The City University of New York appointed its first Latino, and first minority, chancellor in 2019. That chancellor, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, has assembled a cabinet of vice chancellors notable for its racial and ethnic diversity: of the 13-person cabinet of vice chancellors, four vice chancellors are Black and four are Latinx.
What’s more, of the nine presidential hires for CUNY campuses during Matos Rodríguez’s tenure, including two interim hires, two of the new presidents are Asian, two are Black, and two are Latina. Five of the nine are women.
Such numbers are striking in the context of national data from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources showing that people of color account for just 16 percent of college and university administrators, and 13 percent of presidents. Data from the American Council on Education show that 17 percent of college presidents are people of color, and 30 percent are women.
“I think public universities have a responsibility to mirror the population they serve,” said Matos Rodríguez. “We have this diversity in New York City, and you want to be able to replicate that and to show the communities that we serve and the students that we serve that they can see themselves in the leadership and the staff and the faculty. That translates into thinking about a whole number of categories. Race, ethnicity and gender are big ones, but also first-generation college [students] — many of the cabinet members or presidents have that experience, which connects with the students that we serve at CUNY. I also think about the balance of disciplines. In the case of the recent hire for the president of the Graduate Center, it’s the first bench scientist — she’s a biochemist.”
“We have a nice mix, I think, of some folks who were already in the cabinet, who I kept, and some that I added, so I think it’s important to have that mix of experience and new blood,” Matos Rodríguez said. “We had seven searches for president. Luckily, we had good pools and pools that were diverse, so we were very fortunate. I think diverse talent knows where that diversity is going to be valued.”
of CUNY’s students are nonwhite, and the 25-campus system has a history of attracting racially diverse leaders. City College appointed its first Black president in 1981, and a number of Latinos have served as campus presidents. These include Matos Rodríguez, a native of Puerto Rico who previously served as president of two CUNY institutions, Hostos Community College and Queens College, and the current university provost, José Luis Cruz, who previously served as president of Lehman College.
But there were gaps in representation. Before Matos Rodríguez’s chancellorship, no Asian American had ever been named a CUNY college president or vice chancellor. This year, the first two Asian American presidents have been named, at Baruch and Queens Colleges.
Matos Rodríguez also appointed Allen Y. Lew as the first Asian American to serve as a vice chancellor at the CUNY system level. Lew, who joined CUNY as the senior vice chancellor of the Office for Facilities, Planning and Construction Management in December, died of COVID-19 in June.
Roderick J. McDavis, managing principal of the higher education executive search firm AGB Search, said the hiring at CUNY “shows what’s possible when a system makes a strong commitment to having more diverse leaders in their senior-level positions.”
“I think that the diversity of the city of New York certainly plays a key role in attracting diverse candidates to those various institutions and to the positions, but I also think that the opportunity to serve as a president or a chancellor is a great draw,” McDavis said. “If the opportunity is there, it could be in New York, it could be in Nebraska, a person could be attracted to it who comes from a racial minority group because it’s an opportunity to provide that top leadership.”
McDavis said AGB Search assisted with the 2018 search for the president of Kingsborough Community College. The search, which predated Matos Rodríguez’s appointment as chancellor, concluded with the appointment of the first African American president in Kingsborough’s history, a Black woman.
“Given where we are today and given the kind of racial and social justice that people across the country want to see more of, I think that there are a lot of great opportunities for people who come from a racial minority group to exhibit and demonstrate their leadership because there’s a need for it all across America, whether it be in an urban environment or whether it be in a rural environment,” McDavis said.
Martin J. Burke, the chair of CUNY’s University Faculty Senate and an ex officio member of the CUNY Board of Trustees, said there’s widespread support among faculty for diversity in administrative hiring. But he said faculty do have concerns about some recent hires being made without national searches.
“In preliminary meetings with the new chancellor, the board made it clear that a commitment to diversity across the university, especially in the upper administrative ranks and in presidential positions, was something the board wanted to see, and the chancellor embraced that,” said Burke, an associate professor of history at Lehman College who also serves on the doctoral faculty of the CUNY Graduate Center. “In the naming of the cabinet, that is to say, the various vice chancellors, and in filling presidents’ positions both temporary and permanent, there certainly has been a push for diversity, equity and inclusion. My colleagues at the University Faculty Senate and my colleagues across the university by and large greatly support this.”
“There have been some reservations about process,” he continued. “One can achieve diversity, equity and inclusion and maintain the rigorous standards of national searches.”
Matos Rodríguez said he believes there is “value to being able to move more quickly on some appointments, and then for others you go through a longer process of the [national] search … These are all the complexities of putting together a good team.”
The CUNY system faces substantial challenges relating to the coronavirus pandemic. The 25-college system, which lost dozens of faculty and staff to the virus over the course of the spring, was sued by the union representing its faculty and staff in July after the college system informed 2,800 employees, mostly adjunct professors and part-time staff, that they would not be reappointed this fall.
There are currently three open searches in the system, for the presidents of Guttman Community College, Lehman College and Medgar Evers College.
Anthony P. Browne, chair of the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies at Hunter College and member of the University Advisory Council on Diversity and of the CUNY Association of Black Faculty and Staff, commended Matos Rodríguez “for making steps toward having the presidency of various colleges begin to reflect the student body. We really commend him on that, but there’s still quite a lot of work to be done. For us, one of the major issues is the relative paucity of African Americans at CUNY who hold dean and provost positions, particularly at the most selective institutions. That’s an area that still needs to be addressed.”
The CUNY system did not immediately provide data on the percentage of people of color who occupy dean and provost positions Monday afternoon.
Browne said he’d like to see the scaling up of a collaborative effort between CUNY and Harvard University to prepare diverse candidates for university leadership positions. “The chancellor comes out of Latino studies, and he is certainly keenly aware of the challenges that folks of color have had, particularly in attaining presidencies,” Browne said. “It’s an important step forward, and we’re looking for more progress as we go forward.”
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