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Felix Matos Rodríguez, a native of Puerto Rico, will become the first person of color to lead the City University of New York in its 172-year history when he takes office Wednesday.
Matos Rodríguez has been recognized nationally for measurably boosting college retention and completion rates in the previous institutions he has led. He is currently the president of Queens College, part of CUNY, the nation's largest urban public university system.
“A historic first is a combination of two feelings, one is an incredible source of pride that is a collective pride,” Matos Rodríguez told NBC News. “Another is the incredible pressure that you always have, you want to get it right for the right reasons, [as] a professional but also for the community that you represent.”
Founded in 1847, CUNY is like a sprawling global village — it has 25 campuses across New York City's five boroughs and a student body of 275,000. Thirty-five percent of the students were born outside the United States; almost 40 percent speak one of 174 languages; and their families come from more than 200 countries.
“This is a very meaningful appointment, I can’t think of any other Hispanic education leader in charge of such a large system,” Antonio R. Flores, CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said. “His naming has national implications — for students, faculty, staff and the community at large."
Aside from its size, CUNY has historically served as an educational gateway to the middle class for students who don't come from privilege; it's been called the poor man's Harvard. And at a time when college costs are soaring around the country, that is still its primary mission.
“I challenge anyone to beat the high quality college education with the affordability that CUNY provides,” Matos Rodríguez urged, also noting the roadblocks that college enrollees face.
“If we don’t retain students, they don’t graduate," he said. “We have seen the difference having support makes.”
Two years ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a program offering New York students free tuition at city or state universities if their families make less than $125,000 a year and if students fulfill certain requirements. Currently, around 60 percent of CUNY students attend tuition-free through state and federal financial aid, as well as tax credits.
Boosting college completion, diversity
Even with tuition help, college completion is not easy for students who have to balance school with full-time jobs and families. Almost half of CUNY students come from households earning less than $20,000.
One of Matos Rodriguez's goals is to ensure students who enroll stay in school. This is especially important for students of color; only 20 percent of Latinos in the labor force have bachelor's degrees,compared with 40 percent of non-Latino whites.
This was his mission for the last five years at Queens College. Under his leadership, several studies found Queens College among the top colleges in moving students out of poverty — from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of the nation’s income distribution. In 2018, The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked the school 11th of all the U.S. colleges for upward social and economic mobility.
Before that, as president of Hostos Community College in the Bronx, Matos Rodríguez raised college retention rates from 57 percent to 68 percent at the predominantly Latino institution and doubled fundraising efforts.
He also increased diversity; during his tenure at Queens College, 48 percent of faculty hires came from underserved communities and half of the college's cabinet members are now people of color.
These numbers are more reflective of CUNY's students: Latinos make up almost 24 percent, blacks 26 percent and Asian/Pacific Islanders 20 percent of the student body.
Matos Rodríguez plans to scale up the nationally recognized Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which has seen more than half of the students enrolled in associate degrees graduate in three years. The program helps students with everything from free transportation to mentoring and peer groups.
“When they have a community where they can talk about the stresses of school, one that helps them navigate the challenges and a little money to help get to and from school, it goes a long way,” he said.
A scholarly trajectory
The married father of two teenage boys was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He described himself as an avid reader and history buff who was surrounded by smart, strong women. His paternal grandmother, Margarita Castro, was a teacher and the first in his family to obtain a college degree; his mother also studied to be a teacher.
Matos Rodríguez graduated cum laude from Yale University with a degree in Latin American studies; he then obtained his doctorate degree in history from Columbia University.
An award-winning scholar on the history of women in the Caribbean, he wrote “Women and Urban Life in Nineteenth Century San Juan, P.R. 1820-1862” and edited several books, including, “A Nation of Women: An Early Feminist Speaks Out,” about Puerto Rican rebel feminist thinker Luisa Capetillo, who was arrested in Cuba for wearing trousers in 1915.
After teaching at Northeastern University, Boston College and the Universidad InterAmericana in Puerto Rico, he was recruited in 2000 to head the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, which is part of CUNY. He also became a tenured professor in the Black and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies Department.
“What most folks don’t think about is that I have worked in three of the five (New York City) boroughs and our campuses play an important role as anchor institutions in the communities where they are located,” he explained. “I have that added perspective to the role that CUNY has in the city."
He also served as a cabinet secretary of the department of family services for the commonwealth of Puerto Rico from 2006 to 2008, where he administered a $2 billion budget.
“It allows me to understand some of the families that we serve in the student body,” he said.
Matos Rodríguez jokes that for the month of May, he'll be the only educator in the country with the unique title of chancident — a chancellor and president.
Queens College students gave him the humorous moniker after he insisted to the CUNY Board of Trustees that he be allowed to finish his term as college president until after Queens College's graduation ceremony.
“Commencement is the most important, wonderful, beautiful, inspiring ceremony on any college campus," he said. "It’s the one time we all come together as a community — family, loved ones, students and stakeholders — to celebrate what the students have accomplished. I would never miss graduation for anything in the world.”
Building on a legacy
Matos Rodríguez takes the helm of a mammoth system with many stakeholders that include unions, students, staff, faculty and both the New York City mayor and the state's governor. He faces a faculty union that is pushing for higher wages for adjunct professors, as well as aging infrastructure and reductions in public funding.
Supporters of the new chancellor are confident he will be able to juggle the different entities.
“Dr. Matos Rodríguez is an innovator who has served in key positions as a professor and president of both a community and senior college and has relationships in the political, philanthropic and corporate arena, which are essential as public universities rely more and more on public and private partnerships,” " said Lorraine Cortez-Vazquez, CUNY Board of Trustees member and a senior adviser to New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio.
As the city's demographics have changed, so has CUNY. Nine of its colleges, for example, are Hispanic-serving institutions, meaning that more than a quarter of the student population is Latino.
But the history of representation for communities of color among CUNY's student body and staff is long and storied.
During the 1960s and the 1970s, Puerto Rican advocates regularly demanded access to higher education opportunities for the residents of the South Bronx. Their calls resulted in the opening of Hostos Community College, named after the Puerto Rican intellectual, educator, and revolutionary, Eugenio Maria de Hostos.
When the two-year community college opened its doors in 1970, it became the nation’s only bilingual college offering higher education access to a diverse and underserved population.
Celina Sotomayor, the mother of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was among its first graduates. She received a nursing degree in 1973 while her daughter was in high school. In 2009, Justice Sotomayor returned as a newly sworn high court justice to deliver her first commencement speech at her mother’s alma mater.
As a trained historian, Matos Rodriguez values the role history has played in the formation of CUNY and how this history has shaped his own life.
“I am aware that this is not an individual achievement,” he said of his appointment as chancellor. “There is a motif of spaces that Puerto Ricans and other communities of color have fought to create and that CUNY has embraced and nourished," he said.
HACU's Antonio Flores said the repercussions of Matos Rodríguez' appointment has a direct impact on the institution and beyond.
“It can mean great things for a system including changes in the curriculum, especially in the humanities,” Flores said.
Matos Rodriguez's appointment has the potential to impact the academic talent attracted to the school as well as hiring.
Currently, only 4 percent of college presidents and chancellors are Latino, highlighting the significance of Matos Rodriguez's new role heading the nation's largest urban public university system.
"We hope that other boards of trustees in universities across the nation take note of the historic act by the CUNY board," Flores said.