of the damage that this disastrous FAFSA rollout has caused. That is my biggest concern, right? We’re going to leave no stone unturned until the beginning of class in September to make sure that those students who are most vulnerable, who need the aid, complete FAFSA, get the financial aid at the federal level, at the state level they need, and we can have them in the fall. It is probably my biggest concern as we speak – the impact on those students who have been … discouraged and have decided maybe not to fill out the FAFSA.

I had not realized that was such a barrier.

I mean, these are the most vulnerable, right? The people that need the money, the students who don’t need aid or can depend on their families, they don’t fill out the FAFSA. I mean, it’s been a national disaster. But the institutions like CUNY, who serve those students the most, we are the ones who’ve been affected the most. Our mission deadline was to be May 1, but we moved it to June to facilitate, not to force, any student to make a decision, without knowing what their financial situation would be. And we will continue to be flexible and pro-student until the beginning of classes.

What have they been doing to boost their numbers?

I’m mostly familiar with what SUNY has done, and we’ve been working very closely with them on messaging, on the importance of FAFSA. The governor, as part of the budget process, introduced legislation, which was approved, to make FAFSA completion next year mandatory for the students. We don’t want to leave money on the table. We’ve been (getting) this messaging out there on social media. … We’ll keep at it … and hopefully, at some point, the technology challenges that the Department of Education has faced will be all solved.

Let’s pivot over to your relationships with the private sector. How are those relationships helping CUNY students?

Making sure that our students begin their career engagement as soon as they set foot on campus, and that we provide them with a lot of really substantial work and learning opportunities is one of my highest priorities. One of the key elements of our strategic plan was that we would develop great partnerships with the New York City Jobs Council. We began a (one-stop shop) portal entry for businesses to work with CUNY and about 1,000 businesses are already connected with us to help their recruitment needs in different sectors. We expanded, with support from both the governor and the mayor, the number of paid internships that we provide. We’re also expanding the work of apprenticeships. So, there’s all those opportunities for a student, and they’re embedded in the curriculum. That’s an area where I am personally, deeply committed to (and) the private sector has responded very well to our talent. We need to keep that momentum going and formalize many of these worker learning opportunities even more into our curriculum.

In the wake of your five-year anniversary leading CUNY, what’s your plan for the next phase of your tenure? Where will you take the system in the next five years?

Well, thank you for that question. I am very, very excited about this career engagement work becoming the norm all across the system. Some of the programs that we put in place, some of the pilots that we’ve had on the inclusive economy have been very well received by the campuses, including the faculty. So I think part of the challenge now is to really make them part of the culture of every campus and provide the resources so that they can be done and get additional support on advising for the students on careers and majors. That, for me, is ongoing work. And I’m very encouraged by what we’ve done so far. So, I see the next five years as really doubling down and making that as uniform as possible all across CUNY, and that we continue having the strong support that we’ve had from the private sector in wanting to engage with the talent that our students have and hopefully more support from both the governor and the mayor.

So that is one big ticket. I’m also very, very excited – I wish you (would) spend some time in the fall to (see) when we complete a transfer transformation in which we will be able to say that if you have a major in a community college and you transfer with that same major to a four-year school, everything in that major will transfer with that, saving our students tons of time and financial aid in that journey. I think that that’s going to be really transformational for us at CUNY and extremely student-centric. We’ve also, as we work with the faculty doing that, also are learning about some of the roadblocks and hope that we can add some changes to continue to be very, very student-centric moving forward.

I also think that how we incorporate AI into the learning experience of our students, and how we incorporate AI as an institution to be able to do a more efficient job for students and for the taxpayers of New York, is a challenge that everybody’s facing, right? You’re facing it in your publishing world. People in business. But for education, it’s particularly important, and I’m excited about the grant that we got to be able to get additional faculty in that field. So a lot of good things are in store.

Correction: An earlier version of this interview referred to the wrong investigation when asking about an ongoing discrimination and antisemitism probe conducted by state Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

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